Hillary's Religious Roots

If Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush have anything in common, it is a deeply rooted wariness of outsiders. Both the president and the woman who hopes to succeed him have always relied on a small, closed circle of friends and advisers who have been with them for years. So it's not surprising that there are so many familiar faces on Clinton's new campaign team. Ad maker Mandy Grunwald, pollster Mark Penn, strategist Ann Lewis and others are loyalists from Bill Clinton's White House.

There is another person on Hillary's shortlist of confidants who goes back farther than any of them, but whom you've probably never heard of. The Rev. Don Jones, a Methodist minister who is now 75, was perhaps Hillary's earliest spiritual and political mentor. She has written of her "lifelong friendship" with him. It was Jones who first awakened young Hillary to the civil-rights movement and counseled her on questions of faith. They continued to be in touch as Hillary became a national figure. Years later, he helped her through the darkest period in her life, the aftermath of her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Precocious and confident, 13-year-old Hillary was an active member of her Methodist church in Park Ridge, Ill., when Jones arrived in 1961 to lead the youth group. Fresh from the seminary, he was anything but stuffy in his red Chevy Impala convertible. He carried the Bible, but also the collected poems of E. E. Cummings. Hillary, politically aware even then, was a budding Republican who took after her staunchly conservative father. In long discussions at the church, Jones introduced Hillary to the left. The young minister was determined to show his white, privileged parishioners the world beyond their suburban town. He took them to the South Side of Chicago to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Jones introduced each of them to the civil-rights leader.

But the conversation wasn't all politics. "Hillary would come up to talk to me after I preached and make comments about the sermon, how the hymns, prayers and Biblical passages were coordinated with the message," Jones tells NEWSWEEK. Jones hewed closely to the social-justice tradition of the Methodist Church, preaching that helping those in need was a means of practicing their faith. "I think she responded to my ministry in part for its intellectual content," Jones says. "Her heart responded to the social-responsibility aspects."

Not everyone appreciated the minister's lessons. Within two years, the conservative members of the congregation asked him to leave. Jones landed at Drew University in Madison, N.J., where he spent his career teaching theology. They were in communication while Hillary was in high school and later at Wellesley. During her time as First Lady, he visited the White House nine times. After Bill Clinton admitted his affair with Lewinsky, Jones gave Hillary a Paul Tillich sermon about grace, and how it comes to you when you feel great pain. Jones says he hoped Hillary would pass the words on to her husband. "It was my secret agenda," he says. Sure enough, five days later, Jones received a thank-you note from the president. Last year he saw the Clintons at their home in Chappaqua, N.Y. The senator had called him to invite her old friend to her mother's birthday party.

Though she's been accused of adopting a religious patina for political gain, her relationship with Jones shows that from the time she was young, Hillary was thinking seriously about her faith. She clearly talks more about religion these days, as many politicians do--but her connection to Jones reveals that her Christianity has always been at the center of her identity. "She's not using the language of prayer and God for the first time," says Jones. "While there may be a political dimension, it's authentic."

Jones describes Hillary's beliefs as falling, like her politics, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Unlike the extreme left, she understands the limitations of human beings, he says. And unlike the extreme right, he argues, she believes in humanity's potential. She does take seriously the doctrine of original sin. And after a lifetime in politics, she's seen plenty of it.