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
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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution