Tuesday 24 January 2012

The 2012 US Presidential Election: One Nation Under God.

Instrument Of Redemption? Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina was constructed out of the still raw historical memories of the American Civil War and the uncompromising political evangelism which continues to divide the US population into saints and sinners.

ONE HUNDRED and seventy-eight years ago, in the little Massachusetts town of Charlestown, a mob of Protestant evangelicals attacked and burned to the ground a Roman Catholic convent and school. In spite of incontrovertible evidence of their guilt, twelve of the thirteen men charged with instigating and participating in the riot were acquitted. Recommendations that the state recompense the Archdiocese of Boston for its loss were repeatedly voted down in the Massachusetts legislature.

I re-tell this long-forgotten tale of religious bigotry and violence for two reasons. First, it is a useful corrective to the very common belief that this sort of behaviour is confined, historically, to the states of the American South – the so-called “Bible Belt”. Second, it reveals the crucial role evangelical Protestantism has played, and continues to play, in the history of the United States.

As the 1834 Convent Riot shows, the volatile mixture of politics and religion that so baffles foreign observers of the United States is nothing new; indeed, in the opinion of at least one American historian, David Goldfield, it has been one of its principal drivers. As he writes of the United States in the middle of the Nineteenth Century:

“[E]vangelical Christianity’s influence was everywhere in the political arena, in discussions about the West, about Roman Catholics, and especially about slavery. What was troubling about this religious immersion was the blindness of its self-righteousness, its certitude, and its lack of humility to understand that those who disagree are not mortal sinners and those who subscribe to your views are not saints.”

Goldfield’s observations resonate powerfully with the present condition of American political life. And if the most virulent expressions of religious intolerance have their present geographical location in the states of the old Confederacy, that is only because the creation of the Confederacy, and its ultimate defeat by Abraham Lincoln and the Union armies, was a product of the Northern evangelicals’ holy crusade against the “sin of slavery”.

One has only to read the words of Julia Ward Howe’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic to gain some understanding of the extraordinary moral fervour pervading the Union armies – especially following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!

Religious fervour of this intensity inevitably incited an equal and opposite fervour among its intended victims. Messianic Methodists from the North were met by belligerent Baptists from the South, and their watchword was “redemption”. As Goldfield notes:

“Confederates talked of ‘redeeming’ their states from Union control during the Civil War. After the wall, the term usually implied a two-step process. Redemption would cleanse southern sins and therefore restore the Lord’s blessing on the South … it would also remove ‘the yoke of Yankee and negro rule’. Redemption, therefore, would secure for white southerners the victory denied to them in the Civil War.”

The clash of these historical convictions, in the shape of the civil rights movement, is still within the living memory of many New Zealanders. That struggle to make good Lincoln’s pledge was initiated and sustained within the context of Dr Martin Luther King’s evangelical Christian pacifism. It’s street-based expression stirred the conscience of the Yankee North, whose liberal protestant creed had been both tempered and extended through its association with progressive Judaism, the social gospel of Vatican II, and the secular humanism of “official” America’s science-based modernity.

It is by no means clear that the legislative victories of the civil rights movement betokened a genuine change of heart among Southern evangelicals. Certainly, the still-glowing embers of Southern Baptist redemptionism were stirred to life by the election of an African-American as President of the United States. Once again the racial, religious and cultural demarcations of American society are traced in lines of fire across the republic’s face.

Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina (the first state to secede from the Union in 1861) offers proof of how brightly these fires can burn. His sudden surge in popularity in the run-up to last Sunday’s primary was almost entirely due to his thinly disguised attack on African-Americans. His depiction of Barack Obama as “the food-stamps President” harked back to the South’s rejection of “Yankee and negro rule”. He didn’t quite brandish the Confederate flag – but he came dangerously close.

It is a sobering experience to witness how readily the United States falls victim to its past. Sobering, yet strangely inspiring, that the political mandate of the Almighty continues to be so highly prized, and so bitterly contested.

For Americans, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all” will always be much more than a slogan.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 January 2012.


Brendan McNeill said...

Good article Chris

It's very difficult for those who live outside of the USA to really grasp the influence of the Christian faith, albeit mediated through a variety of denominational perspectives, has on the culture, and the nation as a whole.

I recall an email conversation I had once with a well known 'financial expert' in NZ who had recently traveled by motorcycle from the bottom to the top of the USA.

Passing through the Mid West he blogged how much he loved the courtesy shown to him by strangers, the freedom to travel as fast as he liked without restrictions, but he hated all of the 'God bothering' signs and references to religion everywhere.

The reality of course, is that former is birthed by the latter. This was entirely lost on him, and even when I pointed it out, he seemed loathed to accept it.

What we believe, and the gods we worship (or reject) shape our behavior and our culture.

America is not the Kingdom of God, and few of us would enthuse over its foreign policy, but it remains perhaps the last bastion of the free world still willing to uphold its faith and defend its culture as well as it's boarders.

For the most part, England and most of Europe have repudiated their faith long ago, and as a result what was once called 'western culture' has been in decline there for decades.

While mentioning God would be a death wish for a politician here in New Zealand, failure to acknowledge the Almighty would banish you to oblivion in American politics.

This election is pivotal for the USA as Obama, (love him or hate him) has deliberately embarked upon a different vision for America. Shortly that vision will be put to the test, and while Gingrich (like all of us) is a deeply flawed saint, he is able to articulate American conservatism better than most.

Frank said...

Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" was probably the most prophetic novel of America's fate.

Either that, or Harry Harrison's "Make Room, Make Room!" (later made into the dystopian visionary movie, "Soylent Green").

The future of the US certainly bears no relationship to Gene Roddenberry's liberal optimism...

Guerilla Surgeon said...

'the last bastion of the free world '

Oh god not another one of these. Believe me western culture is far healthier in Europe than the US.Mind you I include the enlightenment in western culture. The US is a haven for the unscientific and the generally ignorant. The religious right are the Christian equivalent of the Taliban. I don't want either.

Victor said...

“God heard the embattled nations sing and shout
"Gott strafe England","God save the King,"
God this, God that, and God the other thing.
"Good God," said God, "I've got my work cut out.”

Sir John Squire on World War One

Victor said...

More seriously, Chris, you are to be congratulated on pointing to the multi-faceted nature of US religious politics.

The Civil Rights movement of the late 50s and early 60s was decidedly religious in terms of both leadership and cultural references, with the Israelites' exodus from Egyptian bondage a recurring theme.

'Guerilla Surgeon' may be justified in preferring European scepticism to American gullibility.

However, I can't imagine any European country producing so effective and widely-supported an alliance of religiously inclined people (Catholic, Protestant and Jewish) in pursuit of beneficial social change as did the Civil Rights movement.

"Go tell it on the Mountain!"

Anonymous said...

What is 'American culture'? Bulldozed heritage buildings? individualism? Polarised culture wars with two groups of nutcases ranting at each other?

Sounds like a right fucking mess to me.

The small villages of France and Luxembourg that I have visited have deep European history resonating from the very paving stones. And they conserve it.

Another point of yours which really got me going, Brendan; with respect; is this 'What we believe, and the gods we worship or (reject) shape our behaviour and our culture'

This is just another one of your thinly veiled expressions of religious bigotry.

There is only one God- that same God is the one worshipped by the Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zorastrians, Hindus, Sikhs and even the original Maori religion (Atua).

Rejection of this fact, accepted by many Christian believers is a denial of ordinary logic let alone basic theological mentation.

If a religious scripture is talking about the one God from which all love and righteousness flows then perhaps they are talking about the same God which spoke to Moses or Noah.

Perhaps if you started trying to network with decent believing people of other faiths on a basis of religious commonality instead of retreating in to some kind of religous/cultural semi- fascism then you would aquire understanding of the fact that hundreds of millions of men and women practice devotion and selfless service under the banner of many faiths for the sake of that one almighty God.

Brendan McNeill said...

Well andrewmahon1234,

I actually agree with much of what you say. There is only one God, and in many respects he is more 'universal' than some denominational perspectives readily allow.

However, it would be perverse to think that he regularly contradicts himself, and calls the Jews his "Chosen People" in the Bible at one moment, and then capriciously sanctions the killing of jews in the Islamic Hadiths the next.

The Hadith that says "there is a Jew behind me, come kill him," comes from hadith collections considered reliable by Muslims, including Sahih ("sound," "reliable") Bukhari 4.52.177: "Allah's Apostle said, The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. 'O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him'."

Does that kind of 'God' make sense in your world?

Of course not, and nobody who has studied the Scriptures of world religions really believes that Hindu's Muslims, and Jews worship the same God. If they did, they would have common or similar Scriptures, and treat women, homosexuals and apostates in the same way, when of course they don't.

What was once 'Christian Europe', including Britain spent a thousand years going through terrible wars, persecutions, debates and bloodshed, to arrive at some basic 'truths' that we in the West now take for granted, including:

1) The separation of Church and State.

2) Equality before the law.

3) Democracy.

4) A functional civil society with intermediating institutions.

These functions and institutions, which we loosely call 'Western Civilization', while not being unique to the west, are primarily found in historically Judeo Christian cultures.

This is not by accident. It is a function of their Scriptures, the faith of our forbears, their thinking, their struggles their vision.

My point was that because of the wide spread adoption of the Christian faith in America, large sections of the population understand this reality and want to preserve their culture and heritage in a way that the ruling elite in Britain and Europe appear not to.

Andrew, you can replace the indigenous population of Paris or the outlying suburbs with people from Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, they may learn to speak French, and you will still have nicely cobbled streets, historical church buildings and the 'infrastructure' purchased by a thousand years of civilizing influence, but you will not have 'Western Civilization' being lived out in those locations.

That's Europe's challenge, and that's Britain's challenge, and that's one challenge I hope you will agree, we could do without.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

'...but you will not have 'Western Civilization' being lived out in those locations.'
This all sounds vague to me. Many people in the US keep their culture when they migrate, western or not. There's a whole town of obscure orthodox Jews which have essentially nothing to do with the government apart from collecting welfare.
In spite of the tv program All American Muslim' there is growing concern that tey are becoming dissilusioned with the targeted discrimination of the police. Yes they all went for the American Dream i.e to make money, but they're not all defenders of western culture - maybe more so than Europe, but Turks have integrated fairly well in Germany despite problems.
And those things you list, Brendan as part of Christian influence (unless I misunderstand) are the result of the enlightenment - not superstition.
The religious right in the US has a minority persecution complex (google war on christmas) in spite of being in the majority. Religion plays a part in how people vote - hence Romney being avoided by evangelicals. They will set social legislation back 100 years if they are allowed to. This will be the western culture of 1912, not 2012. Western culture has moved on from separation of church and state etc to better treatment for minorities and equality for those who are not white/ male/ straight. Their brand of western culture will obliterate all of this. AND they're not that fussed about church/state separation either.

Victor said...


Yes, of course, American culture is newer than European and has, to no small extent, been created through an amalgam of European cultures and influences.

However, to view American culture as simply a matter of 'bulldozed heritage buildings, individualism and polarised culture wars' is simply absurd.

US universities are probably the world's best. Ancient European academies such as Heidelberg, Tubingen, Louvain, Padua or even the Sorbonne have long suffered by comparison with Harvard or Yale.

America has, moreover, given us the glories of Jazz, whilst producing many of the last century's greatest novelists, filmmakers etc.

Meanwhile, Europe's heritage is not simply a matter of lovely old villages in France and Luxembourg.

It also includes Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec as well as the Somme and
Passchendaele and centuries of bloodshed, persecution and intolerance, some of the embers of which are still glowing.

My mother was born in Belgium and my father in Poland. I was raised in the UK and worked (very happily) for a number of years in Germany. I am, in other words, European to the core.

But I have to ask you, why must we always praise one culture or civilization by denigrating another?

Victor said...


As a Jew, I have no doubt that both Christians and Moslems worship the same deity as myself.

If anything, the pure monotheism of Islam is closer to Judaism than is Christian Trinitarianism.

I would also suggest that, despite its outwardly polytheistic form, Hinduism is in many respects monotheistic, in much the same way as Greek polytheism became so, under the influence of Platonism.

And, yes, there are passages in the Koran that grate badly against modern sensibilities. But this is also true of, for example, Leviticus or Revelations.

It might be a legitimate criticism of Islam that it has been less subject to humanistic interpretation and revision than mainstream Christianity or Judaism. But that is, to no small extent, because the latter two have had longer in which to merge their ethics with those of the Enlightenment.

This, of course, raises the question of whether the Enlightenment itself was, in part, a product of Judaism and/or Christianity. But let's leave that for another day.

Meanwhile, one of the most outstanding individuals to hit the headlines last year was, surely, Tariq Jahan.

You may recall this immeasurably mature, wise and pious Moslem British working man, who, despite the pain of his own bereavement, counseled his community not to resort to violence against the perpetrators of murder and destruction.

As one of the UK tabloids wrote at the time: "Tariq is a very English hero!"

He's also the living disproof of flesh-creeping 'Eurabia' fantasies.

Shalom, Salaam and Pax to you.

Brendan McNeill said...


You are the voice of moderation and peace, in a world of conflict and angst. I would that we were neighbors, and in once sense we are, you with you Jewish heritage and me with my Irish Christian background.....

I am well aware that there are people of good will in all religious persuasions, and I have friends who are Egyptian Muslims and others who are Afghan Muslims. I have broken bread with them in our house, and we in theirs.

I believe that the enligthenment did stand on the shoulders of those Jews and Christians who went before, and created a framework where it was possible to elevate that which is human as being important in its own right.

We are after all, image bearers of our Creator.

I too was impacted by the response of Tariq Jahan who maintained his grace and composure at the senseless death of his son during the London riots.

There are exceptional people in all cultures and religions.

But in a way that is my point. They are exceptions.

In recent Egyptian elections, 75% of the population voted for Islamist parties (the Muslim Brotherhood) or hard core Islamic parties who would ban tourism, cover the Sphinhs as an idols, and repudiate the peace treaty with Israel.

So how should we in what remains of Western Civilization respond?

If we become patriots and seek to uphold our cultural heritage we are called racists, typically by the multicultural left.

We know deep down that we cannot retain the fruits of our Judeo Christian heritage if we cut off the roots, and yet that's what is happening.

Where too from here?

It may be that those who are sincere Muslims are worshiping the God we serve, but their Scriptures are in conflict with both the Old and New Testament of the Bible, and those who are most 'devout' Muslims are at war with Israel, infidels, and the west.

In the end, we respond peacefully with grace and truth.

In the mean time, we do our best to uphold the good, and preserve that with remans. That is the responsibility of all people of good will, regardless of their religious affiliation.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Egyptians elected religious parties because they had a reputation for uncorruptability and did good work among the poor. Understandable if you're poor as most of them are. I'd vote Labour if I thought they were similar. But if they are left alone these parties now have to satisfy the aspirations of their people. Which includes providing jobs and infrastructure. If they fail they will be voted out as in any democracy. (We can hope) The majority of them are not hardliners anyway. I would think that with all the sacrifices they made to achieve democracy Egyptians won't give up on it easily. Interesting that no-one seems to care that Western countries have long had superstition based parties in their parliaments though.

Victor said...

Hi Brendan

Thank you for your kind words.

Of course Tariq Jahan is an exceptional person. However, large numbers of less exceptional English Moslem males were prepared to listen to him and foreswear violent confrontation, despite their understandable rage and anguish.

Moreover, their community had been the victim of murder and mayhem and was not, in any way, the perpetrator. Does all this not tell us something about UK Moslems?

But, even if you insist on taking an alarmist view of the influence of Islam on Europe, the fact remains that not a single European country has a non-Western population of more than 5%, whilst, in the EU as a whole, all ‘non-European’ ethnicities combined make up less than 4% of the total. So ‘Eurabia’ it ain’t!

I’m less sanguine than Guerilla Surgeon about the outcome of the Egyptian elections and fear that it might herald the end of the 35 year old ‘Cold Peace’ with Israel, to the detriment of all the parties involved (including the Palestinians). And, obviously, the Arab Spring’s ability to deliver a better life for the region’s peoples would be nullified by such a development.

I similarly fear that cool heads will fail to prevail over the issue of Iranian nukes, with incalculably damaging consequences for the whole Middle East and beyond.

Even so, your vision of a depleted West confronting the surging hordes of the Crescent, without a Charles Martel, Lion-hearted Richard or John Sobieski to defend it, fails somehow to resonate.

The West is certainly depleted. But the Uma’a seems irrevocably split between Shia and Sunni as well as between radicals and conservatives. Moreover, the world’s first and third most populous Moslem countries, Indonesia and Bangladesh, are hardly cesspools of fundamentalist militancy. .

Meanwhile, for all its rough treatment of the Kurds, Turkey can claim to be something of an exemplar of moderate, outward-looking , democratic Islamism. Hopefully, the country’s economic weight and success will inspire others.

But, above all, the Islamic world is economically weak, with only two Moslem countries (Turkey and Indonesia) qualifying for G20 membership.

So, although there’s certainly no end of challenges to the prosperity, traditions and values of Western nations, at present, militant Islam hardly constitutes an existential threat thereto, other than as a source of terrorism.

More to come.......

Victor said...

...continuing previous post

May I add that I’m always wary of accounts of the Arab/Israeli conflict that paint it as a conflict between Judaism and Islam, let alone between Judeo-Christianity (if such exists)and Islam.

The original Zionists were mainly secular nationalists and many of the pioneers of Palestinian nationalism were of Christian origins (c.f. George Habash).

True, Israel’s religious right has, in recent decades, added a further level of deadly complexity to the conflict, as has the rise of Hamas and Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah. The Palestinian cause has, moreover, long held iconic status amongst Moslems across the globe.

However, the conflict is not ultimately about religion but about land, water, human dignity, perceived security and conflicting senses of nationhood. Not that this makes it any less agonising for either side.

Turning to broader matters, I would agree with you that the eighteenth century Enlightenment largely passed the Islamic world by.

However, the roots of a specifically western style of thought lie much deeper; in the ethical monotheism of the Middle East, in classical Greece philosophy and science and in the magnificent syntheses of these influences attempted during the proto-Renaissance of the twelfth century by (inter alia) Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Moses ben Maimon and Thomas Aquinas.

An account of our common western culture that excludes Islam is hardly, therefore, complete.

But, certainly, I would agree with you that we should try to face the perils of the future, whatsoever they might be, with ‘grace and truth’.

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

However, it would be perverse to think that he regularly contradicts himself, and calls the Jews his "Chosen People" in the Bible at one moment, and then capriciously sanctions the killing of jews in the Islamic Hadiths the next.

Well, the Torah and they Old Testament has some pretty savage stuff in it. That aside. I would say all the major scriptures have are no longer pure. They have been corrupted by interpolations. And the revelations were often specificaly directed at a particular group of people needing a certain approach to balance out the extremes of their behaviour.

There is no one way to approach God's truth. Peoples of different historical backround and culture need to be given it in a different way. This is the history of religious revelation.

I feel that Gods word on how to live in harmony with creation is so powerful that I would say very few people truly understand it. To live in the world is to be subject to corruption. God has reminded us time and time again, constantly changing the form and angle of the revelation without altering the internal message.

I think if you really study what all the religions have to say this is the kernel of it.

The Hadith that says "there is a Jew behind me, come kill him," comes from hadith collections considered reliable by Muslims, including Sahih ("sound," "reliable") Bukhari 4.52.177: "Allah's Apostle said, The Hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. 'O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him'."'

That is from the Hadiths. Anyone who has a cursory knowledge of Islam knows it is not considered holy scripture. It is a collection of reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammad written down by scholars 200 or so years ago after his death.

You may call this the 'Whitewashed BBC documentary' school of understanding Islam.

I'd say that's better than damning Islam as a cult of violence before even reading the whole Qur'an and coming up with half baked falsehoods about the religion.

'What was once 'Christian Europe', including Britain spent a thousand years going through terrible wars, persecutions, debates and bloodshed, to arrive at some basic 'truths' that we in the West now take for granted'

That 'Christian Europe' has arrived at that truth and is now going through terrible wars, persecutions, debates and bloodshed.

What is so superior about Christian civilisation, I still fail to see.

'In recent Egyptian elections, 75% of the population voted for Islamist parties (the Muslim Brotherhood) or hard core Islamic parties who would ban tourism, cover the Sphinhs as an idols, and repudiate the peace treaty with Israel.'

The majority of Islamic voters voted for the Brotherhood which is doesn't want even want to ban alcohol let alone tourism. One of it's election platforms was support for the tourism industry.

The Brotherhood want to hold a referendum on the peace treaty with Israel.

The Salafis want to keep the peace treaty with Israel.

Bear in mind that Salafi ideology, the ideology of al-Qaeda would have possibly never got off the ground if it wasn't for the wests support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

They were given their independence and western backing while loyal fighters who fought the Turks and adhered to a more traditional Islam were betrayed by the west and lost power.

Salafi ideology drains all the mercy and diversity within traditional Islam. It Slavishly follows the Hadiths without any scholarly authentication and debate and ruthlessly declares all sorts of more nuanced and tolerant Muslim branches apostates.

This is the type of Islam that has been given a hand up by the west.