“You’re the anti-Christ, you will be destroyed,” screamed an incensed heckler during a speech by Barack Obama in June this year. It was not the first time Obama had heard this very pointed line, nor was he the first President to hear it.
Anti-Obama rallies are often decorated with signs or t-shirts carrying overtly religious messages, whether it’s likening him to the Devil, demanding that Christian prayers be returned to schools or suggesting that America has a divine mission – one the “Muslim” in the White House is currently derailing.
These remain in a minority. Populist movements such as the Tea Party are predominantly concerned with economic issues, and most signs and banners reflect that – but it is a notable difference from the UK and Western Europe that anti-government rallies include any religious motifs at all.
Despite polling showing a waning in religion’s influence in the US, the country remains one of the most devout in the Western world, an outlier amongst the secular, industrialised democracies, with more than 50% of Americans saying that religion is important to them, almost three times as many as most of Western Europe.
Centuries of bloodshed over God finally persuaded Europeans to extricate religion from political life. The US experience ran counter, with religion and politics becoming inextricably fused, pushed together during the 20th century by the preaching of Billy Graham, the “good versus evil” framing of the Cold War and the end of the self-imposed exile of the evangelical right.
As the German sociologist Hans Joas noted, “The more secularised large parts of Europe became, the more exotic the religiosity of the United States seemed to European observers.”
Which brings us to today: an America in crisis – limp, hobbled and unable to function. All but the opening act of Obama’s six-year vignette has been mired in political dysfunction, the tribes parting as Republicans retreated to an ideological hinterland formerly the redoubt of biblical literalists, economic fantasists and men with too many guns and too little life experience.
Last October, Republicans courted global economic calamity by failing to pass legislation to appropriate sufficient funds to pay America’s international debts – shutting down the government for two weeks, a bizarre act of retribution against the President, enacted by the Tea Party-wing of the GOP for his attempt to reform healthcare.
The current (113th) Congress is the least productive in modern American history. Its divided factions passing so few pieces of legislation that is has garnered a staggering public disapproval rating of 83%. Following the Republican victory in the recent midterm elections, the deadlock looks set to continue at least until the end of the Obama presidency, but very likely beyond for a generation.
Sitting at the heart of this intransigence appears to be religion, with the Republicans, once the party of business and a strong military, morphing into an entity preoccupied with so-called “Christian values.” Representing this change is a new class of politician – Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz et al – emblems of an outspoken Christian political class, fused together by scripture, distrust of the federal government (even though they’re part of it), a fear of Islamism and a sincere belief that the man in the White House is a demon.
As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz pointed out during the presidential campaign of 2012, “‘God’s Own Party’ now really is just that.”
But is this most recent Christian revival at the root of America’s dysfunction? Author Frank Schaeffer bluntly suggested during the government shutdown late last year that America doesn’t have a political problem… it has an “evangelical stupidity problem.” Schaeffer argued that the Republican party had been taken over by Christian extremists – people who believe that Christ will return to judge or kill unbelievers – and that this retributive theology has crossed over into the political mainstream.
“So let’s tell the truth: a fanatical religious element is dominating our political life these days,” he wrote. “Until this hard truth is called what it is and squarely faced, we’ll be stuck with these guys… and gridlock. Wake up: our evangelical-led right isn’t interested in policy. They are an apocalyptic cult led by the none-too-bright.”
For Schaffer, the Christian coup of the Republican Party is at the heart of the “sectarianism” that now dominates Washington, aided by an “us-or-them view, revealing those with whom you disagree to be not just wrong, but lost, or even willfully evil.”
On the surface, it’s a convincing case. America, a country whose political culture is permeated by religion, has reached gridlock, a Manichean standoff in which one tribe is engaged in a zero-sum game, one in which to compromise is to lose. After all, why would you ever compromise with the Devil?
In the UK, no matter how fierce the political protest, you are unlikely to see reference or motif shorn from the Bible. British airwaves are not laden with call-in shows discussing whether George Osborne is in fact the anti-Christ, and half Britain’s political class isn’t trying to make the case that the other half is in league with the Devil.
Yet for Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist specialising in moral psychology at New York University, this type of thinking is not unique to the US, nor is religion the root cause of America’s current political dysfunction. “We’re very good at hating each other and we’re very good at forming alliances,” he told HuffPost. “Religion is built on this psychology but you can easily have quite nasty disputes without it.”
For Haidt, the dysfunction is a product of “affective partisan polarisation”, a straight measure of how people feel towards those (politically) on the other side. During the Seventies and Eighties, data showed that Americans felt slightly negative on average towards people in the other party, howeverduring the past 10-15 years this has plummeted from slightly negative to very negative. “That’s what’s gone wrong with the US,” he said.
Allied to this “affective partisan polarisation” is the US constitutional system, which is very good at putting checks and balances on power (it was designed to prevent a despotism) but this division of power “grinds to a stop when the two parties hate each other”.
In the UK the system of “responsible party government” means that whoever wins the election can actually pass legislation, regardless of the opposition. As Haidt points out, “parliamentary systems are not nearly as vulnerable to gridlock as a separation of powers system.”
One of the most persistent criticisms of the British political class is the charge of elitism. Earlier this year Michael Gove, then a Tory Minister, complained that there were “too many old Etonians” at the heart of British government.
Even across the two main parties, currently the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Shadow Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister all went to Oxford or Cambridge. Likewise, they all live in London, they all know each other and, despite disagreements, they all have informal relationships with one another, making compromise possible.
These informal relationships among America’s political class have long since disintegrated, abruptly ended by Newt Gingrich, who became leader of the House of Representatives in 1995.
Gingrich, who went on to run for president in 2012, deliberately set about remaking the Republican Party into a far more combative entity, changing the political calendar of the House so that work was only done on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
With a now shortened working week, Gingrich encouraged his members not to move to Washington and instead to stay in their states, flying in for three days a week to enact the business of government. Once that happened, opposing politicians no longer saw each other at cocktail parties, their children no longer attended the same schools, and their spouses no longer mixed. “That simple change to Congressional procedure really changed the ability of Congress to function,” said Haidt.
While Britain’s elite-filled government is seen as less democratic, at least these informal relationships enable politicians of different stripes to speak to each other. The prominence of activist populist movements in the US may make the Union more democratic, however, their influence means that Congressmen, particularly Republicans, are unable to vote for what they believe is right. Instead they have to respond to the populist demands of the Tea Party or the various groups that campaign for religious conservatism.
So the problem with American politics is not religion (notions of good and evil seem hardwired into human psychology) but the polarisation of the political class within a system that requires compromise to function. Often this polarisation is expressed through religious metaphors and motifs because that’s the vocabulary ingrained within the culture.
As Dr Uta Balbier, the Director of the Institute of North American Studies at King’s College London, tells HuffPost, “In a political discourse heavily afflicted with religious tropes and prophetic rhetoric there is probably a stronger tendency to evoke Biblical metaphors to describe good and evil such as the figure of the anti-Christ.”
It is this cultural “familiarity with Biblical prophecy as proven by the prominence of apocalyptic thinking” that reduces political discourse to a battle between good versus evil, but this is simply an expression of the deep polarisation of the country.
British political culture has long since shed these “religious tropes and prophetic rhetoric”. As Alastair Campbell famously quipped when the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to speak publicly about his faith, “we don’t do God.”
Yet God isn’t quite off the hook. Throughout history, conservative movements have risen in response to rapid transformation, never more so than the massive cultural (and necessary) changes of the Sixties – social changes that, Haidt argues, “energised and galvanised a very powerful conservative reaction”.
Before the Sixties, American evangelicals had traditionally stayed out of politics. It was only after the Supreme Court banned prayer in school and legalised abortion that the religious right became an active political force.
This set in motion the rise of what Schaeffer describes as a “fanatical religious element” within one of the parties, resulting in a current charged climate in which half the population is unwilling to hear “basic economic or environmental facts”, and who “opt for their own special facts mainlined from talk radio or Fox news”.
And with continued “Liberal” victories in the courtroom, most notably the rapid removal of barriers to equal marriage, this “fanatical” religious element won’t be returning to the political wilderness anytime soon.