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How to make America great again

How to make America great again

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George Romney – father of the 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt – once said that his own run of the Republican candidacy in 1967/68 was “like a mini skirt: short and revealing”.

This presidential election has not been short, but the conventional wisdom is that it has been revealing – hidden misogyny, xenophobia and nativism crawling out from under the rocks of shame, boldly declaring themselves with Trump’s encouragement.

That this is the point at which most commentators start is not an insignificant part of the problem. America may have knocked Clinton out, but the liberal Democratic establishment must recognise that it threw the first punch. Rather than opting to engage with those outside of her base, Clinton declared them a “basket of deplorables” (a real ‘zinger’, but a tag in which Trump supporters came to ironically revel) and organized a Jay-Z concert. Who rejected whom?

It’s certainly true that nearly half of America (and much of the rest of the world) is waking up today and wondering what the hell the other half thought that it was doing, but our first reaction should not be to catastrophize. As with Brexit, deep divides have been uncovered and threaten to widen still further. But America was culturally, politically, and psychologically divided a year ago. It is divided today. And it will be divided tomorrow. If there is a more moderate future – a wiser, more compassionate, humane and internationalist future – it will not be brought about by continuing on existing trajectories, but by developing clearer and better answers to the kinds of questions which are now at the heart of politics (on both sides of the pond).

By history and tradition, religion was exactly the kind of centripetal force in public life that could assist in creating such a future. For Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, it was one of the ‘habits of the heart’ that strengthened and undergirded the American instinct for democracy and common life: “Religion in America,” said de Tocqueville, “takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it”. It offered a tempering influence on the centrifugal forces of individualism and materialism: “certain primary principles are laid down, and the boldest conceptions are subjected to certain forms which retard and stop their completion”.

Which prompts the question, what happened?  No-one could look at America now and claim that religion, as a whole, is a stabilising force. According to Gallup, three of the four most undesirable traits in Presidential candidates relate to religious identity – US voters are least likely to be willing to vote for a socialist (50 per cent said that they would never ‘go there’), but 40 per cent would never vote for an atheist, and 38 per cent would never vote for a Muslim. A surpirsing 25 per cent would not vote for an evangelical Christian. Catholics and Jews fare better, but it’s clear that religion is part and parcel of the deep division and mistrust.

The answer is not that American religion started to subvert politics, but that American religion – in its progressive and conservative moods – came to be subverted by politics. Conservative (white) evangelicals and Catholics faithfully line up behind the Republican option, hoping to get what they can on abortion and religious freedom. Liberal churches and leaders do the same with whichever Democrat. Both overly rely on their Party, expecting social salvation to come when the right man or woman takes up residence in the White House. For years, few have given the impression that they are drawing on or offering anything which transcends the social, demographic and economic divides. Rather, they have simply reflected them.

This is my prediction: that many evangelicals will think that they have got what they want, looking forward in particular to the prospect of a conservative leaning Supreme Court. They may well get that, but their issues are not Trump’s issues, and on religious freedom, family values, abortion I suspect he will disappoint them. Nonetheless, they will continue to think from the outside in, imagining that the power of the Presidency will vindicate their support of such a man and their alignment with Republican politics over a generation. They will long cling to the idea that some kind of victory was won on 8 November 2016.

This is my hope: that many others will embark on a process of disentangling their faith from the Republican Party – there is some evidence that some Catholics and evangelicals have already begun so to do. They will still be conservative, and the issues which lay close to their heart will not have changed. Their politics will be more religious rather than less, but they will think from the inside of their faith outwards, and wonder how a faith composed of ‘every tribe and tongue’ could have aligned itself with rising ethno-nationalism. They will refocus not on the good of their tribe, and recognise that the task of the church in the earthly city is to reach and work for the common good, not to try to transform it into the City of God.

Today will be the kind of day when many lurid and exaggerated things are said, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the future health of American democracy depends, in large part, on hope being better than predictions.

Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos

Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0


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