Who would have thunk it? Sen. Hillary Clinton's ability to be an effective member of Congress's upper chamber is directly tied into her affiliation with a lawmakers' prayer group sponsored by the Fellowship. It was in this group that Clinton first started turning herself into "the consummate Washington player," as documented by Joshua Green in the cover piece of the November Atlantic.
That leaves me wondering. Does Sen. Clinton pray with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. (who let slip Sunday morning that he has had a thought or two about running for president)?
What is really going on in Hillaryland? What happened to the fire-breathing liberal who was despised by all true-blooded conservatives? Is it all going by the wayside? Green, who I should mention is an acquaintance of mine, notes this powerful story involving the prayer group, Clinton and religious right favorite and potential presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.:
The roster of regular participants has included such notable conservative names as Brownback, Santorum, Nickles, Enzi, and Inhofe. Then, in 2001, just after the new class of senators was sworn in, another name was added to the list: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
One spring Wednesday, a few months into the term, Senator Sam Brownback's turn came to lead the group, and he rose intending to talk about a recent cancer scare. But as he stood before his colleagues Brownback spotted Clinton, and was overcome with the impulse to change the subject of his testimony. "I came here today prepared to share about this experience in my life that has caused great suffering, the result of which has deepened my faith," Brownback said, according to someone who watched the scene unfold. "But I'm overcome now with only one thought." He confessed to having hated Clinton and having said derogatory things about her. Through God, he now recognized his sin. Then he turned to her and asked, "Mrs. Clinton, will you forgive me?" Clinton replied that she would, and that she appreciated the apology.
"It was an extraordinary moment," the member told me.
This repentance fostered an unlikely relationship that has yielded political bounty. Clinton and Brownback went on to cosponsor one measure protecting refugees fleeing sexual abuse, and another to study the effects on children of violent video games and television shows. "That morning helped make our working relationship," Brownback told me recently. "It brought me close to someone I did not ever imagine I would become close to." Since then, Clinton has teamed up on legislation with many members of the prayer group.
How many other conservative evangelicals are lining up behind Brownback to ask for Sen. Clinton's forgiveness? Do conservative Christians feel the need to ask for forgiveness? Or to turn the question around, are they ready to forgive her? No one is suggesting that conservative Christians are considering supporting her, but has the conservative rage against President Clinton's wife waned? Can Clinton-watchers relax over the concern that righteous rage alone will block her nomination as the Democrats' presidential candidate in 2008?
This is key. Rage against a candidate by a block of voters can kill a candidacy, no matter how fervent the candidate's support. Many have said that Sen. Clinton is one of the best fundraisers for the GOP. But Clinton's behavior in the Senate could change all this, and Green drills down the transformation to the prayer meetings:
Of the many realms of power on Capitol Hill, the least understood may be the lawmakers' prayer group. The tradition of private worship in small, informal gatherings is one that stretches back for generations, as does a genuine tendency within them to transcend partisanship, though as with so much that is religiously oriented in Washington, the chief adherents are the more conservative Republicans.
Most of the prayer groups are informally affiliated with a secretive Christian organization called the Fellowship, established in the 1930s by a Methodist evangelist named Abraham Vereide, whose great hope was to preach the word of Jesus to political and business leaders throughout the world. Vereide believed that the best way to change the powerful was through discreet personal ministry, and over his lifetime he succeeded to a remarkable degree. The first Senate prayer group met over breakfast in 1943; a decade later one of its members, Senator Frank Carlson, persuaded Dwight Eisenhower to host a Presidential Prayer Breakfast, which has become a tradition.
Though it still sponsors what is now called the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowship scrupulously avoids publicity, as Vereide insisted it must. "If you want to help people, Jesus said, you don't do your alms in public," Douglas Coe, the group's leader since the late 1960s, said in a rare interview several years ago.
Today, on Capitol Hill, as the old avenues of bipartisanship have gradually been blocked off by hardening ideology, the prayer groups have become cherished sanctuaries for their members -- providing respite, however brief, from the cacophony of political Washington. Speaking about a group is strongly discouraged, and what transpires at meetings is strictly off the record. As a result, the groups provide an intimate setting in which members can share their faith without fear of being judged. "Once you take off the cloak of politics and look into a person's soul, you find that you can establish a relationship that is enduring and deep and doesn't let politics get in the way," one longtime participant explained to me. "If you're going to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus, it's about forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace." Many who come, he said, are surprised to wind up forming close friendships with colleagues who in any other setting would be considered political enemies.
Green's article is long and worthwhile. In it you will find how Sen. Clinton and her mother wooed over her onetime nemesis (Sen. Robert Byrd, D.-W.Va.) and many other exciting stories. But according to Green, it all started with her time in prayer with those conservative and avowedly Christian Republicans.