National Commentary

Hillary’s Revival Of Paul Tillich

Probably unintended, but what Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in her now-best selling memoir What Happened may help trigger a very badly needed new reform movement in mainstream religious institutions.

On the one hand, religion is in a very sad state of affairs in the U.S. now, something that its enemies are undoubtedly happy about, if in a somewhat cynical way. But it is doing no one any good to have the franchise so captured by the lunacy that constitutes the so-called evangelical right wing, those who’ve so discredited themselves in the last election by their slobbering over the candidacy of the most anti-moral president in the history of the U.S. From a classic Christian perspective, their heresy (to coin a familiar old phrase) is appalling, right down to the core of their bizarre belief systems but they are granted a noxious credibility by much of the mainstream society and the media.

On the other hand, the reaction to this lunacy is being captured by a new wave of erudite atheists, the likes of the faddish Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow, and others. These guys use the evangelical right wing ridiculousness as a foil to tout a newly-aggressive Nietzschean “God is dead” atheism, all in the name of God’s alleged antidote, reductionist science.

Between these two extremes I’d side with the latter, except there is a deep lack there which couldn’t come at a worse time. Humanity, if it ever did, is now in sore need of some good purposefulness to counter what our nation has come to under Trump. Churches everywhere are reporting surges in new younger people coming in looking for that kind of thing, looking for some meaningful alternative to the current, horrible defecation of our sacred presidency and its historic symbolism as the bastion of democratic values.

But I am afraid these people aren’t going to stay long, because our religious institutions, even the most well-meaning of them, generally lack an effective narrative to chart the kind of powerful, transcendent course needed to fuel the desire of this new potential constituency to drive some fundamental social transformations along lines of the old school values of decency and virtue, and the primacy of such basic concepts at those contained in the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and the Publican and most of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.

Indeed, the entirety of our dominant culture today grants almost no place to these things. It is “bread and circuses” to an extreme that would make any old Roman imperial despot blush. So some really heavy lifting is required to overthrow the culture that has produced Trump.

Clinton touches on some of the important themes in her book, such as the kind of persisting male chauvinism that reared its ugly head so much in the last presidential election. More than to the Russians, Clinton’s loss can be attributed to this barbaric but, sadly, alive-and-well phenomenon. It is astonishing how many people lack the basic capacity for self-reflection as to be so blind to this.

But, in my view, her biggest contribution, as something new, was in her chapter on “Love and Kindness” and her reference to the late theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965). In particular, she cites one of his sermons, entitled, “You Are Accepted,” for the influence it had on her in a high school youth group and again in coping with the pain of her election loss last fall.

As she wrote, “Tillich says sin is separation and grace is reconciliation,” and that, as a ground for the affirmation in ultimate things, leads one directly onto a pathway for hope and a universe that is not the atheist’s cold, heartless emptiness, or the religious fraud’s conditional and outlandish snake-oil delusion, but defined by the kind of love that we humans, as actors in this universe, strive for every day.

Everyone’s got a ton of advice for Hillary now. I’d say fight like heck to overthrow the fraudulent election, but beyond that, hit the mainstream religious circuit and bring Paul Tillich back into our lives.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at