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Hillary’s Faith and Cal’s Calumny

July 15, 2007

Perhaps sometime soon we can look forward to Thomas going the whole way to accuse Hillary of using campaign funds to buy indulgences for Bill.

I don’t plan to duel the pundits much in this blog. But Cal Thomas’s recent diatribe against Hillary Clinton is simply too rich to let go without some comment.

Thomas was venting his prodigious spleen over a recent profile of Clinton in the NY Times that focused on what her public demonstrations of of faith mean to her personally and politically. Thomas is upset that Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates, coached he believes by “liberal evangelical” Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, may be using public expressions of faith as “an election tactic.” (Gasp!) Since he is one of the folks who made public professions of personal faith de rigueur for presidential candidates, Thomas seems to recognize that he can hardly complain about this, so he accuses Clinton of professing the wrong faith, namely a “liberal faith:

which is to say a faith that discounts the authority of Scripture in favor of a constantly evolving, poll-tested relevancy to modern concerns — such as the environment, what kind of SUV Jesus would drive, larger government programs and other “do-good” pursuits — [that] ultimately morphs into societal and self-improvement efforts and jettisons the life-changing message of salvation, forgiveness of sins and a transformed life.”

As Digby points out on Hullabaloo, Thomas’s attack on Clinton’s faith is part of a larger attack by the evangelical right on mainline Protestant denominations and Catholicism. The supposed theological basis for this attack lies in a rehearsal of the old argument about salvation through works vs. salvation through faith. Thomas claims that so-called liberal Christians’ emphasis on how their faith leads them to a commitment to do good in the world and, much worse by Thomas’s lights, their tolerance for the religious views of others, somehow amounts to a rejection of Jesus’s admonition in John 14:6 that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

I am no theologian, but I do feel safe in saying that whatever the tangled historical origins of the faith/works debate, and whatever its continued importance for a small group of evangelicals, for most Christians today it is simply a distinction without a difference. Faith and action are inseparable and essential aspects of Christ’s call, as evident in scripture as it is in the lives of those who dedicate their lives to answering it.

In fact, nowhere in the article does Clinton or any of the other people quoted say anything that could reasonably be construed as an endorsement of the doctrine of “works salvation.” Thus, Thomas is forced to employ some rather transparent distortions to make his claim. For example, Thomas tries to stretch a quote from Clinton’s high school youth minister saying of his message to students that “I wouldn’t have focused so much on personal salvation….[but] more on social responsibility” into the doctrine that one can do enough good deeds to earn your way into heaven.

More egregiously, Thomas correctly quotes the article to the effect that at the United Methodist Church the Clintons attended in Little Rock, Hillary was sometimes a guest speaker at an adult Sunday school class that “normally resembled Rotary Club lectures because it often addressed nonreligious topics” to belittle her longstanding church involvement. But he ignores the follow-up quotation that shows that the meaning of the article was quite the opposite: “She [Hillary Clinton] said, ‘I don’t want to talk about public issues,’ ” recalled Nancy Wood, a longtime friend from the church. ” ‘I want to talk about our faith and how it plays out in the every day.’ ”

Perhaps sometime soon we can look forward to Thomas going the whole way to accuse Hillary of using campaign funds to buy indulgences for Bill.

But Thomas doesn’t need to make up evidence that Clinton is tolerant of people with different beliefs. She says so quite plainly:

“The whole Bible gives you a glimpse of God and God’s desire for a personal relationship, but we can’t possibly understand every way God is communicating with us,” she said. “I’ve always felt that people who try to shoehorn in their cultural and social understandings of the time into the Bible might be actually missing the larger point.”

Clinton here seems to be speaking from a kind of humble tolerance espoused by many Christians, myself included. I may be sure in my faith, but I acknowledge that other people of palpable good will and sincerity believe differently, or not at all, and given the frailty of all human knowledge they have no less (or more) grounds for certainty than I.

But Thomas is certainly right that a stance of humble tolerance is at odds with the accepted doctrines of many Christian denominations, and this kind of tolerance may be the basis for something that might be called liberal Christianity. The Vatican’s recent statement on the primacy of the Catholic Church, which asserts that Protestant churches “cannot be called Churches in the proper sense,” hardly seems humbly tolerant. But as Protestant author Thomas Berg notes on Mirror of Justice, there is much that is generous and respectful in the statement, moving it far away from Cal Thomas’s brand of vitriolic arrogance.

In any case, like many Christians of all denominations, I will struggle with my church’s claims to monopolize the truth. But if I must err, let it be on the side of tolerance and respect. After all, Jesus himself angered religious authority by recognizing the moral dignity of people outside his faith tradition. Like most Christians, I won’t struggle with the distinction between salvation through faith and works. Both are vital. At the end of life’s long day, I’ll depend on God for salvation. But while I’m alive, I’ll risk whatever sins Thomas sees in trying to do good.

I’m heartened that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates claim that there faith motivates them to do good, though I’m concerned about whether they will have the fortitude to walk the walk. I’m more heartened that Thomas is worried enough about the inroads they may make with religious voters to unleash this sort of pathetic attack. For those who haven’t paid close attention to what the far right is actually saying, such outbursts are wonderfully clear. If the religious right wants to make their stand in favor of intolerance and against good works, I say bring it on.

Keep up the good work Cal.

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