Making sense of religion in America

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
18 Oct 2007

God’s Own Country: Tales from the Bible Belt by Stephen Bates, Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.

Stephen Bates’ analysis will be a huge disappointment to those hoping that when George W. Bush departs the Oval Office, religion will accompany him.

At the last presidential election, whether a person regularly attended a church was more important in determining their vote than age, gender, income, or where they lived. Many have offered explanations for this rise of the Religious Right. Others have studied the formative role of Christianity in US history. This book combines both to uncover the characteristics found deep in the American psyche which help to explain the dominant position religion occupies in US politics today.

Beginning with the Pilgrim Fathers, Bates shows quite how ingrained the belief is, that the country is set apart, and specially chosen by God. Crucially however, he challenges the idea that the first white settlers set out to establish freedom of religion. Whilst some were undoubtedly fleeing religious persecution, they carried with them the oppressive values of Christendom, and soon set about creating ‘theocracies of the like-minded’. The old world’s scale of punishment for Sabbath breakers, sodomites and adulterers, was imposed on the new.

Such habits die hard says Bates, most obviously amongst the more extreme Reconstructionists who would like to see the Ten Commandments reintroduced into US law. But the paranoia of the Salem Witch trials, and the moralising of the Prohibition years, are also alive and well in their more moderate brethren (and they are usually men).

The secularisation thesis has proposed that the modernization of society would mean a decline in religion’s power. The example of the US has confounded its proponents, who have had to treat the country as an anomaly. But Bates demystifies how the world’s most developed country can be so apparently backward in its political ideas. He offers a convincing cultural explanation for why the religious influence continues so strongly, and indeed why it has grown so strongly during the last few decades.

Barry Goldwater, a rather inept republican candidate, was heavily defeated in 1964. Supported by Ronald Reagan amongst others, all but one of the states he won were in the South – which had not elected Republicans since the Civil War. The Southerners had liked his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, his emphasis on low tax and small government, and his fight against a ban on school prayer.

With messianic resonances, the party may have been crucified, but the victory had been won. A seismic change took place in the voting habits of the North and the South. Previously divided religious groups, from Catholics to Calvinists, united in defeat and built on the new power base. In 1972, Nixon won a landslide victory, taking the support of 86% of Southern churchgoers.

In God’s Own Country Bates explains how the Religious Right’s agenda has since broadened beyond abortion, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity to include Darfur and Iraq. Their enemy has changed too, from ‘godless’ communism to Islam (although for many there is still a secular humanist conspiracy at work) as the US has found a new post 9/11 identity as the world’s saviour. But he also demonstrates how theology has shaped their political views. The idea held by some Evangelicals, that the world must get progressively worse until apocalyptic disaster strikes and Jesus returns in terrible judgement, helps to explain the previous unwillingness to address climate change.

By Bates own admission this is not a scholarly work, but one of a journalist - and it is richer for it. He has been able to gain interviews with most of the main figures from the Religious Right. He has tracked the links between organisations and their funders, and uncovered their theo-political agendas in a way that an academic might not be motivated to do.

But it is not all doom and gloom for those hoping for a different future for US politics. Bates’ colourful examples of the Religious Right’s excesses paint a dramatic scene that may overstate the bigger picture. He even suggests that the UK among others could soon follow the US lead. Others predict it is more likely that the US is lagging one or two generations behind, and religious power will soon have had its day.

Time will tell who is right. But for anyone wanting to make sense of the religious influence on US politics right now, this is a must-read.

Buy the book via Ekklesia here.

Jonathan Bartley is co-director of the think tank Ekklesia. This review first appeared in The Guardian.

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