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God-O-Meter

hillary.jpgAfter serving as a minister for 20 years, Jill Wiley retired from her Massachusetts-based church last summer and spent two weeks in Iowa, collecting names of likeminded believers to mobilize for the 2008 presidential race. She’s likely to head to New Hampshire in the next few days to do the same. “My commitment is to make sure pastors become involved in the political process,” Wiley says. “They’ve been reluctant to become too visible in a campaign because of congregational pressures not to and because they fear the IRS.”
In conservative Christian circles, particularly among evangelicals, such talk is commonplace for activists. But Wiley is no conservative. She’s a liberal Methodist, and the “priority issues” she says stem from her faith are universal health care and ending the Iraq war. The candidate she’s promoting in early primary states is Hillary Clinton. “Senator Clinton expresses the social principles of the United Methodist Church in her policies,” Wiley says.
Over the course of the last year, the Clinton campaign has compiled lists of hundreds of Methodists activists who, like Wiley, have been moved to support the New York Senator largely out of their common Methodist faith and values. While the Clinton campaign declined to comment on the record, an aide said the campaign’s network of Methodist activists was especially strong in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, home to some of the largest Methodist populations in the country.
Rather than engaging in targeted outreach and messaging to the Methodist community, the Clinton campaign’s Methodist network was built almost entirely by responding to activists who’ve contacted the campaign. It’s a significant departure from John Kerry and the other Democratic presidential candidates running in 2004, who lacked designated staff to coordinate with religious supporters during the primaries. Such staff has been de rigueur for Republican presidential hopefuls since the 1980s.
Wiley has been in touch with the Clinton campaign’s religious outreach director a half dozen times in the last year and is kept apprised of Clinton’s faith-based activities via emails from the campaign’s “Faith, Family and Values” team. She forwards those updates to others in her network, which now includes roughly 200 names, mostly Methodist ministers.
“I personally feel that her theology is just exactly where I am,” says Bill Cotton, a retired Methodist minister based in Des Moines who remains active in the church and is promoting Clinton in door-to-door canvassing and among his own social network. “She will not over-insert it into her public life but she’s able to go to the church for her conscience and her values. She’s not hung up on gay rights or immigration, because as a Methodist you understand your tradition is to be open to all people.”
The largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country, with roughly 8.5 million adherents, the United Methodist Church is politically diverse. Methodists split their votes evenly between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, according to John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. Methodist public officials include conservatives like Vice President Dick Cheney and liberals like John Edwards, one of Hillary Clinton’s chief rivals for the Democratic nomination.
Partly to avoid exposing ideological fissures, Methodist clergy shy away from discussing politics in the pulpit. “It’s different than Roman Catholics and evangelicals, who are very open about their politics,” says Jan Love, Dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. “We have a range of official church stances that are very democratically determined, but the discipline among members about following that stance is loose at best.”
Still, the church leadership voted to strongly oppose the Iraq war, and Methodists are broadly concerned with social welfare causes like alleviating poverty, strengthening public education, and increasing access to health care.
Beyond aligning with the church on those issues, Clinton has talked a good deal about her personal faith on the campaign trail. “She talks about how important her prayer is to her, and about her ideas on social justice and family as coming out of her religious background,” says the University of Akron’s Green. “The things she’s doing publicly are things mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics are likely to find attractive.”
Green notes that like Clinton, many Methodist baby boomers were raised in conservative congregations but migrated to the church’s social justice wing as adults.
Some liberal mainline Protestant activists complain that the Clinton campaign has declined to court them, even as it has amassed a network of supporters who have sought the campaign out. “If she’s so concerned about the faith vote, why hasn’t she met with us?” says Paul Turner, who leads A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, a coalition of progressive religious activists that has met with Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
So far, the Clinton campaign’s ties to Methodists and other religious communities have been less formal. Much of the effort is geared to merely raising awareness of Clinton’s faith life; a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that Clinton is viewed as the most secular of the presidential candidates.
Bonnie Campbell, a Clinton campaign co-chair and active Methodist based in Iowa, has made sure Clinton stops in at various Methodist churches as she campaigns in the Hawkeye State. “If she’s in Iowa on Sunday, I find her a church to go to,” Campbell says. “I guarantee that that gets around really quickly in a small state like this.”
“Hillary’s not the kind who would say her faith is superior or that everybody has to believe something,” Campbell continued. “But for some people it’s important, and it’s important to me.”


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