Like a lot of answers Hillary Clinton gives, her response to a question about religion at Sunday night's debate felt both dutiful and poll-tested. Asked, "To whom and for whom do you pray?" she answered by ticking off a list that was faultless and featureless in its familiarity: "I pray very specifically for people whom I know by name," she said, "people who either have gone through or are experiencing difficult times, illness, divorce, death, disappointment — all of the life experiences that confront most of us." (Of course, if her prayers were really just echoes of popular demand, she would have also had to include parking spaces and 3-point shots.)
One of the only ways to wring controversy from answers as anodyne as Clinton's usually are is to unearth and interrogate the context she declines to provide. No doubt at this very moment, some reporter somewhere is combing records for the people in the Clinton orbit who may have had one of those "life experiences." "Did Mrs. Clinton tell you she was praying for you? Did you have to ask her? Did you feel prayed for?"
Given the level of vitriol and suspicion on the part of Clinton antagonists, I also don't doubt that in the not-too-far reaches of the Internet, some quick-fingered fire-breather has noticed that Clinton didn't answer the first part of the question at all: To whom, specifically, does she pray? She's the wrong color to be a Secret Muslim(™), but the small cottage industry of proving that Clinton is a Wiccan priestess got its own jobs-growth package last night.
No doubt, Clinton's response had neither the practiced exuberance of Ted Cruz nor the smug piety of Marco Rubio. Cruz's campaign has a "National Prayer Team" that participates in a weekly conference call to pray for God's intercession in, among other things, Cruz finding "grace and patience in the face of ... attack" when "tough questions come from reporters." Cruz himself has knelt in prayer in front of the White House to pray for the release of an Iranian political prisoner, and regularly submits to the laying on of hands when a pastor is moved to do so.
Rubio has turned the inevitable but disquieting tradition of fainting audience members into a chance for a mini revival meeting. In late February, he alerted the crowd in Clemson, South Carolina, of an elderly man's collapse: "Why don't we just bow our heads for a moment in prayer." He continued, "We ask you to pray for our brother that you put your hand upon him, oh Lord." On Super Tuesday, after a woman at a rally fainted, he suggested, "If you don't mind, I just want to take 10 seconds and just say a little prayer for her. Is that OK?" The crowd's assent given, he asked God "that your spirit may come upon her, that your healing hand may be with her, and give her the strength, Lord, to overcome whatever she's facing. In the name of your son, Jesus, we pray. Amen."
I'm not saying that Clinton doesn't also kneel in prayer, or wouldn't accept the anointing of a prayer leader or offer up a plea if an audience member became ill. I'm quite certain she prays for patience with reporters. But, however spontaneous her prayers may be, I doubt they will ever take the form of asking for such an immediate and direct response.
In the tradition of the religious right, one's seriousness about prayer is marked by both enthusiasm for the practice and by testimonies to its effectiveness. Clinton's answer lacked both. If anything, her dry catalogue implied a commitment to the form and disinterest in the results.
Which, for me, is the whole point. If your prayer life is consistently ecstatic and regularly productive — well, I am a little bit jealous, but also, I have concerns. It could be that your standards for bliss and for results are far too low, or that you are very high. It could be that you have mistaken God's will for your own. I was once told that certainty about God's will almost surely means He's trying to tell you something you probably won't like.
I don't get the sense that Clinton's prayer life has much to do with rapture, just plain or The. I have found joy in prayer myself, but not because of any prayer I've had answered. The joy I find in prayer is in the faith that there is something out there to pray to. I don't need an answer as long as I continue to believe that something or someone is listening. And in those moments when I don't believe there is something or someone listening, I pray anyway, because the discipline of formulating the request always winds up making me grateful for what I already have.
If there is grace in Clinton's prayer life, it is in another of the gaps in her answer about it: the transition that isn't there between her argument that prayer is particularly important to her now, as she runs for president, and the apparent non sequitur that follows: "I think humility is one of the most important attributes you bring to both that seeking … and that holding of office, and that is what I will try to do."
In that space between thoughts is an admission of failure and frailty, as well as testimony to the kind of strength only faith can give. Every prayer, from "help" to "thanks" to "wow," is a diagram of the shape of the universe with someone else besides yourself at the center. Every prayer is meditation on power outside ourselves, on the love that we can only reflect back.
Clinton sounds punctilious about prayer, not transcendent. It's something she turns to as part of her work. It sounds like work. And, if you're doing it right, it is. Prayer is about asking, and asking, and asking, and not getting an answer — but being transformed by the question. In her workmanlike way, Clinton said as much: When she prays for those she disagrees with, she is "trying to find some common understanding that perhaps can make me more empathetic." Her admission, "I don't always succeed," places the blame for the failures of prayer in exactly the right place, and she seems comfortable with that responsibility.