Hillary’s Faith and Values “Guru” Speaks

Mississippi native Burns Strider was, until just a few weeks ago, Senior Adviser and Director of Faith Based Outreach for … Continued

Mississippi native Burns Strider was, until just a few weeks ago, Senior Adviser and Director of Faith Based Outreach for Senator Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. As readers of The God Vote might recall, I thought the team he led performed quite skillfully.

Having completed his duties for the Clinton campaign, Mr. Strider has recently announced the formation of The Eleison Group (of which he is a Founding Partner). He describes it as “a full service firm focusing on faith and values in terms of communications, message development, targeting, strategic planning, clergy and faith group relations, developing relationships and advancing policy that speaks to the common good.”

I would describe it as a “Faith and Values Shop” and it’s one that is poised to further advance the Democratic Party’s surprising resurgence in the domain of religious politicking.

Whether or not you think that this resurgence is in the best interests of the Party (or the country), it’s a resurgence that Mr. Strider is uniquely equipped to bring to fruition. He has served as an adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, directed, the U.S. House Democratic Faith Working Group and Rural Working Group, worked on 15 campaigns (directing 5 of them), and spent two years in Hong Kong as a missionary with the Southern Baptist Convention where he served as a youth minister. In 2007, Religion News Service named him one of the “12 most influential Democrats in the nation on faith and values politics and issues.”

We at “On Faith” thought it would be interesting for our readers to hear from an expert in a form of political outreach that is growing increasingly significant in modern American campaigning, albeit one that is perhaps not widely understood by the public at large. We hope you enjoy this interview, as well as a video of a discussion that Sally Quinn and I had with Mr. Strider (which will be posted shortly).


BERLINERBLAU: Let me start by congratulating you on your new firm. Can you tell us a little about the Eleison Group? Where does it stand in the history of the Democrat’s faith-based outreach?

STRIDER: We are really the second wave, if you will, in the faith and values work of Democratic politics. Common Good Strategies (CGS) has been a successful firm for a few years winning elections and staying true to their calling. We are absorbing CGS with one of their founders, Eric Sapp, joining me at Eleison. Mara Vanderslice, who was the other half of CGS has started the Matthew 25 Network PAC. And we will be working with and supporting that endeavor. So, our work is growing and expanding and The Eleison Group represents that growth in a big way.

Clearly, your work for Senator Clinton endows you with tremendous expertise in this area. Let’s take a step back. How did you arrive at this intersection between Democratic Party politics and faith and values outreach?

In 2004 following the Bush/Kerry race there was a lot of analysis and writing about values voters. This created a discussion in the House Democratic Caucus and, at the time, I was an adviser to Speaker Pelosi. She wanted to take action. She saw no need to remain silent.

By the way, Speaker Pelosi is a devout Catholic with a deep and profound understanding of her faith and how it informs her life and work. She started the House Democratic Faith Working Group and I led that effort for her and Congressman Jim Clyburn, who she appointed as the chair. This group became central to the nascent efforts to do a better job of sharing and finding that common ground out there. As the work grew so did I. I had been in DC for several years being a person of faith working in government and politics. It was at this point that faith became part of my work.

A lot of Americans might not be familiar with the responsibilities of a religious outreach director or a “faith and values guru” as it is often called. Can you tell us what they do in the course of the day? And for up-and-coming gurus, how did you get into this line of work?

I must say that I may be the first so-called “guru” to ever come out of Grenada County, Mississippi. I’m not sure what the proper translation to the vernacular of my home would be. Maybe teacher is close enough.

I learned about politics as a kid going door to door every four years asking voters to support my father, everyone called him “Big Daddy,” who was the Sheriff of Grenada County, Mississippi. We never missed a church homecoming and dinner on the ground be it Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, all the churches in our county. You name it and we were there having fellowship and good food. So the intersection of public life and faith come together naturally for me.

So those experiences surely helped mold your thinking about the proper place of religion in public life?

Americans are a people of faith. And the values we hold, as one American community, are greatly shaped and informed by the diverse and abiding religious and faith beliefs that are held. These values are reflected in our culture; how we view and carry out our roles in society and this includes politics and government…

My faith is central to me as it is with millions of Americans. Washington and my work in politics provide the opportunity for me to experience the diversity of a great nation. I never hide my beliefs and I hope no one chooses to hide their’s when they are around me. The American public square is strengthened and better when we all show up as who we are.

OK, but here I have to push back a bit. Doesn’t the possibility exist that the public square is imperiled precisely by politicians who make such explicit recourse to their religious beliefs in their rhetoric and policy formation? Or let’s put it this way, might not the Constitution indicate that such behaviors are hazardous to the nation’s health?

This is an ever present concern and anyone engaged in this work must realize that it’s a sacred trust that is being handled. We must allow our faith to inform us while not just allowing, but demanding that the faith of others have the same platform and voice. We are charged as Americans to not only participate but to also protect those freedoms and rights we live under. As a person of faith I am called to live out my faith through humility not arrogance and that adds value to public discourse. But we must be ever mindful of both charge and calling.

What was it like leading the national faith effort for Hillary Clinton in 2008?

It was an amazing blessing. Senator Clinton has a depth and confidence in and through her faith, and is always seeking to grow and learn more. She’s a United Methodist who knows her Wesleyan principles about service and caring for humanity. Senator Clinton’s vision of inclusion and justice, service and opportunity is as close to my evangelical roots as can be found. And I can’t tell you how great it was to come to work on a campaign and end up in a conversation with the boss about what Paul was trying to teach us in Timothy or some fine point of Wesley’s. I’m always learning from her, and I looked forward to getting to work everyday.

In terms of religious politicking in 2008 what do you think were some of the major storylines?

This is a great question and that storyline is still developing. Senator Obama is engaged right now in a dynamic and exciting outreach program with Evangelical and Catholic voters. Every minister I’ve heard from who has had a chance in recent weeks to meet with him tells me they have walked away overwhelmed at his authenticity, and religious commitment. He is launching an outreach program called the “Joshua Generation” which speaks to the fact that Moses led his people up to the Promised Land but God called up a new generation, led by Joshua, to actually lead them into the Promised Land.

The Democratic Primary was historic in many ways and this certainly includes a comfortable and sustained conversation with the nation’s faith communities. The leading candidates, Senators Clinton, Edwards and Obama, have spoken of their faith with ease and confidence. They invited people of faith to join them and millions have done so. We may be seeing a realignment taking place and this Democratic Primary will be considered the moment when it coalesced.

What about the Republicans? Did you see any trends in the primaries, especially with Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, that signaled something new and interesting (or old and not interesting)?

The American faith community is large and diverse. Over the past few years we have witnessed people of faith begin to embrace this diversity in the public square. New leaders have emerged and laity across the nation has started speaking to a larger set of issues instead of just two or three. One of the most overwhelming facts of the past 16 months on the campaign trail was what was not discussed when sitting down with faith leaders. Rarely did discussions trend toward social hot button issues but rather a larger plate of topics were brought up including climate change, poverty, economic issues and health care. Democrats were prepared for this while Republicans have largely been stuck in the past. Part of their problem is that by embracing the larger plate of issues means Republicans have to deal with people of faith who hold positions held by the Democratic Party (health care for all, aggressive action on climate change, a sustained attack on poverty, etc.) So, Republicans may not be as suddenly ill-prepared as they seem to address faith and values issues but rather they are being challenged to adapt and realize a new day has dawned. Of course the Republican Party maintains a large base of support in the faith community, but let’s remember that the last two Presidential elections only needed to swing a few voters per precinct in a few key states. This should be of great concern to Republicans.

At the Compassion Forum, Senator Clinton admirably pointed out that she understood the concerns of secular Americans who were rendered nervous by political candidates discussing their faith. Do you think the type of work you do poses any danger to the integrity and sturdiness of “The Wall”? If so, what are the no-nos, or things you feel a candidate should never do as regards religion?

Senator Clinton was right to raise this concern. She was certainly right and it was admirable for her to raise it as a person of faith. The late, great Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, speaking before the Baptist Joint Committee once reminded Americans that, as believers, it’s not our job to be mouthpieces for God but to rather be instruments or tools living out his call to love and serve the world around us. I think that’s a pretty good way to approach this. I’m always worried about the dangers of some form of theological doctrine to begin dominating the public square instead of teaching and informing its adherents. We have a most important job to make sure that never happens. One way to insure this is to make sure all points of view, from all corners of the faith community, have a voice and a platform in the public debate. We can’t relegate the religious views of millions to the back pews, but we can’t allow any narrow religious point of view to control that voice and platform. Its unhealthy for the community of believers when this happens and harmful to our public discourse which in turn is harmful to our political system.

Was there a constituency of religious Americans that you felt Senator Clinton really connected with in 2008?

Yes. It wasn’t necessarily a specific denomination but rather a cross section of faith voters. It was people of faith from middle class and working families. We identified faith communities and put in motion outreach programs that shared Senator Clinton’s deep, abiding faith (Her connection with people of faith is powerful because it’s authentic) and her overall campaign message. The values shared were her values about the common good; about the economy and jobs and health care. It was about building a strong economy because that empowers strong families and communities. Exit polls demonstrated, often by double digits, considerable support with Catholic and Evangelical voters because we were speaking to the broad center of the faith community.

You had good success with Catholic and Jewish voters. Was there any group that she might have done better with? I think Senator Obama’s team did a really good job with Progressive Evangelicals.

Senator Obama has a message that will resonate across the faith spectrum come November because it’s authentic and from the heart. He is a person of deep faith with a testimony as melodic as the pipe organ at National Cathedral. We call it ‘testimony’ back in Mississippi. Some people prefer ‘faith narrative.’ He and his faith team generated solid support in progressive faith circles. This support will be right there with him in the general and he will only expand the support he has with people of faith.

What are some of the things about this campaign that you will remember fondly throughout your career?

I had some wonderful experiences over the past year on the campaign trail. It was the people I met who provided the greatest memories. Senator Clinton spoke late last year at Reverend Rick and Kay Warren’s Saddleback Church. It’s such a loving church and they embraced us and showed us a wonderful time.

There were many prayer circles supporting Senator Clinton and I was honored to meet the people around the country who participated, from Methodist bishops to grandmas who’ve never left their small towns. It was a humbling experience to hear their stories and see their outpouring of love and support.

I also experienced “grace notes” out on the trail as Senator Clinton would call them. For example, I visited a children’s hospital in Charleston, S.C., one Saturday morning with President Clinton and there was a little boy with tubes everywhere. It was a heart wrenching and disturbing sight that left me silently asking “why?” President Clinton stood at his side and watched him and gently touched his forehead then hugged and consoled his parents. It was a moving moment.

(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.)

By Jacques Berlinerblau | 
June 23, 2008; 11:28 PM ET

 | Category: 

The God Vote

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  • Malcolm MacLeod,MD

    I personally get a bit nervous about any mix of religious

  • Biteme1

    I approve of his approach to religion in public life: pluralism not secularism. (Someone please clue in Jacoby over at the WaPo’s “Secularist Corner.”) A purely secular approach means checking one’s worldview at the door and adopting the secular worldview for public life. This ignores the deep interdependence of faith on worldviews and worldviews on faith, and it wrongly elevates the pseudo-neutrality of a secularism to the level of a mandated worldview. Such a mandated worldview is a bigger threat to “The Wall” than the religious expression in the public square because everyone holds *some* religious view, be it positive (“I believe in this or that deity”) or negative (“I don’t believe in or follow any deity”). Those religious views necessarily shape how we think about the world.Under the First Amendment, no religious view, whether positive or negative, may be established as the required view for public life. All should have equal voice and not be squashed or cajoled into abandoning their foundational principles.Pluralism, not secularism, is the goal.

  • An Dliodoir


  • The Thinker

    The bottom line is public money and whether or not you want to spend it on magic. If you are religious you are more likely to want to spend it on such nonsense as faith-based initiatives. L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and the Popes have all made statements about reality that are not testable. As a matter-of-fact, one would be hard pressed to find three more divergent views of reality. Which is correct? Personally, I don’t know and would prefer that public policy be free of their influence. I picked those three to illustrate my point but the same conclusion applies to any religious dogma.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    Professor Berlinerblau,Let’s get straight who Burns Strider really is and what he actually does.He’s a political consultant who hopes political candidates will pay him large sums of money for his telling them how to appeal to voters, through the use of religious-appearing words and images, that pander to their more primitive, unexamined, and prejudicial instincts.Political advisers devise all sorts of shticks to get members of all sorts of groups (farmers, environmentalists, Middle-East-remakers, the military-industrial complex, whatever)Mr. Strider’s shtick is persuading voters that his candidate shares, and may enact, their prejudices, or, that the opposing candidate opposes their views. [This shtick is in the same vein as Hillary’s telling poorly-educated, middle-aged, blue-collar women that they’re life’s victims, and that she’ll make everything all right by “fighting” for them.]Religious thoughts and feelings are among the most important things in a person’s life. Those who deal in these thoughts and feelings should have only one end in mind: to clarify and elevate the thoughts and feelings of their listeners and viewers. Mr. Strider’s end is different: to take the unclarified and unelevated thoughts of his candidate’s audience and tweak them for a vote.What would Jesus think of this use of religion?Burns Strider is about politics and being a hired political gun – nothing more.

  • Observer

    Your guest says in this interview that he is “a person of faith” and that “Americans are a people of faith”.Here’s a question I pose to anyone who says he’s “a person of faith”:”If you are a ‘person of faith’, tell me seven things that you firmly believe for which there is not a scintilla of evidence in the universe.”If the person is able to answer my question, I say to him: “Yes, you are indeed a “person of faith”, but if I were you, I’d be careful about acting on any of those beliefs.”You might want to ask Mr Strider to list seven of his unsupported beliefs. I’d be interested to know what they are.By the way, Ambrose Bierce, the noted 19th Century American writer, defined “faith” this way:”FAITH: Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”Using Bierce’s definition, Mr. Strider may well be a “person of faith”.

  • Elizabeth O. Ellis

    Would Hillary welcome a ‘strong’ reply instead of a demand for apology, in her style of unconscionable? Her style, CAPACITY TO OBLITERATE HILLARYS OF THIS COUNTRY IN 10 YEARS, we might like to do that to SUCH ladies who seek office. I would like to obliterate Hillary in 10 years as a candidate for President. She has nothing to offer this country or the world except horrific insult.Scholars should work to obliterate such insults.Thank you for needing input, at least maybe you will get proper view from comments!

  • An Dliodoir

    Ah I see the atheists are out in force as they always are in the On Faith blogs. The bottom line is that the majority of American voters believe in God and it is good for their elected officials to understand this important factor in the formation of a voters political conscience.

  • Robert James

    The US is becoming more blinded by its religious fundamentalists who are as silly amnd as blind to secuale ideas as one can be. I think that the US is taking a dangerous turn by referring to religion in matters that are secualr because so ften the religion is little more than an intolerant straight jacket that inhibits rational debate.

  • Matt Jones

    So I pick up the Washington Post to read a fluff piece about a guy who is hawking religion? This isn’t faith. It’s commerce.

  • CrazyPeopleAndWorld

    This is what is wrong with the world today! No one wants religion to have any part in anything anymore. I just wish that some people that call themselves christians would wake up and realize that they are not. They don’t want religion in schools, they don’t want religion in politics they just don’t want religion in anything anymore. That is why this world is so bad off because everyone wants to hide religion behind close doors. I wish we could get more religious people in politics such as Mr. Strider. Come on people wake up and smell the coffee the world will not be here much longer you might need to think about getting a little religion in your life before then.

  • Jim Giles

    The U.S. Constitution is secular but our government is tantamount to an Islamic Republic and its principle creed is Zionism and self-enrichment. See Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, John Hagee, et al. ad nauseam.You can’t win the presidency without the South and you can’t win the South unless you are a ‘person of faith,’ i.e., unless you are a Xtian.The Democrats are simply trying to play catchup to the Republicans with Mr. Strider because they have been getting their clocks cleaned by Falwell, Bakker, Swaggert, Hagee, et al.But I would refrain from expressing my views in interviews with Mr. Berlinerblau and Mr. Strider which I hereby request so as to ask why AIPAC, Israel and Zionism (the most powerful and lethal ‘religion’ in the world) are good for America. (Ever notice how preachers advocate peace but support war?)Yours Truly,Jim GilesP.S. It’s fitting that Mr. Strider hail from Mississippi because there is not a group of people in the entire country more blindly faithful than Mississippians. Thought and logic are beyond their capacity. They are blindly Republican and Mr. Strider would convert them to being blindly faithful Democrats. But either way you can bet they will all be Zionists! Amen! Hallelujah! Sweet Jesus!! And as Jerry Clower would say, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

  • An Dliodoir

    Wow, are angry atheists the only ones who comment here anymore? I suppose the flight of people of space from this blog is akin to an adult walking away from a pointless argument with a child. I do understand that these screechy militant secularists get boring after a while but we shouldn’t surrender a space created to discuss faith to people that have none.Of course it’s funny that the atheists who rail so zealously against religious dogma are some of the most dogmatic and intolerant people out there.

  • Jim Giles

    P.S. Please note that all ‘True Believers,’ aka ‘People of Faith’ always respond to criticism (which they espouse as a matter of course) by labeling those who don’t like to drink their Flavor Aid as “angry,” “secular,” “atheists,” etc.I am not an atheist. I confess to simply not knowing the ‘truth’ about divinity.As to “angry,” I am not the one advocating killing thousands upon thousands upon thousands in the Middle East for the sake of a ‘Greater Israel.’ That would be ‘People of Faith.’As to “secular,” repeat the U.S. Constitution is secular whether you like it or not.

  • Anonymous

    How wonderful to finally see a company reaching out to one of the largest groups of untapped voters: religious people! The intermingling of faith and politics is a delicate issue for most, but the Elesion Group seems to understand the importance of being inclusive and not a wedge within the faith community.Congresswoman Barbara Jordan is exactly right in her comment. As people of God, we are called to be His LIGHT in this world, but that doesn’t mean we have to be cramming the Bible down everyone’s throats. There is a big difference between letting one’s faith inform one’s decisions and trying to legislate the Gospel. As a Christian and a Democrat, I am thrilled to see a company like Elesion speak directly to this long-lost demographic.

  • An Dliodoir

    Yes the Constitution is secular as it should be but it governs a nation made up of people who are religious. They are going to interpret and perceive the Constitution through the paradigm of their religious tradition. Thus, though the Constituion is secular it isn’t only for the secular. It was written by men with a belief in God and the Constituions principles, which you value I assume, were certainly influenced by their religious principles. The point is, you can’t firewall politics and religion from each other.

  • An Dliodoir

    Yes the Constitution is secular as it should be but it governs a nation made up of people who are religious. They are going to interpret and perceive the Constitution through the paradigm of their religious tradition. Thus, though the Constituion is secular it isn’t only for the secular. It was written by men with a belief in God and the Constituions principles, which you value I assume, were certainly influenced by their religious principles. The point is, you can’t firewall politics and religion from each other. You can firewall GOVERNMENT from religion, as the Constituion demands, but not POLITICS. Government and politics are two seperate things.