Early in “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton discusses one of her reoccurring public references to the Bible: Christ’s parable of the prodigal son. Previously Clinton has discussed this parable in the context of how she reacted to Bill’s infidelity, but in this book it’s in reference to losing the 2016 presidential election.
For those unfamiliar, the biblical parable shows a younger brother coming to his father and demanding his inheritance before his father dies. He then squanders it all partying. A famine hits, and he goes to work for a pig farmer. When he begins to starve and eyes the pigs’ food with longing, the prodigal comes to his senses and decides to go home and beg his father to take him back as not a son but a servant.
When his father sees his son coming down the road, he races down to meet the prodigal and falls on him with affection. He treats the son’s servant plan as preposterous, and receives him back instead as a son, throwing a big party to celebrate his son’s repentance. At the party, the father finds the older brother, who dutifully stayed home to help manage family affairs while his brother wasted his inheritance, out in the back sulking. His father entreats the older son to come join the party, but the older brother replies (from Luke 15):
‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And [the father] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’
After her own recounting, here’s Hillary’s application in the book, on page 33:
Maybe it’s because I’m the oldest in our family and something of a Girl Scout, but I’ve always identified with the older brother in the parable. How grating it must have been to see his wayward sibling welcomed back as if nothing had happened. It must have felt as if all his years of hard work and dutiful care meant nothing at all. But the father says to the older brother, ‘Have I not taken good care of you? Have you not been close to me? Have you not been at my side learning and working?’ Those things are their own reward.
It’s a story about unconditional love — the love of a father, and also the Father, who is always ready to love us, no matter how often we stumble and fall.
So far, this is a typical reading that sounds entirely plausible. But it also completely misses the parable’s core point, which is that we are all the prodigal. Like Hillary, I also typically identify with the dutiful older brother. This is the role I usually play in in life as well, as another oldest goody-two-shoes daughter. Yet to God all my obedience is not enough to compensate for my sins and win the real prize, which is forgiveness of those sins and thus eternal life. Note at the end of the story what the prodigal wins and what the elder brother wins: the prodigal is forgiven, reconciled to his family and home. The older brother has a bunch of stuff.
In the Christian economy, material possessions are fine and even good — God created the material world, after all, and joyfully pronounced it “good” — but not of ultimate importance. Of ultimate importance is eternal salvation. The prodigal gets that through his repentance and forgiveness, while the older brother merely gets rich. The prodigal ends up materially poor (note the father says the older brother now owns “all that is mine”) but the older brother ends up spiritually poor. If your choice is one or the other, you’re going to want to take the spiritual wealth over the material wealth. If you question that point, try reading some Dante or Faust and reconsider.
Worldly goods are nice, but you can’t take them with you when you die, and their accumulation is not a measure of one’s virtue. Winning or losing the presidency, or any other earthly trophy, will get you nowhere on the eternal scale of goodness. Of course, politicians and the rest of us confuse material good with eternal good all the time, which is why we so frequently compromise our integrity to pursue ultimately worthless achievements. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?,” indeed. This would have been a good question for Hillary to ask herself before she spent her life turning herself into Claire Underwood.
Hillary Has Even Weirder Ideas about the Prodigal Son
Missing this core point of the parable is undoubtedly what leads to the weirder parts of Hillary’s discussion following that point, which are essentially ramblings upon a religious-flavored theme of love and forgiveness. She tells of her father, who despite being a tough fellow told his kids he’d love them even if he disapproved of something they did, implying a similarity to the parable. “Once or twice last November,” Hillary writes, “I thought to myself, ‘Well, Dad, what if I lose an election I should have won and let an unqualified bully become President of the United States? Would you still love me then?”
This is a question not really for her father, but for her voters. Clinton is turning a parable about eternal salvation into a metaphor for manichean politics, where losing an election is a possibly unforgiveable sin. Needless to say, that’s rather arrogant. It assumes the fate of the world rests on a politician’s shoulders. If that were the truth, we’d all be in hell right now. In fact, the more it becomes the truth, as we place more and more power into politicians’ hands and out of our own, the more hellish our temporal life becomes.
Clinton makes the same mistake while referencing a book she’s brought up publicly numerous times: Henri Nouwen’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” In it, she says, “Nouwen sees another lesson in the parable of the Prodigal Son: a lesson about gratitude.” “It’s up to us to make the choice to be grateful even when things aren’t going well,” she writes. “To be grateful even for our flaws, because in the end they make us stronger by giving us a chance to reach beyond our grasp. My task was to be grateful for the humbling experience of losing the presidential election.” Then she goes on to offer empty imprecations to fulfill that charge by “reach[ing] out beyond ourselves, to God and to one another.”
Needless to say, this is not much evidence that the soul-searching and humility Hillary has experienced has brought her into any clarity she can offer those who journeyed with her this past election cycle. So here let’s take a stab at it by returning to the parable and discussing its themes within the context of 2016 America.
The Older Brothers Versus the Younger Brothers
I learned from Marvin Olasky of World Magazine to think of the elder and younger brothers in the prodigal parable in direct contrast with each other and as useful metaphors for opposite yet equally sinful behaviors. The older brother represents the goody two-shoes like me and Hillary, who “do all the right things” yet still often fail to understand that while, yes, right behavior does have its own reward it can neither get you into heaven nor legitimize self-righteousness. The younger brother represents, well, the prodigal types, the ones who utterly disregard their responsibilities to waste themselves and hurt others with wanton living. Olasky explains this comparison in further detail here, and it’s worth reading.
Both sides of America’s political divide are prone towards spiritualizing politics. But our tendency is to do so cynically, as a weapon to use against our enemies rather than as an open search for truth that may indict us. Thus both are prone to casting themselves as the older brother who has done everything right and their opponents as the prodigals who have done everything wrong. This is neither accurate nor helpful.
American life also has a very strong older brother-younger brother dynamic that is more genuine. One might even transpose that metaphor onto Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010,” which analyzes and predicted the world of the 2016 election, the one in which we all now live and are trying to get our bearings. Murray describes “two Americas” that are “coming apart”: the “older brothers” who do everything right and reap the material rewards, and the “younger brothers” who do very little right and face the consequences.
The younger brothers resent the older brothers’ ease and success. The older brothers, in turn, resent the younger brothers for behaving so embarassingly. The two are increasingly separated from each other by lifestyle and geography, and increasingly hostile to each other. This is the civic culture in which we all are currently stewing. Hillary Clinton talks about gratitude and humility without demonstrating very much of either, making her a poor leader given this great vacancy of American life. (I fully realize she’s not the only one, either.)
While not all or even most political positions can be definitively demonstrated to be morally right or wrong — where we should build a bridge is not the same kind of question as what kinds of killing are justified — at the root of political problems are spiritual problems. Even the fact that government is necessary is because every human is corruptible, and prone to error. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
The parable of the prodigal son is ultimately about eternal salvation, not American politics. But it also has something to say about human nature, justice, and mercy. To me it suggests that forgiveness is the only way to civic and eternal peace, that forgiveness can only happen when the offending party realizes and repents of his wrongdoing, and that we all have things to repent of. In this parable, it is the admittedly worse sinner who sees these truths faster than the one pretending he has nothing to apologize for.