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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



getting religion

I was rather hoping somebody would ask me about race in the Presidential elections, because I wanted the opportunity to do a great deal of processing on that. Instead, Julian asks:

As ever the most disturbing thing about the elections for a Brit is the obsession with religion and religious weird science and all its implications. Asking all the Republican candidates their position on creationism, science and right to life seemed downright bizarre. I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine Gordon Brown and David Cameron being subjected to that (though perhaps in an Irish election).

Well, first you do have to pick out a number of variables here. The religious stuff does tend to leap out, but it’s easy to overstate it. One of the reasons why the candidates proffer opinions on these topics is that 20% of the population wants to make sure they’re not secret Dominionists, and another 20% wants to ensure they’re not going to start aborting 40 million Christian babies as soon as they get into office.

To use the clarifying effect of time rather than space, in the political sense, it’s somewhat equivalent to Labour party figures talking about unilateral disarmament or nationalisation in the Eighties. Much of the language was trying at that time to convey to the wider group “Look, we’re not freaking CRAZY”, while still reassuring their base “Don’t worry, we are indeed your kind of CRAZY”. After eight years, I don’t know what the talismanic incantations are for the bases in a Brown/Cameron election: but I’m guessing they will be there. Probably something to do with immigration.

Anyway, most US independents I speak to discard this religious noise with the same resigned aplomb as someone who doesn’t seriously believe politicians when they talk about “making Britain great again” or railing against the Nanny state.

I should say I’m not really drawing strong comparisons here between the nature of American religion and minor political issues in the UK — I’m just trying to contextualize the relative importance of the religion debate. Having c-r-a-z-y ideas about religion and holding down a deskjob (or even the Presidency) is not considered automatically inconsistent here: largely because being batshit about something religious has a fine historical pedigree in the United States. (Currently, that wonderful tolerance is somewhat constrained by the fact that nobody trusts the atheists — or, for that matter, the Mormons. Time, I think, will process all of this: after allfreaking out about Catholics is within living memory in the UK, too.)

For most, churchs remain in America what they were to the British right up until the 1950s: a place where you go for a nice quiet sit-down, meet your neighbours, maybe pick up some tins of food if you’ve fallen on hard times, and sometimes tentatively chat about deep things without feeling a berk. In the UK, I sense those roles are now played by, respectively, parks on a sunny day, the occasional power cut or flood, the dole office, and the offtopic corners of World of Warcraft forums.

And still, I hope, the tolerance grows. “No religion” as a stated preference sits between 14-16% in both the UK and in the United States, and continues to swell. I hope to live to see our first Goth President with an Emo Orthodox atheist vice-president being sworn in on a copy of Drawing Down the Moon – and perhaps on that glorious day, the wisdom of a Jedi Knight will finally grace the British Cabinet.

7 Responses to “getting religion”

  1. nick s Says:

    But you really haven’t spent that much time in the American South, have you, Danny? I’m guessing that in SF and environs the standard introductory conversation in heterogenous company doesn’t tend to include “Which church do you go to?” (Do tell me otherwise if I’m wrong about this.)

  2. Danny O'Brien Says:

    But that’s exactly what I’m talking about: the church as social device. Among my latte-sippin’ pals, no, it’s all about which dive bar you frequent, but anywhere outside the cosmopolis, “what church do you go to?” is exactly the question you can expect to hear. And pretty much what this dialog is about in the political sphere. It’s a social-establishing conversation, less about finding out your belief about good works vs. faith, and more about where you stand in the local society. It’s what made the Wright affair so attractive, and yet limited it. People learnt that — horrors! Obama went to a black church, but after they got over that culture shock, they were willing to let slide the fact that his pastor was kinda whacky, just as most independents I think aren’t amazed or astounded that Palin’s pentecostal church is a bit nutsy.

    The South is indeed another world, but church-going is a fairly universal constant in all the bits of America I’ve been to. I actually spent some time attending a local church down in SJ when I realised that I was going to miss out on a fundamental (ha) part of the American experiene. I ended up choosing the local quakers. It was lovely, but I actually left because it was a bit too much like listening to Cindy Sheehan argue with Michael Foot every Sunday. A lot of the British left forget how much of their tradition comes from nonconformist chapel.

  3. Ash Says:

    I always love reading polite attempts to explain this nonsense by people from foreign countries. I guess the first time I ever came across such an article was in the Asahi Shimbun, one of the national newspapers of Japan. I actually found it pretty educational, because they REALLY had to take it down to basics to explain to the average Japanese citizen why the word “god” keeps coming up in the American political arena/circus.

    You’ve written very kindly and cautiously on this indeed, but I can’t help but feel overwhelmed to think that around half of the voting population of the country has made, apologetically and with loud self-assurance, the decisions it has in the last few years..

    There are quite a number of people who seem to base their decisions emotionally on one particular issue (but perhaps not in civic-minded California). Not good when your system only offers you two choices (realistically).
    Being from Texas, I’ve seen and heard my fair share of the insanity..

  4. Ash Says:

    bah, read that “unapologetically”

  5. Danny O'Brien Says:

    Yes, I feel like I’ve probably slightly biased it the other way, in that there’s certainly deep fucking craziness abroad in the land. But what I hope to convey is where that craziness stands in relation to all the other things in a culture. It’s that irritation when the only thing anyone knows about Britain is bowler hats and the class system. Guns and religion. Anime and game shows. Death culture and bullfighting.

  6. mr-potter Says:

    As an ex-pat Brit in the northern plains, let me express what I think some of this is:

    Partly, I think it is still the Reagan / Thatcher thing that ideology is more important than policy or experience. I also think that it is also a way of routing around the fact that most people do not trust a politician to deliver on policy. If you vote on what they believe, then you won’t be disappointed. So instead of voter apathy, like in the UK, they have people looking for reasons that are not being campaigned on to base their decision on.

    It does lead me to ask lots of wtf? questions – like why is the Republican Party, whose mission statement says something like the person who is best able to make a decision is not the government but the person, yet abortion is one of the key non-campaigned-upon issues that people seem to base their decision to vote Republican on.

  7. Zooko Says:

    You’re right that it isn’t as big a deal over all as furriners think that it is, but it is a bigger deal in other parts of America and to other people than the ones you see all around you every day. The question when I was growing up (and still today in those places) isn’t “Which church do you go to” as a social contextualization but (and I quote) “How’s your relationship with The Lord?”, as a litmus test and as an opportunity to proselytize and save a soul.


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