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The rise of dominionism

How a religious movement is making US liberals nervous.

One of the most striking differences between the United States and Britain is our attitude to religion. The UK is more secular than the US, with views about society, religion and the role of the state nearer to those found in other western European nations and Canada than in the US. The gulf is deep as well as wide. For instance, 60 per cent of Americans believe that the poor are lazy, compared to 26 per cent of Europeans.

Since the end of the Second World War, secularisation has grown in tandem with social modernisation in Europe - a development that some political scientists link to the rise in existential security which accompanied the maturation of welfare states (see Sacred and Secular by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart). A poll conducted for the Economist found that even British Conservatives are more secular than US Democrats. Under 40 per cent of Britons believe that there is a God; yet 80 per cent of Americans do.

The free exercise of religion is given even higher priority than freedom of speech in the first words of the US Bill of Rights, designed in part to free the country from the clutches of the Church of England. This manifests itself in the extraordinary (to a European) proliferation of churches in small US towns, where Catholics jostle with Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and orthodox Anglicans.

Blind faith

In a country where eight out of ten people say they belong to a religion and six out of ten pray weekly or more often, it is hard for politicians to be too religious. Despite the official secularisation of the state, US presidents have long sought to derive legitimacy from God, as well as from the people - and not only Republican presidents. John F Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961 ended: "Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that, here on earth, God's work must truly be our own." At his inauguration in 2009, Barack Obama spoke of "the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny".

Bill Clinton memorably used a White House prayer breakfast to apologise for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, declaring that he had sinned and repented: "I ask you to share my prayer that God will search me and know my heart, try me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any hurtfulness in me and lead me toward the life everlasting. I ask that God give me a clean heart, let me walk by faith and not sight." Imagine a British politician speaking like that.

On second thoughts, don't - you might invite images of Tony Blair attending baptisms, swathed in white robes. Even in a country as religious as the US, the current line-up of Republican presidential hopefuls is causing some alarm. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are evangelical Christians and Rick Santorum is a conservative Catholic. In August, a profile of Bachmann in the New Yorker that traced her religious influences to a school of evangelical thought called dominionism sparked nervousness among liberals.

Followers of dominionism, in its soft form, believe that Christians should reassert control over political institutions. In its hardest form, it demands the replacement of secular government with Old Testament law. It is derived from Genesis 1:26: "And God said, 'Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'"

One would have thought that there were few alarming religious surprises left in a potential presidential candidate who fasted for three days, asking God whether she should run for Congress; who has advised followers to "be hot for the Lord"; and who once declared: "When we are on fire for Jesus, we can change the world in His name!" Apparently there are.

Some liberals have noted that extreme Christian religions welcome wars and destruction that signal a coming rapture and the return of Christ. When the first reports emerged about Rick Perry's dominionist supporters, Bill Keller in the New York Times demanded that candidates be asked questions about their faith, such as: "Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that the US is a 'Christian nation' or a 'Judaeo-Christian nation'? And what does that mean in practice?" Or, "Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?"

Politics of sin

On religious issues, as in politics, US opinion is polarising. Detailed research published in 2010 in American Grace by Robert Putnam and David E Campbell has shown the nation separating into ardent secularists and the highly religious.

The religious generally vote Republican, due to the party's positions on abortion and gay marriage (eight out of ten born-again Christians and two-thirds of white Protestants voted for George W Bush in 2004). The moderates have been squeezed, first by the rise in evangelicalism and now by an increase in secularism, which has occurred as a counter-reaction. In 1973, evangelicals and those with no religion accounted for 30 per cent of the US population; by 2008, the two extremes comprised 41 per cent.

Putnam and Campbell take a largely benevolent view, noting that religious identities are fluid, with roughly 35-40 per cent of Americans switching from their parents' religion at some point, and that interfaith marriage is on the rise. Putnam was raised as an observant Methodist and converted to Judaism on getting married.

To a western European, the shrinking of the moderates is far more alarming. At Tea Party rallies, I have heard the idea of government conflated with sinfulness. It is hard to see how a nation divided between those who think religion has no place in government and those who believe religion demands the destruction of secular government can be governable at all.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.