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August 2012
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October 2012

Religion and Politics

Reading and writing about India, as I did a while ago, I asked myself why I never went there during my student travelling days. It was a popular destination for 1970s youth, so it would have been a natural thing to do.

Then I remembered: I didn't go to India because I went to America instead. I spent six months hitch-hiking up and down, coast to coast. Met all kinds of people, had long, stoned conversations in cars and trucks, and slept on floors in homes and dormitories. When I ran out of money I planted trees, worked in a theatre, also a bookshop. Memories I cherish. It was the right choice, and I'd do the same again. America has had such an impact on the world in my lifetime, in its technology, culture, geopolitics, and so much else, it has really helped me to have a sense of the place and the people. By now I feel a part of me even identifies as an American.

So right now, as an imaginary US citizen (and Democrat), I'm as engrossed with the election as I suppose most Americans themselves are. Bush supporters in 2004 were furious about leftie Brits, Frenchies, Germans etc. voicing their opinions, on the grounds that it's none of our damn business. But it so is. The thought of the return of the neo-cons, blundering around the world like big clumsy giants, keeps us awake at night.

That's not the only worry. I'm struck by how this election has brought two different ideas of religion into sharp relief. On the left it's a sort of inchoate social spirituality, visible in the commitment to tolerance, diversity, sharing and helping. I got a real sense of this from the Democrats Convention. On the evangelical Right, noisy religiosity mixes oddly with what seems at times like an unchristian and almost pathological lack of compassion, a determination to let the weak go to the wall. When Bill Clinton mused on the ability of many of Obama's opponents to intensely hate him - that really resonated.

There seems also to be an idea among some Republicans - how many? - that a Godless state cannot be a moral one. The sooner the constitution can be changed to help enshrine their moral prejudices in law, the better. If Romney wins it seems obvious - given his willingness to pander to the extremists - that his period in office could bring the would-be theocrats a little bit closer to the centre of power.

Clearly this isn't just an American phenomenon, which is why it's so scary. In Europe there's an assumption - on both sides of the political spectrum, still, I think - about the separation of church and state, that it's a good thing, tacitly accepted by everyone, and here to stay. I'm starting to think that it might not be so enduring after all. Religious feeling is growing exponentially everywhere else in the world, particularly in places like China and Africa, and that sort of popular idealism can develop enormous political power.

The story of the next half century could be the gradual submerging of secular humanism under a tide of quasi-religious movements. If that happens, then I don't think its far-fetched to imagine a future in which the politics in Western nations again centres on different faith ideas - who "God" is, how "He" demands that we behave, etc. In that regard, the willingness of so many people on the religious Right in America to ignore the experts, and make up a "science" that suits their prejudices, is deeply worrying. Science is a main pillar of secularity, and if populations no longer hold science in respect, then that support is gone.

I reassure myself with the thought that Americans, being the fierce individualists they are, will never go so far as to exchange the "tyranny of government" for the more obviously real tyranny of religious fundamentalism. I just wish they wouldn't flirt with it so dangerously.