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

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile