During her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton talked a great deal about religion. At one point, she and Barack Obama faced off in a “Compassion Forum” in which they were interviewed about their beliefs. Clinton used the occasion to continue assailing Obama for his quote that some embittered Americans "cling to guns or religion":
… from my perspective, the characterization of people in a way that really seemed to be elitist and out of touch is something that we have to overcome.
You know, the Democratic Party, to be very blunt about it, has been viewed as a party that didn't understand and respect the values and the way of life of so many of our fellow Americans.
And I think it's important that we make clear that we believe people are people of faith because it is part of their whole being; it is what gives them meaning in life, through good times and bad times. It is there as a spur, an anchor, to center one in the storms, but also to guide one forward in the day-to-day living that is part of everyone's journey.
Contrast that to the speech Clinton gave last Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York:
Yes, we’ve cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.
That last sentence was an applause line, as you can see from the video (at 8:55). The italics are mine, but they reflect the emphasis Clinton put on these words through a change in tone, cadence and gesture.
The remark can be decoded in a variety of ways, but a reasonable reading is that Clinton called for efforts to change religious beliefs that oppose abortion. (I directed an email to the campaign press operation to ask if this was so, but received no response.)
It’s an odd note on which to begin a campaign for president, since changing Americans’ religious beliefs is outside the presidential job description. It’s also a sharp contrast to the religion-friendly Hillary Clinton of the 2008 campaign.
During the Compassion Forum, Clinton said that “our obligation as leaders in America is to make sure that any conversation about religion is inclusive and respectful.” Religion belonged in the public square, she declared.
What’s changed? More than the audience.
As Nicholas Lemann writes for The New Yorker, much of Clinton's political career has involved overcoming the obstacles liberals face to winning elections. But, he writes, “Clinton has gone from decades of being spooked by the right to, now, being spooked by the left.”
Clinton’s remark that “religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” reflects that shift. It has not gotten much attention outside right-wing media. That shouldn’t be the case.