Hillary Clinton is a heretic. Or, at least this is what CNN’s Religion Editor Daniel Burke would have you believe. To be fair, Burke did not explicitly label Clinton a heretic, but his lede made the implicit assertion.
At a Catholic charity event this month, Hillary Clinton, a onetime Sunday school teacher, made a small but telling theological slip-up.
After trading jokes with her Republican rival, Donald Trump, at the Al Smith dinner in New York, Clinton got serious, praising her Catholic hosts and Pope Francis’ fights against climate change and inequality.
“I’m not Catholic. I’m a Methodist,” Clinton said. “But one of the things that we share is the belief that in order to achieve salvation we need both faith and good works.”
That’s only half-true. Neither the United Methodist Church nor the Catholic Church teach that believers can work their way into heaven. Good deeds are important, both churches agree, but God’s grace is freely given — and the only means of salvation.
This is how Burke chose to open his lengthy profile on The Public and Private Faith of Hillary Clinton. The piece offers a deep-dive into Clinton’s faith, promising to give readers insight into who Hillary Clinton really is by uncovering a part of her life that is hidden to many and outright ignored by others. So, why am I focusing on the first 127 words of a 4,000 word profile? Because, as Burke knows, words matter. So, while this lede may not seem like a big deal, opening this profile on Clinton’s faith with the implicit claim that she is a heretic colors the rest of the piece. What follows must be read through this lens.
Clinton said that “in order to achieve salvation we need both faith and good works.” There are two parts of this that Burke, and others, took issue with. The first is the idea that humans can “achieve” salvation. The second is setting faith and good works on equal footing in the salvific equation. Burke calls this a “small but telling theological slip-up” and says that the statement is “only half-true.” What, we are left to wonder, does this apparently telling “theological slip-up” actually tell us about Clinton? Burke never spells this out, but it seems to refer to the prominent place the social gospel has had in her faith life and her belief that Christians are called to do good for the least of these.
The half of Clinton’s statement that Burke proclaims to be true is that faith is necessary for salvation. But how can she be even half-true? If Clinton’s salvific equation is faith + good works = salvation and the “truth” is that faith = salvation, then her equation is not true. Indeed, much theological ink has been spilled on matters much less easy to parse. Think, for instance, of the debates that raged over transubstantiation and consubstantiation. And let’s not get started on Luther’s attempt to have his Eucharist and eat it too.
Theology, like history, is written by the winners.
Burke says that Clinton’s statement was a half truth because neither the UMC nor the Catholic Church “teach that believers can work their way into heaven.” At its base, this is a claim about authority. Burke has accepted the UMC and Catholic Church’s official positions. That is a logical enough move, but it does not happen without a power struggle and it is not without consequence. We could ask a litany of questions to determine how and why Burke settled on “Good deeds are important, both churches agree, but God’s grace is freely given — and the only means of salvation” as the true teachings of the UMC and Catholic Church. What about the place of the sacraments in the Catholic Church, for instance? These are necessary for salvation for most Catholics. Or, put another way, these are things Catholics must do in order to achieve salvation. As a journalist, is it not Burke’s job to find the tensions in the official teachings of the Catholic Church just as he attempts to find them in Hillary Clinton’s expression of her faith?
But there is another power struggle that has gone on behind the scenes: the battle over who or what would count as the final authority. Those who interpret the text have fought for, and won, the power to be the authorities on the text, even over the text itself. Why should Hillary Clinton’s status as “heretic” be contingent upon what UMC and Catholic Church leaders today say and not on what the Bible says? Sure, the Author died long ago and texts only have the meaning we give them. But part of this meaning making process involves which texts get read and highlighted and which get overlooked, and those texts that might support Clinton’s position have historically been ignored, explained away, or selectively quoted.
This battle over the false dichotomy of “faith” versus “good works” has been raging at least since Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. And this is not one of those situations where the Bible says one thing and those “other Christians” said another. The New Testament contains verses that can easily be used on both sides of this debate. Those who would have you believe that the Bible speaks with a unified voice on this (or any matter, really) have a stake in you accepting that claim. For this is how they present their view as the right view, as not just the only acceptable view but as the only possible view. Yet, consider these few verses:
Matthew 7.21: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
James 2.26: As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Revelation 20.12: And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
Both Matthew and Revelation make explicit claims that one “enters the kingdom of heaven” or has her name written in the book of life based on what she does, not on what she believes. This is quite a different message than that found in John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” The fact that most of you reading this had John 3.16 memorized abut not Matthew 7.21 or Revelation 20.12 is but one example of faith’s victory in this battle
Burke’s claim that God’s grace freely given is the only means of salvation shows not that Clinton’s assertion was heretical, but rather how one interpretation has become naturalized. One set of verses and their interpretations has been favored by those in power and thus presented as the only possible truth. Biblical texts that contradict this must be interpreted through the lens of what has already been decided. So, what likely seemed to Burke to be nothing more than a simple description of how Hillary Clinton got her theology wrong actually exposes this process of naturalization and the tenuous foundations on which theological authority rests.
As a historian of early and late antique Christianity, I know that things are never as simple as they seem. Every creed and canon has a backstory. There are always fights, sometimes literally. (And then there’s Paul, who wished that his theological opponents would not just espouse circumcision, but that they would go the whole way and castrate themselves, but that’s a story for another day.) The battles are fierce, for eternity hangs in the balance. And theology, like history, is written by the winners.
So, is Hillary Clinton a heretic? Well, that depends on who you ask.
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