Alex Barnett blog


On Politics (and Religion) in America

I've been asked recently by friends and family living in the UK about what it's like to be in the US during this election year and how I think it's going to go. Since I'm not a US citizen (I got my green card last summer) it will be another five years at least before I can earn the privilege to vote here, so won't be be able to cast a vote in November when this race comes to head.

But I do have observations and views on the matter. And since I'm being asked, I'll share them.


Before I share these observations and views, I want to make a few points.

The first is that my voting record in the UK has been non-existent. I've never felt motivated enough to go to the ballot box, a fact I'm not proud of. I'm coming to realize I've been immature and ignorant in this regard. My recent increased political interest is partly due to the fact I'm raising a son, so am thinking more about what the world might be like when he grows up.

The second point to make before I share my views on the US elections is that I don't consider myself either strongly left or right leaning. You might say that I'm an independent, a moderate, observing the US elections here with no particular axe to grind and that my current political views (developed over the last three years of my living in the states) have been developed without a strongly biased starting point.

The third point is this: although this is my personal blog, I have felt uncomfortable discussing politics and / religion) here, feeling that the discussion of these topics is best left to private conversations offline. I'd like to break out of that habit, a little at least. So with that preamble, here goes...

I Care

Since moving to the states over three years ago, my interest in politics has certainly increased, to the point now where if I could vote this year, I would. Given the current administration's general behaviour over the last few years (including the mishandling of the war) and more talk of recession, I'd need to be brain dead not to care about the future of America's domestic political environment and relationship with the rest of the world. I intend to become a US citizen when I have the opportunity and to raise my son here, so I really do care about America's prospects.

My bottom line conclusion on the current state of affairs of the US political scene is that it needs change, urgently. The US elections can't come too soon.

The Candidates

I'm assuming the Republican race is a done deal and that McCain will be one of the two horses running for the next presidency. Given what I heard during the Republican debates, I think that's probably good thing. I wasn't a fan of McCain from the beginning of the race, and I still wouldn't describe myself as a huge fan of his today. However, given the alternative candidates presented it seems the Republicans have actually given themselves a chance of putting up a good fight for the next presidential elections. He's comes across as sensible chap with sensible policies. The fact the extreme right wing media has been frothing at the mouth in reaction to McCain's Republican nomination win is probably a good sign :-)

On the Democratic side, the race is still neck and neck, but for me there is a clear favorite, and it's not Clinton. Let me explain why.

The Elephant in the Room

I have a particular perspective on what I think would be good for the future of America and it's political relationship with the rest of the world.

This perspective comes from the following observation of the domestic political scene here: the biggest long term challenge Americans must figure out in order for them to meet the other big challenges and issues (economy, education, foreign policy, war on terror, civil rights, immigration, etc) is the issue of the relationship between the political system and religion in America.

I happen to believe democracies require a clear separation between church and state in order for the system to work for all its citizens as best as it can. Surprisingly for me at least, this premise does not appear to be a given in America. In fact, it seems to me this critical separation is in danger and the danger requires to be addressed explicitly by its politicians right now. I've seen very little evidence of this.

Equating Faith with Patriotism

The scariest meme I have come across since living in the US is the notion of equating of Faith with Patriotism, i.e. you can’t be a “good American” if you don’t believe in God.

The inherent danger in this concept is not the fact that America's majority are religious, but the fact that there are so many different religions and faiths followed here. If you follow the logic path of: "in order to be “good American” you need to believe in God", then the next question is: which Faith and who decides? And where does that leave the secular?

It's now I turn to Barack Obama, who in this speech ("A Call for Renewal" delivered in 2006) discussed the issue of the relationship between religion and US politics head on (transcript here, video here). The following point illustrates the concern I'm trying to get at here:

"the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?"

The point is that it should be the religious who should be fighting for the separation of church and state as much as the non-religious. It is in the interest of the religious to do so.

It seems to me that this point has been completely overlooked by those with faith who are trying to force closer ties between religion and politics.

Obama goes on:

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing."

My point here is that I can't find any similar concerns or views expressed by either Clinton (who appears to shy away from the topic of religion and politics in America) or McCain on this topic, and I think this topic matters a great deal.

It needs to be discussed - in the open - by the presidential candidates because it is at the heart of how Americans ought to decide policy. It's no good for the Democrats to pretend the issue will go away and simply wish that the religious views of America's population will not and should not affect politics.

I'll quote Obama again:

“In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.”

As I mentioned, this is not a new speech, but I was really excited to find when I did (last week). I don't think Obama's views here are an extreme perspective on the matter of religion and politics - he's not calling for an either / or proposition. It's a pragmatic view, not held by secularist, but by a man of faith.

America needs to rally and unify around common ideals and upon on common ground. It seems to me the country needs repair from the fracturing that's been caused for all the wrong reasons.

What I have come to observed is that religion actually has a much bigger part to play in American politics than I realized before I came to the states. The fact is this country has a religious majority - a fact that will remain for a long while. But the fact that the formulation of who votes for whom is strongly correlated by a) which Faith you follow and b) whether you have faith at all, is not a healthy state of political affairs. I think Obama has the potential to help the country heal in this respect.

The Good News

The good news is this - however the cards play of through November, I think America will be presented with two good candidates. In either Obama or Clinton and McCain, the choices presented will be a vast improvement on the status quo and what might have been.

But If I Had to Choose?

Strategically speaking, without the religious / political healing required as I've tried to describe here, I can't see how America can fulfil its amazing potential. That's why if I could vote, unless Clinton or McCain begin to address this issue head-on in the next few months with sincerity, I think I'd have go with Obama for this reason alone.

Now, flame me :-)


Tommy Williams said:

That speech of Senator Obama's is the one that made his appeal concrete to me. Before that, I had been drawn to him for his qualities as a statesman and orator. But to see this nuanced view and a willingness not only to try to express complicated ideas but to succeed at doing so made it certain.

# February 13, 2008 10:23 AM

TrackBack said:

Alex Barnett is someone who writes...

# February 13, 2008 10:54 AM

Nick Bradbury said:

You won't get flamed by me, Alex - this was an excellent post.

# February 13, 2008 1:54 PM

MB said:

From the perspective of a kiwi living in the US (I married a US citizen two years ago) I couldn't agree more!

Religion does seem to play a much larger part in government here than I realised before moving here, but I can't help and wonder whether it is just a very vocal minority who are driving the policy.

I just can't believe that the majority of Americans don't care about issues like heathcare for the poor. I mean geeze, I thought one of the major pillars of religion was compassion!! But then the issue gets warped by a few vocal political "authorities" and the next thing you know you aren't a true Christian if you are voting for something like universal health care!

I find politics here to be so.... unique. Everyone seems to blame the media, yet a large percentage of the general population continues to lap up "media" like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as if it is an absolute authority.

One way to look at is that only half of eligible voters vote, and around half of them voted for Bush - so at the absolute most, only 1/4 of the country agrees with him!

# February 14, 2008 8:54 AM

MB said:

Ps - A good example - water boarding!

This should be an absolute no brainer for anyone who is remotely religious, but you are anti-American if you don't believe torture can be used to protect the country....

# February 14, 2008 8:58 AM

alexbarnett said:


re: media - just to put rating numbers on the shows / channels you mentioned.

Fox News - 3 million daily (see ) - around 1.8% of total adult population

Rush Limbaugh - 13 million weekly (see ) around 7.8% of total adult population

# February 14, 2008 11:41 AM