The first thing I knew about Hillary Clinton, back in the innocent early ’90s, was that she was a huge Cubs fan. She’d grown up in Park Ridge, about half an hour from my own northern Chicago suburb, suffering through the decades with the finest sports fans on earth. One of the first things she wanted to do as First Lady was throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. Even the Chicago Tribune, a Republican paper since Lincoln’s day and no lover of the Clintons, gave her devotion its due.
Many arch-liberals like my parents grew disillusioned with the Clintons over some point of policy. For me, the turning point came during Hillary’s 2000 Senate run, when she started noisily rooting for the Yankees and claiming a lifelong devotion to “America’s team.” Centrism I can forgive, and moderation can be a political virtue. But someone who will betray a lifetime of Cub fervor to the Evil Empire at the drop of a cap has done wrong by us all.
If she were sincere in her pledges of Yankee fealty and had in fact maintained a dual allegiance all her life, that would be even more disturbing. I can understand New Yorkers rooting for the Yankees. It’s like a Californian voting for Reagan, as an outlet for innocent local pride. But an out-of-town Yankee fan is as embarrassing a spectacle as an Austrian Reaganite. It’s unseemly to like displays of power that much.
It is in this light that I find myself interpreting Clinton’s recent attempts to talk more about her Christian faith. The facts of her observance have been in the public record for years. The Clintons always went to church every Sunday, choosing Hillary’s Methodist over Bill’s Southern Baptist background. She taught Sunday school, and Chelsea sang in the choir. They seldom talked in public about their personal faith journeys, but that was no reason to believe their observance insincere. But there was no reason to think her loyalty to the Cubs insincere either, and that disappeared from her persona the moment it became inconvenient.
Now, the above could fall all too easily into pre-established, hostile templates for talking about the Clintons’ characters. It is not meant to. I don’t know the Clintons, and I’m in no special position to judge their sincerity or integrity. There’s no reason to believe that baseball provides some special window into Hillary’s soul. It’s just not clear that religion does either.
The problem is that, however sincere her private faith, Clinton has spent most of her career giving God no more prominence in her persona than baseball. The media, in collaboration with her own image-makers, treat both as insubstantial, the stuff of puff pieces, seasoning to a main dish of essentially secular policy reasoning that could have done without them.
There is sound theology in baseball. I’m quite willing to see in the Cub fan’s cry of “wait till next year” an image of the Christian’s eschatological hope in the One who is coming soon. Nevertheless, a faith commitment and a fan’s commitment have very different things at stake. Aside from the odd bar fight or stadium bond issue, sports typically have limited repercussions off the playing field. But for better or worse, a believer’s faith can shape her entire life, including her governance.
Most of today’s Democratic leadership, at some point in their upbringings, bought into the mid-century liberal ideology that called faith a private matter. Even if Bobby Kennedy saw his governance on behalf of the downtrodden as an outgrowth of Catholic social teaching, he could never say so. The fear of sectarian division, driven as much by then-widespread anti-Catholic prejudice as by First Amendment concerns, long confined faith expression by public officials to a purely ceremonial monotheism. When leading Democrats publicly treat their church like their baseball team, they betray the influence of that old consensus.
So as Democratic leaders like my two Illinois senators have started heeding calls to follow their evangelical colleagues’ lead and talk more about God, the results have been mixed. I vaguely knew Dick Durbin was probably Irish Catholic, but in the last year, he’s started talking more about how his faith requires justice for the poor. Like his colleagues, he usually sounds forced and uncomfortable on the subject, probably because of long training in silence.
On the other hand, our new star, Barack Obama, gave a long, revealing interview to the Chicago Sun-Times last summer about his faith journey. Then he followed up with a shout-out to an awesome God in his convention speech. His eloquence doubtless helps him speak so naturally on the subject, but so does his short career: For as long as he’s been in the public eye, talk about God has been encouraged, and he does it with vigor.
No one reading Obama’s Sun-Times interview carefully would mistake him for an evangelical. He and I differ on subjects I deem crucial to the Christian faith. But I have to give him credit: He is not ashamed of his gospel, which really does come off as empowering him for service. It may be too late for Hillary Clinton’s generation to learn that kind of credible boldness. But Obama’s example shows that it is not too late for his party. If young Democrats of faith at Yale can learn to take pride in what they believe and to talk about it honestly, our national discourse will be the healthier for it.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.