Hillary Clinton opted to keep on her senior faith adviser despite sexual harassment allegations during her 2008 presidential campaign, the New York Times reported late last week.
Burns Strider, a 52-year-old who has made a name for himself as a liaison between the Democratic Party and influential faith leaders, reportedly harassed a 30-year-old coworker with whom he shared an office. The New York Times writes that, among unwanted physical advances, Strider also sent the woman “a string of suggestive emails,” which Clinton and her team reviewed as part of an investigation into the claims.
Despite campaign team members’ advisement that Clinton should fire Strider, she instead docked him several weeks’ pay, changed his title, and ordered him to attend counseling—a demand on which Strider followed through. The woman who made the complaint—who has chosen to remain anonymous—was shuffled to another job.
Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s then-campaign manager, told CNN that Clinton “made the wrong call” in keeping Strider on staff, noting nonetheless that “firing a high-profile person on the campaign would have certainly made news and caused a distraction.”
Clinton apologized yesterday in a long Facebook post. “The most important work of my life has been to support and empower women,” Clinton began. Regarding how she handled the allegations of Strider’s misconduct in 2008, she said, “Looking back I wish I’d done it differently…. No woman should have to endure harassment or assault—at work, at school, or anywhere. And men are now on notice that they will truly be held accountable for their actions.”
The breaking of the Strider story has sparked conversation about the ongoing role of the faith adviser in presidential campaigns. While Republican candidates tend to make faith consultants central to their campaign team early on, Democrats typically lag behind on outreach to faith communities. As the founder of lobbying group American Values Network, founder of consulting firm Eleison Group, and leader of super PAC Correct the Record, Strider was perhaps the foremost figure of the small Democrat faith business.
“[Strider] could counter the stereotype of cold, godless Democrats because he was a white good ol’ boy from Mississippi who had a thick, Southern accent and had a story of coming to Christ,” journalist Amy Sullivan told the Washington Post. “That’s not something most Democrats walking into evangelical spaces knowing how to do.”
Strider helped Clinton set up meetings with Pentecostal faith leaders and popular evangelical pastor Rick Warren, sent her daily scripture readings, and publicly lauded her strong Methodist faith. He wrote that, in failing to share their faith with the public, Democrats miss a “foundational set of building blocks that leads to Election Day success.”
“It’s not about being of a certain religious belief, but it is about not hiding that belief under a bushel,” Strider said. “It’s about a candidate letting her light shine in a way that consecrates their faith, or non-faith as it may be, as being in tune and in touch with the values of the voters.”
In light of Strider’s fall from grace, some have questioned whether the role of “faith adviser” is an altogether outmoded one.
Political journalist Ed Kilgore wrote that Strider “represented the South end of a North-bound dinosaur, urging Democrats to make the right noises (and compromises) to hang onto an ever-shrinking segment of conservative white voters.”
Kilgore added, “Aside from the diminishing returns—morally and politically—from such a strategy, it arguably sacrificed appeals to genuinely progressive people of faith who were either taken for granted or written off.”
So what is the future of Democrats’ relationship with the “religious-industrial complex”?
Barack Obama’s 2012 faith adviser Michael Wear contends that the role is still essential to winning elections. “America is still a profoundly religious nation,” Wear told The Atlantic in 2016. “That’s a huge portion of the electorate to throw out. So if the civic motivation doesn’t get you, let me make the practical argument: It doesn’t help you win elections if you’re openly disdainful toward the driving force in many Americans’ lives.”
Strider’s future in the faith adviser sphere, on the other hand, seems to be more definitively over. In 2016, Strider was fired from his role with Correct the Record for “workplace issues,” including more allegations of sexual harassment of a female aide, according to the New York Times.
Normally an active Twitter user, Strider has gone into radio silence since the initial story broke and has put privacy settings blocking his Twitter account.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Burns Strider. Photo by Center for American Progress, Flickr Creative Commons.