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Jul 08, 2007

The (Visual) Politics Of Prayer

(click for full size) 

Before we start today's post, I would like to offer a prayer.  Readers, would you please stop for a moment, and bow your heads?

"Dear Lord, please bless American politics, including all those who help picture it, so that we might have a clearer window into the people and the process of government. "


Yesterday, the NYT had an extensive article  detailing Hillary Clinton's religious identity.  I found the lead photo an act of inspiration.  What is compelling about this shot is, well, how religious it is, and how effectively it conveys an inner moment.

Really though, what we're faced with here is a stunning lack of context.  As presented in the article, the photo's caption (both in print and on-line) fails to situate us at all.  It simply reads: Hillary Rodham Clinton says she was raised "in a praying family."

Also, the physical setting is so ambiguous as to grant the possibility (given those two-plus, large, blurry architectural elements in the background) that the pic was taken in a church of perhaps a more modern design.

Because the two next-most identifiable people in the picture are out of focus, and dressed so differently -- one man immediately flanking Hillary in a suit,  the other in a brown jacket with what seems like a furry collar -- it amplifies the lack of context, conferring that much more attention on Hillary -- and her private moment.  As well, the specificity of the floral pattern in Hillary's jacket and the way it evokes nature also helps keep the focus on her, and the theme of spirit.

Last but certainly not least is the depiction of prayer itself.  The act of praying is typically so sacrosanct, it tends to counteract the instinct to think more analytically about the image, making one's gaze feel, instead, rather intrusive, disrespectful -- potentially sacrilegious.

(click for full size)

If you believe there is anything overly private, personal, intimate or enduring about this scene, however, consider this shot by Chip Somodevilla.  It was taken April 13th at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, two months after the February 1st National Prayer Breakfast at that shrine known as the Washington Hilton where Hillary is depicted above.

Chip's caption indicates his intention to capture Justice Alito.  For our purposes, however, the presence and scale of the photographers is the issue.  And it's not just that they happen to be present at these  so-called religious events, but that circumstances actually allow for them to click- click-click-click-click-click (-click) away during the act of prayer.

(image 1: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images.  February 1, 2007. Washington.  image 2: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. April 13,  2007.  Washington.)


Remined me of a point I've made before,

Well, I don't know what any of this means, except that every politician figures that being seen at a generic prayer event will be good for them. I wonder who decides who get invited?

In the Hillary photo, I figured they were sitting around tables somewhere, because they're facing different directions.

Karl Rove seems crowded into the Economy section, while some of the big names have more roomy seats in First-Class.

Samuel Alito looks like he doesn't really want to bow his head too low, because the camera will catch that combover. (Is he bowing his head in prayer, though, as the caption says? No one else around him seems to be...)

But that first "click" link... the black-and-white close-up of Bush... that's a little too close for me.

I was taken by the Hillary image as well. And I think you have your finger on it when you say that it conveys a "private moment" in a more or less decontextualized site. For me the photo is an interesting meditation on the theme of "piety." Prayer is a pious, of course, and all the more so because it is a more-or-less private moment between the prayer and their maker. But here we have prayer in a public space (perhaps that's why the context is so vague, in soft focus, and, as Michael notes, something like a "modern" -- by which I suppose he means more or less non-denominational ... at least symbolically so) by someone other than a minister, priest, rabbi, etc. And that seems to disrupt the whole issue of piety that is being "performed." Put differently, Hillary is "praying to be seen," performing piety in a public space, for the public eye. And what could be less pious? Is this intentional? Is she complicit in this act of (im)piety? Or is she just being caught by the camera's lens in a private moment, unaware of those around her? Even as I ask the question I know it is much too simple. Of course she is aware, in some general sense, that she will be "seen," how could she not be? And yet, others are complicit too, as the media (ever willing to remind us that we should clearly separate church and state to preserve the 1st Amendment ... and we should!) seem to invade her sanctuary.

Ha ha ha ha! Sam Alito ha ha ha! And he's praying! He must have been so happy that very first time he realized that God won't strike him down, and he can be just as racist and misogynist as he really wants to be, and that nobody can stop him now. His kiddie pr0n collection is probably safe forever.

Wow, what a clusterf|_|ck this country is in for over the next 20 years.

I'd like to see this photo taken at one of the upcoming debates.

Whew! It's such a relief to see Hillary looking so demure. I think that's what the picture is all about - the floral pattern, the high collar, the meek and submissive look.

Maybe she is praying, maybe she's posing, I don't know. But the photo sure plays down her support for the war.

Even in prayer, Hillary seems studious.

Hillary may be praying for the strength to NOT reach over a certain desk in a certain White House ovoid room and strangling someone.

I suppose Laura has similar prayers.

I think Hillary is praying that Al doesn't enter the race.

hypocrites all. i'll bet even they don't really believe in the claptrap, but they'll sure pretend to (and don't forget the photo) for the effect it will create in those who desperately want or need the god crutch. the religion card is the white politician's race card, and it can never be questioned or challenged, no matter how absurd the myths which lie beneath it. it was the only thing that could politically inoculate bush for having been a mean and worthless drunk his entire adult life. once he's "born again", no one can ever examine how he chose to spend his previous 25 years. as long as this citizenry clings to its religious nonsense, we'll never dig our way out of the hole.

By the way, did anyone notice that we don't see Hillary's hands? I hate to beat a dead horse here, but
the trope is present by its absence ... don't we typically see people praying by holding their hands
together somehow? Coincidence ... maybe ... but then when there is a pattern across a wide array of
sources ...

I almost couldn't bear to observe this picture at first. It helped to read your comments that observing someone at prayer seems intrusive and that this particular picture is decontextualized.

I've just spent four days in Rome, so this picture of Hillary reminded me of art. First, of iconic images of saints (here, Saint Anne) or the madonna, and secondly, of the Italian Renaissance portraits that I have mentioned in earlier threads such as Baldovinetti's Lady in Yellow. This photo seems to me to be a variation of the media theme of Hillary as the annointed one, the fulfillment of the prophecy. They employ iconic representations. The cloth of her jacket is rather byzantine. The lighting is like a halo. The two men in the background are rather like apostles or angels.

No hands, btw.

As for intrusiveness, in America, we regard prayer as a private, an individual act, and we also believe that having faith causes one to pray. (In contrast, some Christians, Episcopalians, believe the causal arrow between faith and prayer is reversed: That is, prayer inspires faith, not vice versa.) In any case, in a decontextualized picture like this, we see Hillary praying, and most American have been socialized to think, consciously or unconsciously, that she must be a religious person in a private moment and for us to evaluate or observe is rude.

In a lot of the world, however, prayer is public. Think of the billion Muslims praying five times a day. They are not shy about observing one another praying. It seems that the correct way to interpret a picture like this is not that Hillary is religious, but that at a public event someone just said, "let us bow our heads and pray" so she and others in the room are conforming to a public norm. We, the American observers and our media, are culturally trained to impute religiosity to her act.

I struggled for a long time to get some purchase on this image of Hillary
praying. Because it's the New York Times, I've come to
expect the negative angle, the smear. Usually it's obvious. This
time it wasn't.

Since it's an unusually good photo of Hillary, no visual
slights are immediately apparent. Hair, makeup, clothing, lighting,
angle, focus, expression are all flattering to her.

So I read the article. Although the writer, Michael Luo, tried to find
fault with the authenticity or expediency of Hillary's faith, I thought he
failed to make a case. Hillary's faith seems documentably genuine: It's
been an integral part of her entire life, not just a crutch in times of
crisis or for a photo op or via a Paris Hilton post-penal conversion.

But eventually, The BAG's observation that the praying takes place
in a hotel (iow, in a secular, Godless setting) rather than
in a church clicked with the Times article. And what I first
perceived as the writer's unsuccessful attempt to reveal Hillary's
religious flaws led me to reread the following excerpts with a different
emphasis. In case we forgot that Bill Clinton is a sinner and that
Hillary Clinton is a "left-leaning" "liberal" who believes in "social
activism" and abortion rights, the Times helpfully reminds us,
sometimes repeating the exact phrasing over and over to ensure that we
never forget again. These are exact quotes from the article:

Long before her beliefs would be tested in the most wrenching of ways
as first lady . . .

. . . she has endured the ordeal of her husband's infidelity . . .

. . . (one writer recently lumped her with the type of Christians who
"believe in everything but God") . . .

. . . "it's a challenge every single day" — in leading a moral life and of
turning to Christian writers for solace after her husband's

And while she supports abortion rights . . .

Later, Andrew Ferguson, an editor at the conservative Weekly Standard,
told an MSNBC interviewer that Democrats could win over only the religious
voters who were "religious in the way that Hillary Clinton is religious,
which is to say a very liberal Protestant sort of view, in which
they believe in everything but God."

The liberal-leaning brand of Methodism that Mrs. Clinton is
steeped in places a premium on social activism . . .

"This was sort of a '60s movement type thing," Mr. Santmire said.

The more devout students gravitated to the Intervarsity Christian
Fellowship, an evangelical group. But Mrs. Clinton's network
focused on social activism — and the teachings of the prophets,
whose jeremiads against injustice are the favored text of today's
religious left.

Later, living in the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock, Ark., Mrs. Clinton
and her daughter, Chelsea, attended the First United Methodist Church,
which generally leaned liberal . . .

Mrs. Clinton sometimes was a guest speaker at an adult Sunday school
class, a class that some members complained normally resembled Rotary Club
lectures because it often addressed nonreligious topics.

Mrs. Clinton said she believed in the resurrection of Jesus, though she
described herself as less sure of the doctrine that being a
Christian is the only way to salvation. As for how literally to interpret
the Bible, she takes a characteristically centrist view.

Mr. Clinton's pledge to allow gay men and lesbians in
the military, support for abortion rights and what critics
perceived as Mrs. Clinton's disdain for traditional family roles.

. . . they believe that Mrs. Clinton turned to her faith to get through
the dark days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke . .

And so we have an example of the evil genius of Jerry Falwell, who managed
to permanently link all discussions of faith in God with gays and
abortion. Because, of course, no liberal can have true faith.
Authorities at the Weekly Standard would know these things.

The truth is, there is never a need to quote anyone from the
Weekly Standard.

And can somebody please tell me what the hell a "characteristically
centrist" interpretation of the Bible is?

Maybe the writer of this article doesn't even realize his prejudices.
Maybe the editors at the Times don't realize their prejudices.
Maybe it's not a conscious attempt to smear Hillary.

But I doubt it.

Haven't read the article, nor glanced at the other pictures, yet, but, it seems quite possible that Hillary Clinton is a sincerely religious person, in spite of her political choices in Congress, regarding war, etc. One thing I've noted is that the Clintons, and other lawyer-politicians are able to compartmentalize, so there is no "global" overarching philosophy of life that informs everything they do, as, for instance, someone like Dennis Kucinich, who is consistent, across the board.

One thing I've noted is that the Clintons, and other lawyer-politicians are able to compartmentalize, so there is no "global" overarching philosophy of life that informs everything they do . . .

And sometimes we want lawyer-politicians to "compartmentalize." So, Rudy Giuliani, a Roman Catholic lawyer-politician, "compartmentalizes" his position on abortion thus: He's morally opposed to abortion but respectful of the current law protecting a woman's right to choose.

Meanwhile, our non-lawyer president and vice president both follow their "global overarching philosophy of life" as if many, many laws don't even exist.

Dennis Kucinich, a Roman Catholic like Giuliani, is a reluctant pro-choice convert non-lawyer-politician who has regularly voted pro-life in the past. (But at least Kucinich wants to impeach Cheney. Although not on strictly legal grounds.)

Politicians are political.

Religious believe is completely personal thing.But when its comes to political issue,one have to be loyal to people more than to god.As like ummabdulla said,Bush close-up in first click is too close...
Low Cost Roadside assistance

As a Humanist I am grateful that we have people who give us photos that offer insight, but think that prayer has nothing to do with it.

The Times is not trying to smear Hillary. They will almost certainly endorse her in the general election, if she is nominated, and probably in the primary. They are trying to maintain some credibility by not swallowing whole every image her campaign puts out. Hillary at her prayers is a relatively new image being shopped around. Buy it if you want, but once a candidate trumpets his or her faith, it is fair game for scrutiny and skepticism, which we need so much more of in this season.

I'm sorry to say this, but The Bag is going to have to start giving us warning when a photo of The W is part of his download 'clicks.' I just spent 5 minutes waiting for the Getty photo, only to be confronted with the jowly face of he who pretends to be president. Enough! I've gotta have a margarita to erase that one.

John Lucaites is right, she darn well knows she is being photographed. Isn't that the whole purpose? I also heard from some pundit that she has been attending the congressional (conservative) religious gatherings on a regular basis. Sorry to be so cynical, but I'm also sure this is for political purposes. Besides, if she (and all the others) would take the time to actually read the bible, they might come across the admonition that 'tis better to pray in your closet that to make a public display.' It's all about the pretense, which is why we will never see an atheist run for office.

Good point about the hands, John.

Thanks to rtbag for reading the NYT so I don't have to. I'm just plain fed up with their snarky, biased reporting. Excellent dissection. And I'd be willing to bet that neither the reporter nor the editor are all that Christian, in the traditional sense of believing in Christ and doing good works. Kinda rules out snark.

Yes, it is a good photo of Hillary, even if the entire image falls apart like a quart of ice cream on a hot summer sidewalk. Heads up, heads down, people facing different ways, too much included around Hillary to allow focus on her. All of which emphasizes the 'look at Hillary praying' meme. And the intention behind it.


I share your cynicism, BUT before we dump too much on Hillary alone, take note of this polling report in today's NYT:

You have to believe that all of the candidates have their own polling data that says something similar ... and if so then she isn't along in playing the "piety" card.

Why is hardly anyone remarking on Samuel Alito's presence at this event? His attendance at a well-documented Christian prayer breakfast is a much more disturbing image to me. Because it blatantly flies in the face of even the appearance of an independent judiciary. I didn't know Supreme Court Justices were even allowed to be seen at such a religious-political function.

I guess he's Confronting the Judicial War on Faith.

During a panel entitled “Judicial Assault On Our Judeo-Christian Heritage,” Don Feder of Vision America claimed that the courts' actions for the last fifty years have been part of a well orchestrated attack on the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. He warned that "liberal judges have declared unholy war on us" and unless Christians fight back, their faith, family and freedom will be lost. He also promised that whatever prominent Republican was willing to take the lead on the issue of judicial reform and impeachment will probably “have the Republican [presidential] nomination in 2008.”

Separation of powers? What separation of powers?

We don't see her hands because none of these people want to stand out as actually praying in any specific way - even though it's a "prayer breakfast". This looks like the generic "moment of silence", where she might be praying or she might be making plans for her next fundraiser.

From the article John Lucaites mentioned:

“The public wants some God talk because they are trying to judge people’s character,” said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is one of the ways for candidates to convey their core values and what motivates them,” he said.

So, if Hillary is pandering here, it's because we the public require it. After she does it, we then criticize her for being insincere. This is an irrational response from us (Hillary had better pander exactly the way we want her to or else), almost as if Hillary were a member of our own family.

As always, I find Hillary's power to trigger people's emotions fascinating. Because of the emotion she activates, Hillary is judged with a separate, harsher (emotional) set of rules, as if we get off on hating her. What troubles me is how the Times can count on our emotional reaction to sell newspapers and follow it's own agenda while we are oblivious to it.

Johanna's comment is a case in point. She says: The Times is not trying to smear Hillary. They will almost certainly endorse her in the general election . . .

Well, if this article is an endorsement, I'd hate to see a smear. After the run-up to the Iraq invasion, we should be as devoutly cynical and harshly critical of the Times as we are of Hillary until it earns our trust. (So far the Times has done nothing to redeem itself for preaching the Administration's gospel and influencing the laity to go to war.) We should mistrust how the Times is presenting all political information right now (which is why I pulled so many quotes from the article itself instead of simply presenting my unsubstantiated opinion), not what the Times may or may not do in the future. The future is now.

With two front-runner candidates from New York in the race for president, my prediction for the future is the Times won't endorse either one.

Has anyone noticed that with preachers and politicians there's a distinct ratio between how tightly they close their eyes and how deep is their religious conviction? Also, for their purported knowledge of Christ's teachings they all ignore his instruction to go pray in a closet, not in front of everyone "lest they sound like the tinkling of bells (sic)". What's the connection between a bowed head and closed eyes and spiritual communion? Hillary looks as if she just finished scratching her weekly lotto card and found no matches. Bush's praying photo-ops portray his face so tightly squeezed he looks like he's afraid of passing executive wind. In the future perhaps we'll have thought hats the candidates must wear in public that will display exactly what they're thinking.

John, the NYT article states that between 45%, 60% and 78% would not vote for an atheist. Things are looking up because I remember but a few years ago it was over 90%. Besides, professing a belief in god is not the same as believing in god. I'd just be willing to bet that I know more about the bible than many politicians who say they are christian. That lack of knowledge is probably why congress members will no longer appear on "The Colbert Report" because one of the last ones made a big deal about the ten commandments in public buildings, but couldn't name any except don't kill. I don't pretend to know anything about Hillary's faith nor the depth thereof. But I don't remember any particular religiosity on her part until after she was elected to the senate and wanted to run for president.

I still think that there is a soft belief in god abroad in the land. Don't have any numbers, but I'd bet that many of them say they believe reflexively, or because people will think them bad if they don't, or because they never really thought about it since they quit going to sunday school. A lot of christians go to church only on christmas or easter. Not necessarily because they believe, but because it reminds them sentimentally of when they were children, or they like the music or the decorations, or because it's a family tradition they feel they must keep up.

Not only, as Cactus said, was there not religiosity on display in and after her Senate run, but also in the eight years she was first lady, a period of time that people tend not to look to when forming an image of her. Except for that minister from the chic Foundry Methodist church hauled in to handle Bill's penitence after the Lewinsky business, the whitehouse of that time seemed a clergy free zone.

Not only, as Cactus said, was there not religiosity on display in and after her Senate run, but also in the eight years she was first lady . . .

And that proves what exactly, Johanna? That she wasn't running for president back then?

Can anything discussed in this thread so far be "proven"? My comments weren't intended to prove anything, only to add my impression that up until now, she hasn't displayed religiosity. But if it will calm you down (though I think that gasket has blown a while ago) I will agree that she may have been a pious woman all her life, and we just didn't get a chance to see it. How's that?

I can only hope we all live for the day when a candidate's so called "faith" has nothing to do with her/his run and is never part of the conversation. I get sick to my stomach every time I see them praying in front of the camera. It's 2007 for crying out loud! The preservation of the Constitution, real diplomacy, protecting the powerless, and re-establishing the values pre-Abu Graib is what counts and will be meaningful to the rest of the world.

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