At about 5 a.m. each day — maybe a little later on weekends — an email from the Rev. Bill Shillady arrives in Hillary Clinton’s inbox.
The contents? A reading from Scripture. A devotional commentary. And a prayer. They’re sometimes inspired by the headlines — focusing recently, for example, on the role of women in the Bible.
“I know she reads them, because she responds to me,” says Shillady, executive director of the United Methodist City Society in New York. “We’ve had some interesting emails back and forth about some of the concepts.”
It’s no secret that Clinton is a lifelong Methodist. But Shillady — who officiated at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, led a memorial service for Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, and gave the closing benediction at the Democratic National Convention — feels that many people don’t really know how much her faith “is a daily thing.”
He says this is because Clinton’s faith is of a personal variety, one she’s not very comfortable with broadcasting.
As Clinton said at a presidential forum in 2007: “I take my faith very seriously and very personally. And I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves … a lot of the talk about and advertising about faith doesn’t come naturally to me.”
One reason Clinton might not speak more about her faith is that her commitment to it has been challenged over the years by political foes for various reasons. That’s perhaps not surprising, given her decades as a polarizing political figure.
Donald Trump also has questioned her faith, with this claim in June: “We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion.” Perplexed Clinton supporters noted plenty has been said and written, by Clinton and others, about her faith.
Shillady has been sending Clinton the daily messages for some 19 months now. These days, he has a multi-faith team of clergy to help prepare them. Some younger female clergy have contributed recent writings about women, dovetailing with gender issues arising in the campaign.
On Saturday, his message included a quote from St. Francis of Assisi about the need to have peace in one’s heart. Telling Clinton that she was being pulled in many directions and was “in the midst of a bee hive of this world,” the pastor reminded her about “the inner peace that needs to be the center of your being,” according to a copy of the message that he passed on.
Often, Shillady says, Clinton will reply with comments. Sometimes she may incorporate the ideas into public remarks, but generally it’s for her own inspiration and comfort.
Have the messages changed at all during the extremely tense debate season? “Some of the recent writings have definitely been about standing firm in the faith and being bold and courageous and things of that sort,” replies Shillady. “I’ve been sending messages about loving your neighbor, and loving those that are most difficult to love.”
Shillady, who met Clinton in 2002 and came to know the family when they attended his Manhattan church, says “the spiritual component of her faith is pretty private” — partly due to the nature of Methodism itself. “The Bible says to pray in your private closet, and do good at all times, and I think that’s how she lives out her faith,” he says.
Another key aspect of Methodism — social justice — comes into play when looking at Clinton’s life as a public servant, says Stephen Gunter of the Duke Divinity School. “Good Methodism is always a combination of acts of piety and deeds of justice,” says Gunter, the school’s associate dean of Methodist Studies. Methodist founder John Wesley, Gunter says, “had a favorite expression: ‘There is no holiness without a social holiness.'”
Gunter says Clinton’s faith “is not something that she wears on her sleeve as a badge of superior identity or something. It simply is who she is.” And, he adds, “her personal faith has played a significant role in her formation as a public servant.”
Clinton writes about Wesley and his teachings toward the beginning of her memoir, “Living History,” and also about a formative moment in her teenage years in Park Ridge, Illinois: meeting the Rev. Don Jones, a Methodist youth minister with whom she remained close until his death in 2009.
“Rev. Jones stressed that a Christian life was ‘faith in action,'” she writes. “I had never met anyone like him.”
It was Jones who took young Hillary Rodham and other youth group members to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago, which she describes as a moment of social awakening.
Jones became “not only the most important teacher in young Hillary’s life, but also a counselor over the decades whose ministrations would show her ways to cope with adversity,” biographer Carl Bernstein writes in “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.” He adds that besides family, her Methodism is probably the most important foundation of her character.
As first lady in Arkansas and then in the White House, Clinton relied on her faith at difficult moments. She met regularly with a Christian woman’s prayer group starting early in her husband’s first presidential term, and said in a 1999 magazine interview that she’d had survived the Monica Lewinsky and impeachment ordeals through “soul-searching, friends, religious faith and long, hard discussions.”
“It’s just part of who she is,” says Lisa Caputo, Clinton’s White House press secretary during husband Bill Clinton’s first term. “She carries a passage or two from Scripture with her. She is a very spiritual person, and derives great strength and comfort from her faith.”
Yet her faith has often been viewed through the prism of politics. A poll early this year showed that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to see Clinton as religious.
In the Pew Research Center poll in January, 65 percent of Democrats (or those leaning Democratic) said they saw Clinton as “very” or “somewhat” religious, with 27 percent saying she was “not too” or “not at all” religious. But among Republicans and Republican leaners, the figures were virtually reversed: 65 percent said she was not too or not at all religious, and 28 percent said she was at least somewhat religious.
Shillady, the Methodist pastor, is a strong supporter of Clinton’s; he attended the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, and watched the second one on television.
“Well, I sat there praying,” he says. “To give her strength, to give her courage, to give her compassion.”