Why you shouldn't write Sarah Palin off

The rise of Rick Warren and the mega-church Bible Belt has boosted Palin's presidential ambitions.

"Everybody sing ee-oo," declaims the clean-cut thirtysomething at the front of the vast auditorium. Ten thousand Californian voices respond. Over a backing of soaring power chords, the soloist launches into an ecstatic, 1980s-style anthem: "If you're alive and you've been redeemed,/Rise and sing, rise and sing."

Pastor Rick Warren, America's most im­portant religious leader since Billy Graham, emerges from the wings, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, a trimmed CEO beard and a little more weight than his doctor might recommend. When he speaks, his words are as warm as the Orange County sunshine: the homily is a practical one, advising fathers to pay their children more attention. On gigantic television screens, Jesus on the cross tells John to look after His mother when he dies.

This talent for presenting simple biblical lessons for a suburban age is behind The Purpose-Driven Life, Warren's book detailing his 40-day plan for "Christian living in the 21st century", which is on the shelf of almost every evange­lical household in the US. It has become one of the bestselling non-fiction hardbacks in American history, turning the pastor into a sort of spiritual Oprah, with trademarked books and podcasts and appearances at Wal-Mart. Warren's face has been on the cover of Time; and he was chosen to offer the prayers at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Warren set up Saddleback Church in 1980, selecting the location - Lake Forest, a suburb of McMansions and shopping malls - for its transient but growing population. That first Easter Sunday, 200 attended; Saddleback has since grown into a sprawling, 120-acre campus with an average weekend attendance of 22,000. Once, the stereotype of evangelicals as Southern, rural and poor might have been true. Now, they are far more likely to be college-educated, upwardly mobile professionals.

Sixty miles south of Los Angeles, Saddle-back is one of the mega-churches (those with at least 2,000 congregants) that make up the stretch between LA and San Diego known as the "southern Californian Bible Belt". In its grounds, information booths carry maps directing visitors to several white marquees that offer different styles of worship; there are burbling crystal fountains and a baptismal pool that looks like it belongs in an upmarket spa. The teenagers' area, meanwhile, is deliberately scuffed-looking. It contains a big wall display on Aids in Africa - the issue over which Warren has had his greatest impact on evangelicals.

Aids has largely either been ignored by American evangelical churches or treated as a punishment from God. Warren's views are closely aligned with those of the conventional religious right in many areas - in 2004, he said that stem-cell research was "non-negotiable" and compared abortion to a "holocaust".

Yet, a year earlier, he had attended a church conference in South Africa with his wife, Kay. She was recovering from cancer and was keen to adopt a big cause. "So we went out to this little village and found this tent church," he has said. "It had 50 adults and 25 kids orphaned by Aids." He has since joined the Bono/Bill Gates philanthropy club, despatching 7,500 volunteers from Saddleback to developing countries. "I'll work with anyone to stop Aids - Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist," he says. "That really makes the fundamentalists mad."

Fresh blood

When I visit his office at Saddleback, David Chrzan, Warren's chief of staff, says that the media are looking to appoint Warren as the fundamentalist-in-chief. "But Rick would say outright that he's not the leader of the religious right. He doesn't want to be," Chrzan says. "The bottom line is that everyone needs a saviour - Republican, Democrat or Tea Partier.

“Over the past two or three decades, the church became so associated with the Republicans. Now, people are saying: 'Hey, we are for the church - we are not just two-issue people interested in homosexuality and abortion.'" In a 2005 survey of evangelical pastors, 51 per cent said that their congregation was predominantly conservative. By 2008, depressed by Bush's unpopularity in his final years, that figure had fallen to 33 per cent.

There is little evidence that evangelicals are any less agitated about abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage. But since the recession, moral issues have dropped down the priority list. At Saddleback, too much government, not too little, is blamed for California's disastrous financial state. "Government got greedy," a pas­tor in Ray-Bans and a leather jacket tells me, "and started taxing business too much."

Most members seem to whistle the old tunes of the right even as they display new-found concern for Africa's dispossessed. Like the Tea Partiers, they are as dismissive of many long-serving Republicans as they are of Democrats and echo the call for "fresh blood" in Washington. "If Palin becomes a viable candidate, they might see her as one of their own - an evangelical person who might get to the White House," warns Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

So progressives who predict the defanging of the Christian right should remember that we have been here before. Ten years ago, a former heavy drinker who had found Jesus ran for the presidency, promising a compassionate and consensual brand of evangelical politics.

We all know what happened next.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times