There have been plenty of subplots to the 2008 American election, the two most obvious being gender and race. Women, it seems, have finally arrived at the sharp end of US politics, while the Democratic nomination of an African American could be prove a watershed in US history.
Should Obama lose on November 4th, the election will be viewed in hindsight as entirely about race. However, beneath gender and race is another even larger undercurrent, a river of division soaked into the soul of American society – that of religion. God, it seems, has the casting vote. In a country founded on Puritanism, religion has provided a backdrop to every US election in history, even more so in recent times thanks to the political mobilisation of the evangelical Right.
There’s a widely held belief in the States that a non-believer could never be elected to the White House. This is not necessarily true. A non-believer could easily get elected to the White House… as long as they pretended to be a Christian. Bill Clinton is the most recent example. It is probably no coincidence that his wife, Hilary, looked most insincere when discussing matters of God. As long as you profess to be Christian, whether that requires cognitive dissonance or not, you’ve got a chance at the top job.
Not that it needs to be a specific Christian belief – McCain is a Southern Baptist brought up Episcopalian; Barak Obama is a mainline protestant (if you dismiss rumours of a clandestine allegiance to Islam). Even candidate Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which until 1978 was officially a racist organisation, managed to secure plenty of support during his campaign. Christian ecumenism is the key. As long as you have faith, the flavour is up to you.
It is a paradox that a country in which a separation of church and state is written into the constitution requires its politicians to fawn so desperately over the bible and those who purport to speak with its authority. Earlier in the campaign we witnessed Obama and McCain paying due reverence at a faith forum hosted by Rick Warren, a pastor and self-styled leader of the evangelicals whose influence stretches out to the thousands of Megachurches scattered from coast to coast.
Billed by Fox News as the Saddleback Showdown, the candidates went separately to answer questions of leadership, stewardship, world view and international concerns. Playing to the audience, Warren was quick to set the discussion with a Christian framework, swaddling the conversation with religious motifs.
He stopped short of asking who Jesus would vote for, but not by much. It was all good knock-about stuff, as both candidates fell over themselves to kow-tow to the conservative throng. McCain seemed more at home, but neither appeared entirely comfortable opposite such overt religious posturing. Even the selection of Joe Biden as Democratic running mate had a religious slant. Although added to the ticket to add international experience, the Obama camp also hope to appeal to Roman Catholics, as well as the blue collar vote – two areas of weakness for the Illinois senator.
Yet the election took a more sinister turn this week with revelations on CNN about the religious affiliation of the Republican running mate Sarah Palin. The Alaskan Governor, brought in by McCain to help convert some of the disillusioned Hilary voters has enjoyed a mixed start to her Vice Presidential campaign. Several strong speeches early on were tempered by an obvious naivety when it came to international relations (she only recently acquired a passport).
News of her 17-year-old daughter being pregnant out of wedlock also sullied the sheen, though the impact this will have on the core social conservatives of the GOP come November 4th is probably negligible. Far more worrying is Palin’s long-time membership of a Pentecostal church in her home town of Wasilla in which the congregation speak in Tongues, the practise of making unintelligible sounds as if being relayed a message from God (or as some practitioners believe speaking in the language of angels).
The church is also known to practise faith healing and, most troubling of all, believe in End of Days, a cataclysmic event that precedes the return of the Messiah and an ushering of believers to up to heaven. Palin left the church six years ago, yet most Republicans remain quiet on her faith. Whatever her current belief, it doesn’t take a savvy political operator to spot that a person who thinks they can speak directly to the Almighty might unease potential voters.
And the prospect having the second in line to the presidency delighting in a forthcoming Doomsday and a subsequent rapture to heaven should leave more than US residents shifting uneasily in their seats. Palin has gone on record describing US soldiers in Iraq as “on a task from God”. It’s a dangerous sentiment, the kind often peddled by Osama Bin Laden or the mullahs of Iran.
Such comparisons may seem severe, particularly as religious fanaticism manifests itself in different ways. Yet there is no doubting the real danger to the world is fanaticism itself, whether that originates in America, Afghanistan or the Middle East.
“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a bulldog?” Palin quipped at the recent Republican convention. The answer? “Lipstick”.
So what separates a hockey mom from the other crackpot leaders with a direct ear to God? Let’s hope in this instance it’s a little more than lip gloss.