How would Jesus vote?

The 2008 US presidential election pits Baptist against Mormon, Methodist against evangelical. Who ge

To use a favourite American acronym, WWJD - What Would Jesus Do - in this year's presi dential election? For which candidate would Jesus vote in a country that is supposed to be 83 per cent Christian? For Senator Barack Obama, perhaps, a biracial yuppie who is a member of a self-described "unashamedly black" and "un asham edly Christian" church? Even if the house magazine of that church voted last year to give an award to a man it said "truly epitomised greatness": Louis Farrakhan, leader since 1978 of the Nation of Islam, a veteran anti-Semite who describes white people as "blue-eyed devils" and Jews as "bloodsuckers" who control everything? Would the fact that Obama has now disassociated himself from the award make any difference?

Or might Jesus pull his lever, touch the computer screen or tick his ballot paper beside the name of the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney - a devout believer in a religion which supposedly holds that the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve first got together was actually in, er, Missouri? And that when Jesus returns to reign over the world he will not only do so from Jerusalem, but also reappear in Jackson County?

Maybe Jesus would prefer the former Arkan sas governor Mike Huckabee, also an ordained Southern Baptist minister, who jokes that the 16 people he had executed while governor "would hardly say I'm soft on crime"? Or Senator John McCain, a self-confessed adulterer shot down over Saigon while bombing a city in which he knew that men, women and children were living? Perhaps Senator Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist churchgoer who was once an avid supporter of the extreme right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who wanted to nuke Moscow and believed that pov erty was proof of bad character?

I could go on, but won't. This is a complicated presidential election. I have always held that America is an infinitely more complex country than most Britons realise. Its religious attitudes and the inherent contradictions of its professed Christianity are uniquely American; the descriptions above of the 2008 US presidential candidates, for instance, may sound like surrealist musings, but they are all factually based. The only surprise is that while the media have been frantically trying to whip up the issues of racism (Barack) and sexism (Hillary) this year, there have been few of the usual squabbles over God or religion in the campaign so far.

The prime reason for this, I suspect, is that, thanks to the diabolical manoeuvrings of Karl Rove et al, voters in 2000 and 2004 were conned into believing they were voting for a man of strong Christian principles and "values", but instead found themselves landed with George W Bush. The Republicans thus twice hit the jackpot by using Rove's magic formula, repeatedly appropriating godly righteousness and using that mantra "v-word".

But Hillary Clinton, among others, vowed that in 2008 the Democrats would "take back" religion; the result is that we may well be witnessing the beginning of the end of the so-called "Christian right". Symbolically, Reverend Jerry Falwell - far-right king of the televangelists and founder of the hugely influential Moral Majority movement, which was crucial in propelling both Ronald Reagan and George W Bush into the White House - died suddenly last May, and there has been no stampede to fill his shoes.

Most amazingly of all, it is the Democrats who have so far been able to project themselves as evangelicals in the 2008 campaign, while the Republicans come over as secularists: Clinton, Obama and Edwards have each been married only once, to take a simplistic example, but at the start of the campaign the Republican candidates had been married on average 2.7 times.

To the irritation of many Democrats, John Kerry - a practising Catholic in a country where a quarter of the population is also Catholic - was painfully reluctant even to mention his faith in the 2004 campaign, while Bush was shamelessly gathering votes by Bible-thumping away. But Hillary Clinton now freely describes how she was sustained during the Lewinsky saga by "prayer warriors"; John Edwards tells how he "strayed away from the Lord" but his faith "came roaring back" when his 16-year-old son was killed; Obama literally preaches about tearing down the walls of Jericho at Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, his accent and rhetorical flourishes morphing effortlessly into those of King himself.

How times change, then. The only Republican playing the Christian card in this campaign, not surprisingly, is Reverend Huckabee - and he, as a result, has almost certainly put himself out of the running. He won the Republican caucus in Iowa, where 40 per cent of Republican voters describe themselves as evangelicals, and that put a fatal fire in his belly. First, he and his supporters launched nasty attacks on Romney, a Mormon, by putting it about that Mormons are not true Christians. Then he decreed that the US constitution should be amended "so it's up to God's standards" - the arbiter of God's standards presumably being Arkansas's former executioner himself.

To the countless Republicans who regard the holiness of the US constitution as inextricable from the Bible, that has not gone down well. Therein, in fact, lies the central contradiction inherent in the uneasy mix of American politics and religion. The constitution's famous First Amendment, ratified in 1791, forbids Congress from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion" - yet it would be politically suicidal, more than two centuries later, for any presidential aspirant to declare him or herself to be a non-believer. Indeed, 61 per cent of Americans say they would simply not vote for a candidate who does not believe in God.

The unresolved paradox in all this is that trillions of pennies carried in every American pocket and handbag proudly proclaim that "In God We Trust". No presidential speech ever ends with words other than "God bless America". But in whose God are Americans supposed to believe? A Jewish one? An Islamic one? The knee-jerk belief in America's "manifest destiny" - that God made a covenant with its people to lead the rest of the world and it can therefore, literally, do no wrong - remains pervasive, justifying everything from the original extermination of Native Americans and the 19th-century "expansionism" into Mexico to the 21st-century occupation of Iraq. Just as God was an Englishman when Britain was the world's imperial superpower, so He is now, indubitably, an American.

Enter Mitt Romney, and it all becomes much more complicated. Religious freedom, he says, is "fundamental to America's greatness" - but just as John F Kennedy felt compelled to plead with Americans in 1960 that it would be acceptable for their president to be a Catholic, so Romney is being forced in this campaign to argue that a Mormon would also be OK. "No authorities in my church . . . will ever exert influence on presidential decisions," said Romney in December, echoing JFK's reassurances that the Vatican would not take over the US.

But with Huckabee's piety threatening him daily, Romney felt he could not leave it at that. "Americans acknowledge that [religious] liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government," he said, neatly personifying his country's unresolved confusions. "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom," he went on, managing to slip in adverse comparisons between feckless European secularism and redoubtably strong American faith.

But faith in what? There are dangerous people about, Romney ploughed on, who are "intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism". Eh? Finally, he made the unequivocal declaration he clearly feels necessary if he is to be perceived by the American electorate as an acceptable US president 217 years after that constitutional amendment: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the saviour of mankind."

The problem facing Romney in his quest for the White House is that because Mormons were persecuted in the 19th century, they became increasingly secretive and defensive about exactly what they do believe. A very familiar Washington-area landmark is "the Mormon temple" that glistens alongside the city's notorious Beltway - but only Church elders (not even rank-and-file Mormons) have a clue what's inside. Polygamy was banned by the Church in 1890, but the FBI (it's interested in this kind of thing) estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 of America's 5.8 million Mormons still practise it. A USA Today/Gallup poll found that only 72 per cent of Americans would be willing to vote for a qualified candidate who was a Mormon; a black person or a woman was much more acceptable.

All of which, I am beginning to suspect, could make this a landmark election that will put America's religious freedom and tolerance to the test every bit as much as its attitudes towards race and gender. McCain (an Anglican-turned-Baptist, incidentally) is, as I write, the Republican front-runner - but Romney is closing in on him. Should McCain fade in this most unpredictable of elections, we will be left with a 60-year-old female Methodist candidate who has already spent two controversial terms in the White House, a 46-year-old biracial Christian with a Muslim middle name, and a 60-year-old near-billionaire Mormon whose seemingly strange religious beliefs are shrouded in secrecy.

Yet being a Christian in America tends not to mean what it means elsewhere: the poor, the meek, the merciful, the hungry and the pure-hearted don't get much of a look-in, I'm afraid. Huckabee's tally of 16 executions looks pretty pathetic when compared to the 142 kills George W Bush managed to chalk up while he was governor of Texas, and look where that got Bush. And Obama and Romney are committed to increasing the size of the US military. So WWJD, then? Pray for America, I think.

God and me

Philip Pullman, novelist

What does “God” mean? Given that theologians themselves are still debating the matter, it would be presumptuous of an unbeliever to answer. I'll wait until they're all agreed, and then consider the verdict with interest. It still won't bring him into existence. As for whether he exists or not, I don't agree with those who say that any sentence containing the word "God" must be meaningless, because something doesn't have to exist in order to have meaning: mathematicians, for example, make great use of the square root of -1. So I suppose (anticipating the answer of the united theologians) that what the term "God" means is whatever you can make that term do; but that would merely mean that he was useful, not necessarily that he existed.

Has God ever spoken to you? No.

Where would we be without God? In one sense, exactly where we are now. In another sense, many things would be different - including the entire history of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds.

Jon Snow, broadcaster

What does "God" mean? Anything.

Has God ever spoken to you? Not that I know of.

Where would we be without God? In a dreadful state . . . It's a great comfort to have someone to grieve to or blame, or even thank, when things go wrong and right.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster