Jan 2012

Politics, religion and the United States

Earlier today the TV news broadcast a report about the victory of Mitt Romney in the Iowa Caucus. This signals the beginning of the 2012 US Presidential Election and is the first step taken by the Republican Party in choosing who will run against Barack Obama in November. The report on RTÉ included short clips of the two front-runners, Romney and Santorum, speaking to their supporters. I was fascinated by Romney’s veiled reference to Manifest Destiny when he described America as the “hope of the world”, and by the openly religious language used by both candidates. In fact, in the case of Santorum I found the phrase “aggressively religious” leaping unbidden to mind.

Rick SantorumOf course, I’ve long been aware that the United States, for all its superficial similarities, is very much “a foreign country” from a European perspective*. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense, but simply as a description of the experience I had when I lived there. Just as with the time I spent in Egypt or Brazil, there was a real sense of being “outside Europe” when I worked in the US heartland, which is pretty odd considering the wide gulf that exists between many European cultures. I’ve lived in five European countries and I married a woman from a sixth. Yet despite the language barriers and the clear cultural differences, I felt much more of an alien when I lived in the English-speaking American Midwest than when I lived in Athens or Berlin.

No amount of US sitcoms or Hollywood movies can prepare a European for time spent in Ottumwa or Des Moines or Columbus. There’s a sense of dislocation precisely because everything seems so familiar on the surface, and yet the people you work with and spend time with clearly possess a very different value system. There’s the strange ideological attachment to gun-ownership, which I found quite disconcerting at times. And there’s the extreme patriotism, which in most European countries would be considered close to the dodgy end of nationalism despite being part of the mainstream of US society. And most of all there’s the heavily religious aspect of American life. Even coming from an Irish Catholic background, I found the seriousness with which many Americans take religious belief to be remarkable.

Although the United States is clearly in decline, it remains the only superpower at this moment in time; certainly the only superpower capable of projecting military and economic power around the world. One imagines that China or India might be at the stage where they could flex their muscles should they so wish, and test the dominance of the United States. But right now they haven’t done so, and so long as that’s the case, the US remains the only global superpower. Which is why US policy matters to the rest of the world. And why we should never forget – particularly when they have a Republican president – that US policy is not necessarily guided by the same considerations as those of European governments.

Witness, for example, the stark contrast between otherwise bosom-buddies Tony Blair and George ‘Dubya’ Bush when it came to their faith. Both professed to be religious Christians. But while Bush spoke proudly of leading his staff in daily White House bible readings, Blair’s irritation when asked by Jeremy Paxman if he ever “prayed together” with the US president (50 seconds into this video) was palpable. Blair clearly viewed the very premise of the question as being an attempt to ridicule him; as indeed, from a European sense, it probably was. But Bush would never have reacted in such a way and would almost certainly have taken the question at face value. That clip of Blair’s discomfort – almost embarrassment – when faced with questions about his faith (a faith that, let us not forget, he expressed openly in his writing) always calls to mind Matthew 26:31-75.

Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice…

Take the – admittedly more extreme than most – Rick Santorum who, having made it clear that he was running on an anti-abortion platform and “the sanctity of the American family” (which is almost certainly a reference to his profoundly homophobic views), came out with the following…

… America is a moral enterprise. Our founders understood that for the constitution to work, it had to be based on something deeper, something grounded. Our rights came from a creator [Santorum points upwards to heaven] and the creator has rules… ‘Nature and Nature’s God’, that was another phrase in the declaration of independence. They understood that through reason and through faith we could build a strong country from the ground up, based on a moral society. John Adams said our constitution was made for ‘a moral and a religious people; it is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other’. That is the mission of America

Prior to the report on the Iowa Caucus, the RTÉ news had run a story about the increasing tensions between Iran and the west, complete with a clip of President Ahmadinejad working himself into an impressive fury and shaking his fist at America. So when the Santorum clip was shown, Citizen S who was sitting next to me, wondered aloud, “how is that any different to the rhetoric of the Iranian government?” My reply… “it’s not”.

Indeed this point is made rather well by Ronald Wright, author of What is America? A Short History of the New World Order in this interview…

It’s well worth watching that clip. Wright lucidly explains how America developed as a nation riven with tension between religious fundamentalism and predatory capitalism, and how it has somehow managed to combine the two into a strange hybrid that has antecedents in the ‘frontier spirit’ of the 17th and 18th century and still looks forward with evangelical zeal to a world reshaped in its own image. The fact is, there are few things more dangerous than a powerful person who believes God is on their side. It makes them reckless with the lives of others and it provides them with a spurious justification for idiotic decisions. And it’s all the worse when that person feels backed into a corner, as the decline of the debt-ridden American Empire must surely do to future presidents.

Having said all that, and it pains me that religious discussion has become so polarised that I feel obliged to add this disclaimer; none of this is meant to be an attack on religion in and of itself. I believe the mytho-poetic aspects of religion and religious faith are of genuine importance to the future well-being of humanity. I believe the sterile atheism currently in fashion is also extremely dangerous in the long run; though in a different way to the various flavours of religious fundamentalism that grips much of humanity today. I believe that those “intellectuals” who are making a living tearing at the fabric of religion are doing terrible damage to our culture and our collective psyche. Yes, we need to radically re-evaluate our relationship with religion, but it needs to be done constructively and with subtlety and sensitivity. The boorish attacks of the new atheists are as unimaginative and unintelligent as the fundamentalist literalism of Rick Santorum or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

* Incidentally, I would exclude New York from that “foreign country”. Just as London is in no way representative of much of the rest of the UK, so New York feels more like an island off the coast of America than a part of the place.

Rick Santorum photo courtesy of salon.com

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