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The almighty and the electorate

P. Sainath

Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain had a problem with the idea that two potential Presidents of the U.S. could submit themselves to very public interviews on a religious platform.

Barack Obama made sure his eyes looked unblinking into the television camera as he said: “I believe Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him.” Barely an hour later, John McCain said from the very same platform (into the same television cameras) that being a follower of Christ “means I’m saved and forgiven. We’re talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States but the world.”

Both presidential candidates were confessing their faith to Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church. This was in mid-August and their first major public event on the same platform — though they did not appear together. They were interviewed one immediately after the other by the good pastor. They were reaching audiences of millions, but were basically aiming at a large religious constituency. Both knew what they had to say and how to say it. Neither had a problem with the idea that two potential Presidents of the U.S. could submit themselves to very public interviews (and seek absolution?) on a religious platform of one faith.

It is of course legitimate for candidates to harbour religious beliefs. It is also true that the U.S. was probably the first among modern nations to have a written Constitution making a strong and sharp separation of the church and the state. Among the founders of the USA were those who had seen religious persecution in Europe. Hence their wall between the church and the state. It is precisely that separation that begins to erode in such public displays of faith.

Let’s suppose this had happened in, say, Pakistan. Let’s say Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif or whoever, had had their opening debate moderated by mullahs at a mosque. You’d never have heard the end of it in the U.S. media. It would have been the ‘aha’ proof, if any were needed, of religious zealotry, bigotry, fundamentalism and the rest of it. In the U.S. though, the swamp of analysis in the mainstream media that followed the Saddleback event had no such conclusions to draw. Not even in mild, diluted terms.

Media fear

The media not only fear (and sometimes suck up to) the religious right, they also factor in what they see as vital sensitivities of their audiences. For all its world leader status and excellence in scientific research, far more people in America believe in the Devil than in Darwin, as one late 2007 poll put it. Belief in (literal) hell and the devil was firm amongst 62 per cent of those surveyed. Darwin, complete with evolution/‘natural selection’ and the rest of it, clocked in with a poor 42 per cent. (About the same as Mr. Obama’s rating in his latest polls.)

Also noteworthy: 79 per cent believed in miracles, 75 per cent in (a literal) heaven. Witches and UFOs drew roughly the same score, with about a third of Americans believing in them. The UFOs have it by a short head among the general population — 35 per cent against 31 per cent for witches. But witches outclass UFOs amongst born-again Christians — with whom Darwin fares worse than both, logging a mere 16 per cent. (You’ve got to hand it to the Harris pollsters. Someday, someone must pull off this exercise at the level of the Indian political class with its godmen and tantriks and yagnas.)

The religious (and spiritual-moral) motif in the U.S. presidential race extends far beyond Saddleback, though. And not just in terms of prayers at the Conventions of both Republicans and Democrats. The choice of Sarah Palin as Mr. McCain’s running mate had a lot to do with it, too. It was a move aimed at getting unhappy Evangelicals to board the McCain bandwagon. To that extent, it’s a move that has worked. It has also delivered the Republicans the added benefit of throwing the Obama camp into disarray and despondency. The more so since the Democrats have tried hard to broaden their base amongst ‘faith voters’ for some time now.

This effort is partly based on the dangerous and fragile notion that the Left-inclined, the anti-Bush voters, those angry over the economy will vote Democrat anyway. So let’s target the ‘faith voters’ a bit more.

Religious writers and religious correspondents did spot this even before the Democrats held their Convention in Denver. They pointed to the fact that the party had a new “faith caucus” and was throwing up themes like: “Faith in 2009. How an Obama Administration will Engage People of Faith.” True, the religious events at their Conventions were billed as “inter-faith” services but their scope was more Christian than anything else. And, of course, Jewish sentiments and votes are also an important factor in U.S. elections.

Other religions have made disastrous forays into U.S. presidential races. Nothing was more awful than the debacle of year 2000, when several Muslim leaders and bodies decided and declared that the best candidate for Muslims was George W. Bush. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Religion Writer points out: “The decision was heavily influenced by Bush’s public declaration to end the use of secret evidence in immigration cases, a form of racial profiling, that disproportionately affected Muslims. Muslim leaders touted the fact that the bloc vote delivered thousands of extra Bush votes in Florida, where Bush’s margin was in the hundreds.” The rest is history.

Demonising Muslims

Demonising Muslims and Islam has multiplied manifold since then. The Hillary Clinton campaign did not lag far behind the McCain one when it came to reminding people that Mr. Obama’s middle name is Hussein. Even while being given a mudbath on that one, Mr. Obama faced flak from the media for his association with his — Christian — pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The Rev. Wright holds what to the U.S. media are “controversial” views — like saying that 9/11 was a result of the U.S.’ own terrorism elsewhere. Mr. Obama quickly distanced himself from his pastor. Now, the Democrats wait, hoping that Sarah Palin’s controversial church and pastor will do her some damage. They could be hoping in vain. True, a recent sermon at her church held that bomb blasts and suicide attacks directed at Israel were punishment for the Jews not converting to Christianity. But outrageous statements on the Right get off far more lightly than the mildest criticisms from elsewhere.

In India, we do have the Bharatiya Janata Party that has worked hard, consciously and pretty explicitly, at suffusing every sphere of activity with religion. That is, with its Brahminical brand of Hinduism. In government, in education — and even in and with the Army, it has spared no effort to whip up religiosity and carry God all the way to the voting booth. While it has made significant advances in all these efforts, it gets more complex at election time. Inflation will be a much bigger God in the next polls and the BJP will seat him high up on its pantheon. Sickening amounts of blood have been spilt in the name of God and in the claim of votes. But God’s electoral avatar always faces challenge and criticism.

Other parties of the Hindu Right, like the Shiv Sena, would have a very poor base if their radical religious rhetoric were not also pinned on to issues of regional identity. As also to fears of discrimination against “sons-of-the-soil” in jobs and in positions of authority. Besides, caste has time and again stymied God in the Indian polls. There have been coalitions, even at the Centre, with no major religious motif. And there have been several movements and parties, essentially atheistic, which have come to power in the States on non-religious platforms. Far more Muslims have voted to send Communists to Parliament than to seat candidates of the Muslim League there. And while drawing wide conclusions from it would be very wrong — you still do have a Hindu woman for President, a Muslim as Vice-President, a Sikh as Prime Minister, a Dalit as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and an atheist as Speaker of the nation’s Parliament. That’s apart from the fact that the leader of the country’s ruling party is a Christian. As complex and confusing as it gets. Though perhaps logical when politics is seen as a mix of so many diverse streams. In the U.S. — the first modern nation to legally separate the church and the state — it’s different.

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