Too much of a God thing

Should American politicians revisit their assumption that God is necessarily a vote-winner?

After a political season dominated by questions of religion to an extent unusual even in the United States, it appears that Americans may finally have had enough. Polling data released yesterday by the Pew Foundation points to a huge increase in the number of US citizens who complain that their politicians are too eager to talk God.

In 2001, a mere 12 per cent were turned off by politicians doing God. It's now 38 per cent, and rising. As you might expect, the feeling is especially strong among Democrat voters. Fifty two per cent agreed with the statement that there are "too many" expressions of religious faith and prayer by political leaders. President Obama has, after all, been the target of much faith-based criticism from the leading Republican candidates, whether it's Mitt Romney damning his "secular agenda" or Rick Santorum muttering darkly about his "phony theology". But a significant minority of Republican sympathisers feel the same way -- 27 per cent. The feeling is stronger among Romney supporters, a third of whom would welcome less religious talk from politicians.

On the other hand, 40 per cent of Republicans apparently believe that politicians should talk even more about religion. It's hard to know what would satisfy them; unless, of course, they were just joining in with the Santorum line on Obama. A clear majority -- 55 per cent -- of his supporters are in the "too little" camp, as opposed to under a quarter of Romney-ites. This looks like further evidence that Santorum appeals to a very particular (and committed) subset of the electorate: enough to make him look a serious challenger to a Romney nomination but unlikely to be much help to him if he wants to win the all-important centre ground.

Among mainstream (as opposed to Evangelical) Protestants, white Catholics and (less surprisingly) the religiously unaffiliated, there has been a noticeable increase in the past year in the proportion saying that there has been too much discussion of religion by political leaders. This looks like a reaction to the way in which the campaign has played out so far.

An even more striking finding is that almost two-thirds of Democrat voters and almost half of Republicans (but including 57 per cent of Romney supporters) think that churches should as much as possible keep out of politics. The poll was carried out earlier this month, coinciding with the Catholic Church's campaign against the administration's proposed requirement for all insurance schemes to provide birth control.

The Church has sought to base its arguments on the constitutional principle of freedom of religion rather than on its longstanding opposition to contraception per se, a manoeuvre that has not convinced everybody. (Democrat Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi called it "an excuse".) Another recent poll, by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that most Americans did not believe that there was a threat to religious liberty in the country (although significant majorities of Evangelical Protestants and Tea Party members did). There continue to be majorities in favour of forcing religiously-affiliated hospitals and colleges to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees, including a majority of Catholics. The Church leadership's campaign may well have alienated as many people as it has won over.

Another interesting finding of the PRR poll is that a majority of Americans favour legalising same-sex marriage, including 59 per cent of Catholics (a higher proportion than in the population as a whole).

Taken together, these findings suggest that the picture of America that increasingly comes across on the campaign trail, as a devout nation ever-more demanding of public displays of religiosity from its political leaders, may be significantly wide of the mark. It may be a long time before an avowed atheist stands much chance of being elected President. But most Americans see the value of the constitutional separation of church and state, and any politician -- or, for that matter, church leader -- tramples on it at their peril.

Too much of a God thing. Photo: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood