This is my final post on Saul Alinsky’s influence on American Christianity. Thankfully, I have exhausted my references and told the stories that needed telling. It’s been dispiriting, a bit like walking with the devil. So, we’ll move on to other topics starting next week.
And, at some point in the future, I’ll be looking at Marxist influences on the Church in other countries.
But, for now, this final story involves the influence of the Methodists’ social programmes on the current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (pictured at left graduating from Wellesley College). I am Hillary-agnostic, but her story is an excellent illustration of an individual being intrigued by leftism through church influences.
Hillary Diane Rodham grew up in a comfortably-middle class Methodist household. Her father, like many men of his generation, would have been viewed as ‘strict’ today. Mr Rodham wanted things done properly and wasn’t one for a lot of hand-wringing emotions we get with new ‘in-touch’ dads who cry.
Nonetheless, Hillary was a little girl growing up with ambitions to make it big on the national stage. And, it’s a credit to the Rodhams and her brother — her childhood playmate — that she was able to develop her imagination and idealism to break through traditional female stereotypes as an adult. When they were children, she and her brother used to play astronaut, with Hillary piloting the spacecraft. But, women weren’t allowed into the space programme. Even if they had, though, her eyesight would have disqualified her from becoming a fighter pilot, a prerequisite for the programme. Mrs Rodham suggested Hillary become a lawyer with the possibility of sitting on the Supreme Court.
As time went on, however, Hillary began to consider a more influential position, which would have an impact not just in the United States but around the world. The Revd Don Jones, Hillary’s Methodist youth group minister and first mentor, remembers: ‘From an early age, she dreamed of living in the White House.’ In her book The University of Life, author Barbara Olson explains how pivotal the family’s Methodism was to Hillary’s outlook:
At an early age, Hillary absorbed the lessons of the Methodist church, and was shaped by the power of its social gospel…Like all Christians, Methodists believe in salvation through grace. But John Wesley…distinguished Methodism from other Protestant denominations by injecting it with the doctrine of the ‘second blessing’ — the dynamic interaction of human will and divine grace that could lead toward spiritual perfection.
Methodist theology became increasingly popular in the 19th century, a subject this blog will cover in more detail at a later date. Suffice it to say that its influence carried into the 20th century. Part of the appeal was spiritual and part was its emphasis on a ‘Social Creed’ as a means of achieving human perfection. The denomination brought to the fore the issues of social class and race in its somewhat socialist concepts of ‘progress’. During this time, the Methodists also came out strongly in favour of temperance and later Prohibition. The Methodists I knew growing up were very much anti-drink. However, they were also quite conservative politically, which would seem to tie in with Hillary’s father’s political leanings and contradict a progressive interpretation of the ‘Social Creed’. Yet, whatever their political stance, one thing seems true universally: Methodists are committed to fairness for everyone, in and out of church.
To begin with, Hillary, too, was supportive of the Republican Party. However, she broke with their views in the late 1960s once she got involved in Pastor Jones’s Methodist youth programme — The University of Life – in Park Ridge, Illinois. Barbara Olson explains:
[Methodism] became the root of her worldview, one in which it is never enough to attack an opponent’s actions. One must also expose his motives, and use that perspective to destroy both the action and its proponents. For the natural companion of a doctrine of perfectibility is a conviction in the existence of evil — and immorality — of one’s enemies.
Hillary was confirmed at the age of 11. She was catechised and learnt the tenets of Methodism. A few years later, Mr Jones’s cultural Marxist outlook would have a deep influence on Hillary. Jones was a young, enthusiastic minister who had recently graduated from seminary. He was the youth minister for her church in Park Ridge, Illinois, in the 1960s. He wanted to show the teens in his charge just what the real world was like with its constant injustice and ongoing struggles. Olson elaborates:
Don Jones was determined to break open the comfortable cocoon of Park Ridge [Hillary's home town] and expose his protégé to the disturbing realities of the contemporary world. He brought in an atheist to debate the existence of God. He upset the congregation with a discussion of teenage pregnancy. He conveyed his deep commitment to the theology of Paul Tillich, who redefined Christianity in terms of the German idealistic tradition and existentialism … Its revival, Tillich argued, could come only from a critique of society that took its inspiration from Marxist lines of thought.
In this new spin on Christianity, sin and grace, death and redemption were no longer the key features of theology. The major problem facing American youth, the Reverend Jones informed his students, was a crisis of meaning and alienation. Hillary carried this forward to her ‘politics of meaning’.
Did you catch the words ‘critique of society’ and ‘Marxist lines of thought’? Yes, our old friend ‘critical theory’ rears its ugly head yet again. At some point in the future, this blog will explain the principals and principles in the cultural Marxism that the Frankfurt School spread throughout Europe and the United States. Its proponents were Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, among others. They fled Nazi Europe for professorships in other countries and were highly influential in academia.
But, back to our story. As one would expect — and had I been there at the time — I, too, as an adolescent, would have found Jones’s educational tactics exciting:
a bracing mixture of counterculture and high culture, the poems of e.e. Cummings, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and a discussion on Picasso’s Guernica. He drew explicit parallels between the utopia of Karl Marx and the heavenly kingdom.
Pity the parents who were paying this guy’s salary through their tithes to the church, though! Jones lasted two years at the church in Park Ridge before accepting a new post in New Jersey. Although older Methodists weren’t sorry to see the back of him, young Hillary was. Jones had transformed her outlook from that of a young Republican to a Christian socialist to a young woman with a focus on politics and power.
But how could it all happen so quickly? Before Jones left suburban Chicago, he took the youth group into the South Side of the city to meet Saul Alinsky. A Rake’s Progress explains:
It allowed her to have an open heart to the suffering she saw in Chicago … it also meant that she could hear firsthand what he had to say in a context that probably spoke louder than his words.
Alinsky believed the poor were poor because they lacked power. It would seem that Mrs Clinton believes the poor are poor because government policies aren’t up to scratch:
Hillary Clinton still seems to believe that the middle classes can do things to make life easier for the poor, and that is the lever she pulls most often. Her decision about the best way to create change ultimately led her down a path that made her a senator; had she made the other decision — to organise the poor — she would not be in government, but rather in that place where she learned so much — the ‘streets’ …
Hillary — even as a girl — was used by the [cultural Marxist] movement. She added her consent later …
That the Sixties, Alinsky and religious faith taught her to learn from experience is the deeper and more enduring social source of her behavior.
A few years later, when she was a student at Wellesley, one of the prestigious Seven Sisters colleges, she took the Bible study course which was part of the required curriculum. She and the other students saw how one’s faith could influence one’s response in the public sphere. If community organising didn’t tick all of Hillary’s boxes, faith could inform her social mission. A Rake’s Progress notes that Wellesley’s motto bears this out: ‘Non ministrar sed ministrare’ (‘we are not here to be ministered to, but to minister unto’).
Having said that, Hillary hadn’t forgotten about Alinsky. She went to hear him speak in nearby Boston and later organised a demonstration in Wellesley. Alinsky told her that protests in a comfortable town like Wellesley were for the middle class, not part of his community organising. She took his comment on board. Still enthralled, she wrote her senior thesis about his work. After she graduated, Alinsky invited her to work for him on his community projects. It’s important to note that Alinsky didn’t offer these positions to women. He also didn’t extend such an invitation unless he had throughly researched the candidate beforehand. So, he would have known about her background, campus activities, personality, strengths and weaknesses.
Hillary declined Alinsky’s offer. She thought that the local level that community organising demanded would hold her back. Instead, she chose to study law. But, think of it, she stood up to Alinsky and said ‘no’! More than Catholic priests did! Still, it wasn’t for entirely altruistic reasons. Hillary had ambition and a plan to influence as large a stage as possible:
Her assertion to Alinsky that confrontational tactics would upset the kind of people she grew up with in Park Ridge,thus creating a backlash, was either naive or brilliant. He surely told her what he is reported to have said — ‘that won’t change anything’. It couldn’t have been said with respect. She apparently countered, ‘Well, Mr. Alinsky, I see a different way than you.’
That she thought Alinsky could not provide that is surprising, but that is what she thought at that time … Her thesis concluded that ‘organising the poor for community actions to improve their own lives may have, in certain circumstances, short-term benefits for the poor but would never solve their major problems. You need much more than that. You need leadership, programs, constitutional doctrines.’ That analysis ultimately led to law school and not back to the University of Life or to Alinsky’s streets. In extensive correspondence with Revd Jones during college, she began the shift from Goldwater conservatism to a more liberal viewpoint. ‘Can one be a mental conservative but a heart liberal?’ she asked him at one point.
And, so we have the story of the influences on Hillary Rodham Clinton: lawyer, First Lady, Senator, Presidential candidate hopeful and, now, Secretary of State. Her outlook reveals the combination of conservative upbringing at home, the role of Methodism, the insight into the lives of the disadvantaged, the influence of cultural Marxism and Saul Alinsky. She sees the public purse as offering ‘short-term benefits’ — that’s the Rodham conservatism talking. But she proposes a ‘need [for] much more than that’ — that’s the Methodism. Finally, she sees the solution through programmes and ‘constitutional doctrines’ – an Alinsky-inspired activism but tempered with orderly agitation leading to change. It’s all there.
To read more, see: ‘Hillary’s Takfir’, Gerald L Atkinson, June 15, 2008, and ‘Hillary Clinton’s Thesis about Radical Activist Saul Alinsky’, A Rake’s Progress — Donna Schaper, Rake Morgan and Frank Marafiote, July 18, 2007 (includes a link to Hillary Rodham’s senior thesis on Alinsky)