Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Rogelio V. Solis/AP Images, Brendan McDermid/Reuters.

What Is a “Faith Consultant”? Understanding Burns Strider’s Complicated Role in the Clinton Campaign

The New York Times reported Friday that Hillary Clinton personally intervened on behalf of a senior campaign advisor who was accused of sexual harassment during her 2008 presidential campaign. Burns Strider, the campaign’s faith advisor, was accused by a 30-year-old subordinate of rubbing her shoulders and repeatedly sending her suggestive emails. Clinton’s campaign manager recommended he be fired. Clinton overrode the recommendation, and Strider remained on staff.

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The episode remained quiet for years, in part because the accuser signed a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her from discussing the campaign’s internal dynamics. The Times’ Maggie Haberman and Amy Chozick write that other former Clinton associates were unwilling to speak about it until the momentum of the #MeToo movement. The accuser remains anonymous.

Strider was arguably the most prominent member of a very small group of people who make a living as “faith consultants” to Democrats—advisors who make introductions between candidates and religious influencers, and help candidates craft language and policies to appeal to them. It’s a tiny community in large part because contemporary Democratic campaigns do so little outreach to religious groups. Congressional campaigns rarely have faith outreach staffers, and Democratic presidential campaigns hire them much later in the campaign cycle than Republicans do. It’s a job that basically exists for six months out of every four years. In the off-season, many of them run consulting firms that connect corporate and nonprofit clients with “values-based” communities. Strider is the founder of the American Values Network, a lobbying group, and a consulting firm, Eleison Group, whose clients have included the Democratic National Committee. “Eleison” is a part of a Greek phrase used in many Christian liturgies; it means “have mercy.”

Strider’s job in the 2008 campaign was “to close the God Gap and the Bubba Gap,” as the Times wrote in a 2008 profile. At the time, candidate Obama had been recently caught on tape referring to working-class voters as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion.” Strider’s credibility came in part from his Mississippi upbringing; he is a one-time Southern Baptist missionary and the son of a local sheriff known as “Big Daddy.” Strider has a reputation as charming and garrulous, and he positioned himself as closer to the candidate than the typical consultant. In a 2015 column on Clinton’s “quiet, unshakable faith,” Strider opened with an anecdote about calling his friend Hillary right after his own mother died in 2012. He emailed her Bible readings every morning during the 2008 campaign.

After Clinton lost the primary in 2008, Strider went on to lead Correct the Record, a super PAC founded by ex-conservative-turned-Clinton-ally David Brock to drum up early support for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. (“If Clinton chooses to run,” he told Slate in 2014, “she’s gonna articulate her record for the future and I’d be very surprised to find it not much in line with her friends from the left.”) But he disappeared by the time the campaign got into full swing. The Times reports that he was fired for “workplace issues” after a few months on the job.

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