From roughly the time of Ronald Reagan, Republican politicians understood the electoral advantages of “doing God”. The Democrats have now cottoned on, and both contenders for the presidency are keen to speak about their faith.
Hillary Clinton is a lifelong Methodist, proud of being able to trace her roots back to Bristol and the influence of the Wesleys. “I would hear stories that my grandfather had heard from his parents, who heard them from their parents, who were all involved in the great Evangelical movement that swept England,” she said.
It is often presumed that because Mrs Clinton is emphatically pro-choice on the divisive question of abortion, she is at odds with her Church. In fact, the United Methodist Church, to which she belongs, is in favour of legalised abortion. As the author Paul Kengor puts it in God and Hillary Clinton: A spiritual life (HarperCollins, 2007): “The degree to which she matches her Church on social concerns is uncanny.”
Barack Obama is cut from very different cloth, with a Muslim/atheist father and a humanist mother, whom he describes as having “a healthy scepticism about organised religion”. Yet Mr Obama’s early work as a community organiser in Chicago led him to join the Trinity United Church of Christ.
It was there he had a conversion experience: “The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But, kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth.”
Since then, Obama has been seen in some of the most influential pulpits in the United States, including, most controversially, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, which is hallowed ground for the new touchy-feely Evangelicals.
It is all part of a sustained campaign to articulate a religious faith at ease with progressive politics. “When we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume we will be unwelcome, others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith,” said Mr Obama. “If we don’t reach out to Evangelical Christians and other religious Americans, and tell them what we stand for, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons will continue to hold sway.”
It is vitally important that the language of faith is freed from its captivity to the political agenda of the Republican right. The Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee is still in the race for the Republican nomination — just. But he is yesterday’s man. Clinton and Obama are helping to restore a much-needed balance in the theo-politics of the US.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.
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