The Almighty and U.S. Elections

Barack Obama made sure his eyes looked unblinking into the TV camera as he said:  “I believe (in)  —  Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him.”  Barely an hour later, John McCain said from the very same platform (into the same television cameras) that being a follower of Christ “means I’m saved and forgiven. We’re talking about the world. Our faith encompasses not just the United States but the world.” Whatever it means to Obama and McCain, it means God is alive and well and a frontrunner in US election campaigns.

Both Presidential candidates were confessing their faith to Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church. This was in mid-August and their first major public appearance on the same platform – though not together but one immediately after the other. Both were reaching audiences of millions, but were basically aiming at a large religious constituency. Both knew what they had to say and how to say it.  Neither had a problem with the idea that two potential presidents of the United States could submit themselves to interviews and (absolution?) on a religious platform of one faith.

It is of course legitimate for candidates to harbor religious beliefs. It is also true that this was probably the first among modern nations to have a written constitution making a strong and sharp separation of church and state.  Among the founders of the United States were those who had seen religious persecution in Europe. Hence their wall between Church and State. It’s precisely that separation that begins to erode in such public displays of faith.

Let’s suppose this had happened in, say, Pakistan. Say Zardari and Sharif  or whoever, had had their opening debate at the Grand Mosque. You’d never have heard the end of it in the US media. It would have been the ‘aha’ proof, if any were needed, of religious zealotry, bigotry, fundamentalism and the rest of it.  Here though, the swamp of analysis in the mainstream media that followed the Saddleback event had no such conclusions to draw. Not even in mild, diluted terms.

The media not only fear  (and sometimes suck up to) the religious right, they also factor in what they see as vital sensitivities  of their audiences.  For all its world leader status and excellence in scientific research, far more people in this country believe in the Devil than in Darwin, as one late 2007 poll put it.  Belief in (literal) Hell and the Devil was firm amongst 62 per cent of those surveyed. Darwin, complete with evolution / ‘natural selection’  clocked in with a poor 42 per cent. (About the same as Obama’s rating in his latest polls.)

Also noteworthy: 79 per cent believed in miracles, 75 per cent in heaven. Witches and UFOs draw roughly the same score, with about a third of the populace believing in them. The UFOs have it by a short head among the general population  35 per cent against 31 per cent for witches. But witches outclass UFOs amongst born again Christians  –  amongst whom Darwin fares worse than both, with a mere 16 per cent. (You’ve got to hand it to the Harris pollsters. Someday, someone must pull off this exercise at the level of the Indian political class with its godmen and tantriks.)

The religious (and spiritual-moral) motif in the US presidential race extends far beyond Saddleback, though. And not just in terms of prayers at the Conventions of both Republicans and Democrats. The choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate had a lot to do with it, too.  It was a move aimed at getting  unhappy Evangelicals to board the McCain bandwagon. To that extent, it’s even a move that has worked, apart from putting the Obama camp into confusion and despondency. The more so since the Democrats have tried hard to broaden their base amongst ‘faith voters’ for some time now.

This is partly based on the dangerous  and fragile notion that the Left-inclined, the anti-Bush voters,  those angry over the economy will vote Democrat anyway. So let’s target the ‘faith voters’ a bit more.

Religious writers and religious correspondents of the daily did spot this even before the Democrats held their Convention in Denver. They pointed to the fact that the party had a new “faith caucus” and was throwing up themes like: “Faith in 2009. How an Obama Administration will Engage People of Faith.”  Of course, the religious events at their events were billed as “inter-faith” services, but their scope was more Christian than anything else. Of course, Jewish sentiments and votes are also an important factor in US elections.

Other religions have made disastrous forays into US Presidential races. None more humbling than the debacle of year 2000, when several Muslim leaders and bodies decided and declared that the best candidate for Muslims was a George W. Bush.  As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Religion Writer points out: ” The decision was heavily influenced by Bush’s public declaration to end the use of secret evidence in immigration cases, a form of racial profiling, that disproportionately affected Muslims. Muslim leaders touted the fact that the bloc vote delivered thousands of extra Bush votes in Florida, where Bush’s margin was in the hundreds.”  The rest is history.

Demonizing Muslims and Islam has multiplied manifold since then. The Hillary Clinton campaign did not lag far behind the McCain one when it came to reminding people that Obama’s middle name is Hussein. Even while being given a mudbath on that one, Obama faced flak from the media for his association with  his  –  Christian  –  pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright holds what in the US media  are “controversial” views  —  like saying that 9/11 was a result of the USA’s own terrorism elsewhere.  Obama quickly distanced himself  from his pastor. Now, the Democrats wait, hoping that Sarah Palin’s church and pastor will do her some damage. They could be hoping in vain. True, a recent sermon there said that bomb blasts and suicide attacks directed at Israel were punishment for the Jews not converting to Christianity. But outrageous statements on the Right get off more lightly than the mildest criticisms from elsewhere. God and the media  favor the Big Battalions.

In India, we do have the Bharatiya Janata Party that has worked hard, consciously and pretty explicitly at suffusing every sphere of activity with religion –  that is, their Brahmanical brand of Hinduism In government, in education –  and even in and with the Army, it has spared no effort to whip up religiosity and carry God all the way to the voting booth. While it has made significant advances in all these efforts,  it gets more complex at election time.  Inflation will be a much bigger God in the next election and the BJP will seat him high up on their pantheon. Sickening amounts of  blood has been spilt in the name of God. But God in this avatar always faces challenge and criticism. Other parties of the Hindu Right, like the Shiv Sena, would have a very poor base if their radical religious rhetoric were not also pinned on to issues of regional identity and fears of discrimination against “sons-of-the-soil” in jobs and positions of authority. There have been coalitions, even at the Centre, with no major religious motif.  And there have been several movements and parties, essentially atheistic, that have come to power in the states on non-religious platforms. Far more Muslims have voted to send Communists to parliament than to seat candidates of the Muslim League there. And while drawing wide conclusions from it would be very wrong  –  you still do have  an upper caste Hindu woman for President, a Sikh as Prime Minister, a Dalit as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and an atheist as Speaker of the nation’s parliament. As complex and confusing as it gets, though perhaps logical when politics is seen as a mix of so many  diverse streams.

Here in America, the first modern state to legally separate church and state, it’s different. God moves in a strange way his wonders to perform. And sometimes, during elections, for instance, it really leaves you wondering.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This fall he is giving a course at UC Berkeley. He can be reached at:

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P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org