WASHINGTON – One of the Democratic presidential candidates has a pastor who opposed both Iraq wars, supports same-sex marriage, opposes the death penalty, and has been a passionate critic of American foreign policy. The clergyman isn’t the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama’s spiritual leader who has become a household name and a campaign issue for his fiery rhetoric, but the Reverend Edward Matthews, a little-known Arkansas preacher who is the closest Senator Clinton has to a pastor of her own.
While Mrs. Clinton says she would have quit Rev. Wright’s church, Rev. Matthews expressed sympathy for Rev. Wright in a 35-minute phone interview with The New York Sun.
“We preachers get irresponsible,” Rev. Matthews, the former pastor of First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, said yesterday with a laugh. His take on Rev. Wright’s now-infamous exclamation, “God Damn America,” is that many pastors, himself included, say things “that if we had to say it over again we probably wouldn’t say it in the same way.”
Rev. Matthews served as pastor of the Little Rock church from 1990 to 1998, overlapping with the final two years that the Clintons lived in Arkansas capital before Bill Clinton became president. First United Methodist remains the only church of which Mrs. Clinton is a member, according to a campaign spokesman, despite the fact that she has not lived in Arkansas for 16 years.
Rev. Matthews stayed in touch with Mrs. Clinton during her years as first lady, performing the funeral service for her father, Hugh Rodham, and attending White House prayer breakfasts at Christmas.
More recently he campaigned for Mrs. Clinton late last year during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, and he taped a testimonial for one of her Web site features, “The Hillary I Know.”
In the interview with the Sun, Rev. Matthews voiced a sense of solidarity with the embattled Rev. Wright, the recently retired pastor of the United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Mr. Obama has been a member for more than 20 years. He bemoaned that clips of Rev. Wright’s sermons had been taken out of context and said he understood and at one time in his life even shared some of his critical views of America.
Rev. Matthews, 73, cited in particular the period during the Vietnam War, when he spoke out against America’s stance on colonialism. “I’ve come pretty close to saying in some sermons, I guess, what Jeremiah Wright did,” Mr. Matthews, referring to a time in the 1960s after he returned from a stint as a missionary in the Congo. He described his preaching style as “about as blasé as they come” compared to Rev. Wright’s, but he said that both his sermons during the Vietnam era and Rev. Wright’s today shared a critique of American foreign policy and the belief “that America’s going to have to get its act together, you know, that if we’re going to be a leader, we can’t just say, ‘America right or wrong.'”
He said that Rev. Wright’s sermon was “a totally different animal when you look at its full context,” rather than the minute-long clips widely circulated on the Internet and played nearly on a loop on cable news, which focus on his exclamation, “God Damn America” and his racially charged criticism of Mrs. Clinton.
Rev. Matthews is one of several clergymen who are likely to have influenced Mrs. Clinton over her lifetime. The pastor who made the most lasting impression, according to Mrs. Clinton’s memoir, was Rev. Donald Jones, the youth minister at the Methodist church Mrs. Clinton attended while growing up in the middle class suburb of Park Ridge, Ill. She writes that Mr. Jones introduced her to the cause of social justice and the civil rights movement. He has also been credited with aiding her transformation from “Goldwater girl” to loyal Democrat.
A Clinton campaign spokesman, Philippe Reines, would not identify who Mrs. Clinton now considers to be her pastor. “She is a practicing Methodist who attends church as often as her schedule allows,” Mr. Reines said. As an explanation for why she has not joined a church in Washington or New York since leaving Arkansas in 1992, he indicated that it was customary for Methodists to only belong to one church at a time.
While Rev. Matthews said he could not recall any times when his sermons generated controversy for Mrs. Clinton, he characterized his position on several hot-button political issues as to the left of hers, citing specifically her support of the death penalty and her opposition to same-sex marriage. “She’s disagreed with me on several things, but she remained a member of the church. We’ve remained close friends,” he said.
Rev. Matthews said he “totally, consistently” opposed the Iraq war, and he also opposed the first Gulf War in 1991. Asked if he was disappointed in Mrs. Clinton’s vote to authorize the American invasion in 2002, he said: “I disagree with her. Disappointed? That’s probably too strong a word.”
Rev. Matthews’s view of the war is consistent with opposition by national leaders of the United Methodist Church. The church is now considering a move to divest from Israel, but Rev. Matthews said he had not taken a position on that issue and had never discussed it with Mrs. Clinton, who has voiced strong support for the Jewish state.
Rev. Matthews said he heard Rev. Wright deliver a sermon in February, when the Chicago minister was invited to speak at an Arkansas college as part of Black History Month. Rev. Wright, he said, was emotional and even “irate” at times.
“If you are very close-minded, you would have gotten up and walked out of that. But I appreciated what he was saying.” Rev. Matthews said. “I wouldn’t have said it that way. I wouldn’t have been so animated.”
After initially declining to comment on the matter, Mrs. Clinton injected herself into the Wright controversy by telling the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “He would not have been my pastor.”
Her comments added fuel to the firestorm days after Mr. Obama had sought to defuse the issue with a speech on race in America in which he repudiated Rev. Wright’s offensive statements but said, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”
In the interview, Rev. Matthews said he had not spoken with Mrs. Clinton about Rev. Wright, but he tried to reconcile her statement, which he noted came during the course of a “hot” political campaign, with a woman that he described as “very open-minded” and tolerant of opposing viewpoints.
“It would be totally out of character for her to say, ‘I’m going to leave a church because I’m mad at Jeremiah Wright,'” Mr. Matthews said. “She’s just simply saying that if these were ongoing, regular kind of things, I probably would not stay a member of that church. That doesn’t mean I would quit liking him or quit respecting him or quit wanting him to be able to say what he wants to say.”