God's Own Country - Religion and Politics in the USA

Stephen Bates (2007), Hodder & Stoughton, London
388 pages;  Ł9.99.  ISBN: 978 0341 90927 0

Gods Own Country by Stephen Bates

Stephen Bates was, for seven years, the Guardian’s award-winning religious affairs correspondent.  Does that qualify him to write a book such as this?  Not necessarily!  According to the Church Times, ‘Bates’s [sic] account of American religious life is detailed, accurate and engaging …’  Not entirely!

Why is the US so different from the UK?
Bates attempts to answer the question that every wide-eyed visitor to America asks: how come the US is so different, especially in terms of its religious life, from the UK?  Common genetic stock, history, language, TV, films and music do not supply a sufficient answer.

Alexis de Tocqueville recognised the contrast back in the 1830s, ‘There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.’  Even that pugnacious old atheist, H. L. Menken, saw it in 1925, when he famously wrote, ‘Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.’  Now, in 2008, the hit rate would be even higher.

The facts and figures fascinate.  On any Sunday in the UK, church attendance is a mere 6 per cent and falling, whereas in the US it is 40 per cent and rising (Bates, ever the bright spark, draws our attention (p. 8) to the fact that an even greater proportion, a thumping 44 per cent of Southern US households, owns a gun!).  Moreover, white evangelicals make up nearly a quarter of the electorate, and 70 per cent of them voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.  Yes, US religion and politics are undoubtedly wedded.

Or think of UK and US politics.  Bates recalls (p. 33) the episode when Tony Blair wanted to end a televised statement on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003 with the words, ‘God bless’, his adviser, Alistair Campbell, famously retorted, ‘We don’t do God.’  By contrast, it would be entirely inconceivable for a US president not to give such a benediction.  The Oval Office does what No. 10 dare not.  Yep, US religion and politics are undeniably wedded.

Bates believes (p. 349) that there is another factor at work here too, ‘… a large part of the reason for the vibrancy of US Christianity: it does not have an established Church to bolster the social and moral structure of the state and membership of its religions is a matter of individual choice.’  Yep, we may be similar, but yes sirree, we are also different.

When did it all start?
Bates considers (p. 300) that these differences stretch way back into history, ‘The potency of the American Religious right did not begin with the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, or even with the rise of the Moral Majority in reaction to the licentiousness of the 1960s … Many of its features – the attitudes of mind, the style of its preachers, the role of religion in its government … have been present in US society since its foundation.’

And that is where the book starts – with the Pilgrim Fathers, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  There are some surprises here for those who believe that America was somehow set apart, chosen by God and founded on grand Christian principles.  Listen (p. 88) to the second US President, John Adams, who declared, ‘… the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’  Or hear that polymath and influential Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, ‘Lighthouses are more useful than churches’.  Or read the greatly-venerated Thomas Jefferson, third President and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, ‘Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.’  Strange, since the Declaration states,’… that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …’

The truth is that while nearly all of the Founding Fathers claimed to be Christians, most were mere deists and many were Freemasons.  In terms of orthodoxy, hardly any of them, at least, according to Bates, were true evangelical believers – though he grants that Richard Bassett and Roger Sherman probably were.  Though Thomas Jefferson identified himself with the Episcopalians, he was, first and foremost, a man of the Enlightenment.  Bates recounts (p. 89) the story of Jefferson, late at night in his hilltop home of Monticello, cutting out passages from his Bible on the virgin birth, resurrection, Trinity, and the miracles in order to compile his own credible version.

So Bates (p. 90) shatters those rose-tinted spectacles and concludes that this wistful view of America’s genesis, ‘This God-shaped hole has given modern members of the Religious Right, keen to assert America’s Christian origins, something of a problem in recent years.’  But then Americans can be ever so folksy at times.  In common with Bates, most visitors (and I lived and travelled in the US for two years) come to recognise that, ‘Americans often appear to see the world filtered through their own uniquely introspective perspective’ (p. 276), as though all other nations are on the road to becoming American.

Yet none can deny that Christianity has had, and still does have, a formative role in the history of the most powerful nation on the Earth.  Today’s US evangelicals possess a dynamic energy and a fervour for political engagement not seen in any other country.  ‘Why?’ is the question Bates sets out to answer on his journey through US history, as well as his travels across the Bible Belt, and his numerous interviews with (at least, those he considers to be) strategic players.

The book’s weaknesses
The book’s, and hence Bates’, primary weakness is a failure to grasp the essentials of historic, orthodox Christianity and in particular to understand evangelicals – this is crucial since the book is chiefly about the Protestant religion.  Bates has elsewhere defined conservative evangelicals as, ‘… the ones who do not hesitate to tell that nice, Guardian-reading, self-designated hairy lefty, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, that he's a false teacher and a heretic.  They noisily assert that they wouldn't allow him in their churches to preach because he would only confuse their congregations with wrong doctrine.’ (New Statesman, 10 April 2008).  Amusing, but somewhat inadequate.

Perhaps this deficiency is not surprising – Bates is a Roman Catholic, with a self-confessed ‘lost faith’, though he is married to ‘a devoted evangelical’, his wife, Alice.  Nevertheless, it is apparent that neither has provided him with much insight into the evangelical mindset.  Long, long ago, a wise Christian minister warned me never to take seriously the criticisms of the church by outsiders – they simply do not, and cannot, comprehend its nature or purpose, he asserted.

And Bates is an outsider.  For example, he has little idea about the differences between fundamentalists, charismatics, evangelicals and pentecostals, or even between sects and denominations.  Bates is bewildered.  He surrenders and unsatisfactorily sums it up thus (p. 142), ’There are several strands to this idea [fundamentalism], a term that is now sprayed about liberally to apply, often erroneously, to just about all evangelical Christians and indeed adherents of other religions.’

Bates is additionally confused.  Listen to some of his assertions.  At least half a dozen times he tosses in ‘Christian Reconstructionism’ as if it were a key determinant of US evangelicalism, yet nowhere does he bother to define it sufficiently.  And though the name of its instigator, R. J. Rushdoony, recurs, none of his books appears in the extensive bibliography.  Moreover, Bates describes (p. 249) Francis Schaeffer as, ‘… a man influenced by Christian Reconstructionism ...’  No he wasn’t!

There are other clues to Bates’ misunderstandings.  For instance, he repeatedly states that, ‘God created the Earth in seven days’ or that, ‘the host’ is part of the Lord’s supper.  And his analysis is not always sufficiently sharp, as, for example, in commenting on the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909.  Bates suggests (p. 145) an undiminished popularity, that it, ‘… has been in use in conservative churches and their Sunday schools ever since.’  No it has not – you find me a church that uses it today.  His confusions extend outside religion too.  For instance, there is a section (pp. 309) on stem cell technology, embryonic versus adult, and Bates simply wheels out the old trite phrases in favour of the former – so he is not only confused, but out of date too.

The awkward parade
Such a book inevitably has to include the awkward parade of the usual latter-day, evangelical Aunt Sallys – the hideous tele-evangelists, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, followed by the big mouths, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye and even the quiet but influential, James Dobson and James D. Kennedy.  These men have largely had their day, indeed, some have already died!  But who does Bates rank as today’s prominent conservative evangelical leaders?  OK, Rick Warren is mentioned, but there is no John Piper or John MacArthur to be seen, and not much of Charles Colson either.  Instead, Bates settles for the repugnant money-making Bishop Thomas Dexter (T. D.) Jakes and the theologically candyfloss Joel Olsteen – in 2007, the latter was apparently named as, ‘the most influential Christian in the USA.’  Help!

Of course, Billy Graham deserves a mention – and he gets one.  Bates recognises (p. 232) Graham’s accomplishments, ‘He certainly obtained the most conversions – a persuasiveness that may have been partly attributable to a summer vacation selling Fuller brushes door to door.’  And, ‘Graham’s has not generally been an exclusive gospel ...’ (p. 233), but rather ‘... an orthodox four-pointed message.’ (p. 234).  That is fairly fair.

The religious conservative movement
Another major theme of the author is the historical development of the religious conservative movement in the US political realm – we should all grasp something of this in order not to repeat some of its modern-day blunders.

Bates' opinion (p. 239) is that, ‘US conservatives usually date the start of their resurgence as a political force’ from the 1964 presidential election when Barry Goldwater, a right-wing politician if ever there was one, was defeated.  And were these conservatives green!  One of Charles Colson’s jobs as aide to Richard Nixon during the 1970s, and before he became a Christian, was to ‘romance’ evangelical leaders, ‘I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups we worked with’ (p. 242).

Eventually the Moral Majority was formed, a name suggested by the Roman Catholic Paul Weyrich at a meeting with the Revd. Jerry Falwell at the Lynchburg Holiday Inn.  Founded in 1979, it would, in Jerry Falwell’s words be, ‘pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral and pro-American.’ (p. 249).  It was THE evangelical group pressure that flourished in the 1980s.  Since then, it has often been pointed out that it was neither ‘moral’, nor ‘a majority’ and according to Bates (p. 251) it, '... sometimes appeared brash and naďve, or even stupid.’  Perhaps that is not too harsh an assessment when you read its figurehead's, Jerry Falwell’s, public declarations, such as, ‘I don’t know why every one of our Presidents thinks he has to wine and dine every drunk who comes over here from some other country and dance with his wife … if a President is a good Christian, he can offer that foreign head of state some orange juice ... have a good minister come in and read a few verses of Scripture and, if he doesn’t like that, put him on the next plane home’ (p. 251).

Time moved on and it was in 1988 when the notable evangelist Pat Robertson failed in his attempt to become the 41st president of the United States.  So, in 1989, early in the Bush Senior presidency, Robinson devised a plan B and recruited a twenty-eight year-old supporter named Ralph Reed.  Reed organised a new rank and file organisation called the Christian Coalition.  It was a powerful force during the 1990s and its website even now boasts that it is still, ‘the largest conservative grassroots political organization in America.’  At its peak it had a membership of 1.2m, now this has apparently dwindled to just 30,000.

The Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition waxed and waned and metamorphosed into the broader so-called Religious Right.  By the 2004 election, ‘Protestant evangelicals of the Religious Right, whose forebears would have nothing to do with Catholics, were quite prepared to make common cause on such an issue [abortion] in order to discomfort the Democratic candidate [John Kerry]’ (p. 208).  ‘In time, the two movements, hitherto mutually suspicious and antagonistic, would find common cause in pursuing their social agenda, to create a formidable voting block’ (p. 213).  It worked – they certainly got George W. back into the White House.  And the clout goes on.  ‘In the mid-term elections of 2006, exit polls showed that 70 per cent of the born-again voted Republican’ (p. 350).

The abortion issue
Bates rightly centres on abortion as THE hot-button political issue and rallying point for US evangelicals.  He explains it (p. 288) thus, ‘In the USA abortion remains a running sore.  This is partly because it was decided judicially rather than democratically.’  And, ‘The irony is that Roe v. Wade was settled almost in a fit of absentmindedness by the vote of seven of the nine justices’ (p. 289).

Bates is additionally informative (p. 288), ‘… it was the first prominent issue to twin Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants.’  Now, ‘For the first time in the Supreme Court’s history, five of its nine members are Roman Catholics’ (p. 291).  And (p. 294), ‘… Republican presidents have been in power for twenty-two of the thirty-four years since the Supreme Court’s decision.’  Yet, despite all this and the fact that, ‘… those most opposed to abortion are young, white, evangelical Protestants (p. 297), and notwithstanding numerous presidential promises, Roe v. Wade remains stubbornly intact.

The sweep of the book
The breadth of the book is captivating and instructive, if not always constructive.  Bates continues his excursion through the chronicles of US church affairs and along the way takes pot-shots at, for example, the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial at Dayton, Ohio in 1925, which he describes (p. 154) as, ‘… a pivotal event in modern US history: the earliest, and still the most politicised, legal clash between the forces of religious conservatism and those of science and secular modernity.’

Nevertheless, Bates’ appraisal (p. 158) is that, ‘The real issue therefore was not evolution, but the boosting of Dayton’ because apparently a few bright incomers saw it as an opportunity to rescue Dayton from obscurity.  However, the world media saw it differently, descended on 'Monkey Town' and vilified William Jennings Bryan, a failed Democratic presidential nominee and defender of the Bible, who saw this as an opportunity for a populist crusade.  Bryan may have declared (p. 160) that, ‘The Rock of Ages was more important than the ages of rock’, but he lost the trial.  ‘Bryan finally admitted that the literal truth of the Bible was conditional; that it could be interpreted’ (p. 167).  Bates poignantly notes (p. 170) that four days later, ‘After lunch he retired for a nap and died in his sleep.’

This leads into a discussion of Intelligent Design.  This, in the words of Bates (p. 154), ‘… has sprung up as a secular-friendly version of the Bible story’, arising in the late 1980s, ‘in response to a Supreme Court ruling that the teaching of creation science was unconstitutional since it amounted to the promotion of a religion’ (p. 189).

This, and much else, is all riveting stuff and Bates has an easy style.  His understanding and judgments may, on occasions, be questionable, but he has a flair for narrative.  Among the other targets at which he lobs brickbats are the prohibitionists (‘Prohibition, the noble experiment, abandoned as a disastrous failure in 1933.’ (p. 231)), the premillenialists, the creationists, the pro-lifers, the Armageddonists, and so on.  Of course, these are beloved soft targets for an ex-Guardian journalist even though they, or rather their oft-times wacky advocates, deserve a good hanging out to dry – Bates tends not to spare them.

The insights of the book
The book is a readable romp through US political and religious history.  And Bates, though often confused by his lack of ‘insider’ knowledge concerning evangelical Christianity, does capture and record some astute ‘outsider’ synopses.  For instance, he sums up (p. 137) that tension between evangelical pietism and social action as, ‘Was evangelicalism meant to transform individual lives, or to change the world?’  Or again, reflecting on the confused and confusing actions of some fundamentalists, he observes (p. 230) that they were, ‘… splitting into wildly antagonistic exclusivist groups, between those who wanted to work within society and those who wished to withdraw from it.’

Or, reflecting on the rollercoaster nature of US politics and the enduring friction between the majority of evangelicals and the Democrats, Bates states (p. 247) that, ‘In 1976, a genuine evangelical [Jimmy Carter] was elected to the White House.  The trouble was, he was a Democrat with socially progressive ideas.’  And that uneasy relationship lingers.  For example, though many conservatives recognised the limitations of George W. Bush, he was still an evangelical and a Republican – ‘one of us’.  On the other hand, although Bill Clinton aligned himself with the Southern Baptists, he was still a Democrat.  And in 2000, Bates maintains (p. 267), ‘the electorate wanted someone who was not Bill Clinton.’

Other things I learned
Of course, there are other lessons I learned from this book.  First, I discovered three nice new words: condign (well-deserved), conniption (hysterical excitement) and jeremiad (lamentation) – I shall certainly use them when and where appropriate!

Second, I was unaware that the catch-all term ‘fundamentalist’ was originally derived from a set of twelve paperback booklets, published at the turn of the last century.  Known as The Fundamentals, three million copies were funded by two Californian oil millionaires, Lyman and Milton Stewart, for free distribution.  These booklets set out the fundamental truths of Christianity with the aim of countering the ever-increasing attacks from liberal theology and higher criticism.  The tag simply stuck.

Third, geographically, though these religious conservatives are in the mainstream – they are (p. 18), ‘… disproportionately located in the Southern states, the South-west and the suburbs.  These are the fastest growing areas of the USA.’  Furthermore (p. 18), ‘… the geographical centre of the US population is moving south and west at the rate of 3 feet an hour.’  Indeed, Christianity is on a global march as Bates notes (p. 335), ‘World religion is becoming increasingly conservative and moving south.’

Fourth, there is another type of demographic creep at work.  In the US, ‘… the age of physical sexual maturity, now in the low teens, is advancing by three months every ten years, while the average age at which couples marry is now the highest it has ever been: about twenty-five years and three months, and rising’ (p. 300).  Bates asks the secular humanist’s predictable question, ‘How can they abstain for that long time?’  The answer is, evidently they can’t - the average age of first sexual intercourse in the US is now between 16 and 17.  And what follows is Bates’ version of the liberal mantra that ‘teaching abstinence does not work.’

Fifth, and still on the reproductive theme, the Revd Dr Richard Land, a big noise among the Southern Baptists, is documented for an attention-grabbing comment (p. 40).  He considers that the future for conservative evangelicals within the political arena is bright because, ‘Republicans were outbreeding Democrats because the latter were aborting their children …’  That is not a very gracious remark, is it?

And lastly, I am looking forward to the 2008 presidential election on Tuesday 4 November – I've already noted it in my diary.  Two things are certain, the Bush era will come to an end and there will be either a president Obama or a president McCain.  I shall be checking the outcome and voting patterns with renewed interest and comprehension.

And finally
Finally, I have to admit that mine was a free copy – I doubt if I would ever pick up and pay for this book.  Nevertheless, I found it profitable.  But then almost any book falls into that dull category.  More positively, it taught me something, expanded my horizons and exercised my critical faculties.  Stephen Bates has a view on religion and politics in the USA, and so do I.  On many topics we agree, on several subjects we differ, and on a few issues we disagree entirely.  But then he wrote the book, I merely read it.

For me the ringing message  of the book is this: our US evangelical brethren tend to construct no false division between religion and politics – nor should we.  If faith is worth anything, then it affects all of life, domestic and professional, religious and political.  If Jesus Christ is Saviour, He is also Lord, of every aspect of our lives – ‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’ [I Corinthians 10:31].

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