Pews give way to the saddle

The congregation stands at the door of the chapel, hands clenched around bottles of water, feet balancing on horseshoe clips soon to mount pedals.

“Is it like spinning?” a woman behind me asks her uninitiated companion. “No,” she replies. “This is Soul Cycle.”

The priest, a young man with a tailored beard and a defined physique, beckons the worshippers in. The pews are freshly wiped; white towels decorate the handlebars. Each bike is occupied; hopefuls on the waiting list are turned away.

The priest sits by the altar choosing a hymnal from a computer perched on a table protruding from the wall. Under the music, the noise of locking machinery vies with chatter.

Riders select their bike before the class ensuring a demarcation of devotion — skeptics at the rear, fanatics at the front. The bikes immediately facing the priest are reserved by the most loyal — booked in the hope of receiving a look of favor or a nod of recognition from the leader. Some congregants attend church daily, some more than once a day.

It’s a ’90s nightclub, an ’80s aerobics video, a self-help convention and a liturgy. It’s a mass of steam pipe-sweaty believers all moving in primal groupishness — forward, back, left, right, always on the beat, always on the beat, always on the beat.

The riders mirror the movements of the priest at the altar, each motion choreographed immaculately with the music.

Across the notes, the priest shouts mantras of mindfulness, mutterings shorn from self-help cards and as opaque as the horoscope: “We ride, we struggle, we change, we grow, we conquer.”

The message condensed is that fitness means confidence and confidence means happiness, all delivered in fortune cookie prose: “Ride from the soul and find the happiest, fittest, most confident you in every aspect of your life.”

Through moving as one, individuals experience “self-transcendent emotions,” feelings of something greater than themselves; tribal and uplifting, the same euphoria derived from amphetamines and EDM or singing in a choir.

The priest finally reveals why we are all there: “Together we will escape the difficulties of our lives and become a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

It’s an easy sell. In a world in which corporations reduce individuals to a daily function, the church provides more. It says you are greater than your role, more than a number on a spreadsheet vying for a few additional dollars at the end of the year, more than a hungry dog snarling over scraps at the corporate feeding bowl.

You are more than a reluctant psychopath, forced to compete for approval from above whilst treading on those below lest they move ahead at your expense. You are a human. You are more.

Candles surround the priest like Anglican evensong while scripture ornaments the wall — “Athlete, Legend, Warrior, Renegade, Rockstar.”

Throughout the service God is praised, praised by the priest in branded shorts, the human God, you, the rider, all the riders, the congregation and the collective endeavor it submits — all praised by the priest in branded shorts.

The service ends and the pews empty. The congregants leave weary, fitter and closer to happiness. “Tough class” a man says to a woman removing her shoes. “Yes, he really pushed us today,” she replies. “It was like a different world in there.”

The hope is that conviction bleeds from ritual into the real world. Riders just have to keep coming back. Founding a church, it seems, is as easy as riding a bike.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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Is God the problem with American politics?

“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.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

God says ‘no’ to birth control in proxy war over Obamacare

To what extent should an employer’s religious beliefs affect the rights of its employees? You’re quite correct – they shouldn’t. Once you pass from the private sphere into the public sphere – the marketplace, for example – employees are protected from the whims of employers by the law.

This is fairly straightforward stuff, yet amazingly this simple premise is set to be challenged in the US, with the Supreme Court hearing two cases in which employers will argue that their private religious affiliations prevent them from offering female employees birth control provisions.

Let me run that by you again – the seemingly most prosperous, scientifically forward and politically advanced (the American revolution is after all still going) nation in the world is set to debate whether employers can legally refuse to provide female birth control as part of their healthcare package.

Unsurprisingly, as with everything in contemporary US politics, this is yet another proxy war over the Affordable Care Act, with Obama’s landmark legislation being tested, pushed, pulled, bitten, scratched and kicked at every turn by a Republican Party that has placed its entire stack of chips (plus its watch, its car, the house and its wife) on Obamacare’s repeal.

Myriad companies have attempted to sue the government over a rule in the Act that states for-profit companies (excluding Churches and non-profits) should provide birth control in their health insurance plans. We’re not talking about abortion here – we’re talking about IUDs and the morning after pill.

Yet that has been enough for two companies, aided by a febrile atmosphere in which the political right are determined to scupper the ACA backed by a religious right determined to see birth control reduced to prayers and a pair of crossed fingers, to have their grievance heard by the highest court in the land.

The companies in question are a Christian-owned craft supply chain called Hobby Lobby and a furniture company owned by a family of Mennonites. Both argue that they morally object to being made to pay for birth control provisions because they believe it is akin to abortion.

Yet even if you think religion is an important matter – it is soaked into American political culture like a 200-year-old bloodstain – the problems of letting employers decide on which laws they will follow and which they won’t because of moral objections are obvious. What if an employer believes cancer treatment is morally wrong? What if they believe HIV is a curse sent by God and those infected deserve his wrath? Should the employees be forced to pay for these prohibitively expensive treatments on their own?

What if a restaurant owner objects to serving black people on moral grounds? Should they be allowed to circumvent the law based on whimsy? The Supreme Court is due to hear the cases early next year, with a decision likely next summer. Fortunately, the Obama administration has proved itself resolute on matters of the Affordable Care Act, despite the main exchange website offering all the technical wherewithal of a ZX81.

“The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women,” read a White House statement on Tuesday. We wait to see if the Supreme Court agrees.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

God will win the US election

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.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.