To non-Americans, it seems odd that in a country which built the separation of church and state so firmly into its constitution, religion is deep-grained in every presidential election. This does not, of course, take the form of any church or religious organisation bidding for political power, though like many secular interests they would like to influence certain decisions if they could. But the religious affiliation and views of candidates have long mattered to voters to a degree that does not apply here.
Even that is now changing as the United States remakes itself through immigration from countries beyond Europe and a birth rate which last year, for the first time, added more children of minorities – Hispanics, blacks, Asians, mixed-race – than whites. And this year, for the first time, there is no white Anglo-Saxon Protestant candidate standing for president or vice-president. Instead the US has a Mormon pitched against an African-American Protestant for president, and two Catholics challenging for the vice-presidency.
In a matching development, the Supreme Court bench has nary a Wasp in sight. It currently comprises six Catholics and three Jews. The Founding Fathers, deist and Protestant almost to a man, would be astounded.
Whether those trends are seen as good, bad, or indifferent will depend on each person’s religious and political perspective, though they hardly reflect the make-up of the electorate at large. Whether that matters, given the separation of church and state, is another issue.
Religion, however, is still highly relevant. According to surveys, most Americans say it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. And despite the institutional separation, the understandings, values and world-views of candidates, inevitably influenced by the kind of faith they profess, must colour their approach to the issues.
Among Christians, the key differences used to be defined largely by denomination. A Protestant would oppose a Catholic almost on principle, a hurdle which Catholic John F Kennedy only just surmounted in 1960. And where Mitt Romney would once have been a non-starter because of his Mormon faith, a survey last August showed 60 per cent of voters to be comfortable with that, with only 19 per cent finding it a problem.
Since the 1980s a new mosaic has taken shape in which denomination matters less than moral values. People of every religion and none find they share conservative values centred on personal morality, or liberal values focused on broader social and environmental issues. One fascinating consequence of this divide is that in a nation that exalts freedom above all else, the word “liberal”, which means free, has become for conservatives a term of abuse in both politics and theology.
Politics imbued with religion has deep roots in American history. For many Americans it shows in a sense of destiny as a people uniquely favoured by God, a nation set above all others, “the hope of the earth,” Romney said this week. Such divine blessing must then be repaid with moral earnestness – and if need be, moralistic repression.
The Puritan colonists laid the foundations for these attitudes nearly 400 years ago. They have resurfaced periodically in spiritual awakenings, religious fundamentalism, and then the emergence of the Religious Right as a potent political force. Its leaders want to “take back America”, meaning bring it under their moral control.
This evangelical Protestant movement has found common cause with conservative Catholics, otherwise hardly their bedfellows. Both are profoundly disquieted by the erosion of traditional moral values, which they blame on secular liberalism. Instead they promote a “culture of life”, and organise like any other lobby to advance it.
That means opposing abortion, a role for women beyond family life, equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, “big government” encroaching on their freedoms (including the regulation of schooling), health and welfare programmes, and outsiders such as the United Nations and an assertive Islam. Insecurity in a changing world breeds fear and hate. These are powerful motivators in getting people out to vote.
Of course moral earnestness is not necessarily a bad thing – it got rid of slavery – but as a church billboard once said: “Morality without love is a source of evil in the world.” You know it’s love when it enlarges another’s freedom, maturity and responsibility. However, political campaigns have never been love-fests, and the current one looks especially visceral. The pity of it is that the Religious Right has helped make it so. Barack Obama could win without them. Romney could only win with them. “Taking back America” could end up taking America backward.