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

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge