By Syed Amir
24 January, 2012
THE separation of religion and state is grounded in the first amendment of the US constitution and has long been recognised as a guiding principle. Thomas Jefferson, the third president and author of the declaration of independence, characterised it as the wall of separation between church and state.
Yet, many conservative elements among the clergy and politicians have never acknowledged it, claiming that such separation is neither absolute nor was envisaged by the founders of the republic.
Constitutional nuances aside, unlike most European countries where it is no longer a potent political force, religion exerts a significant influence in contemporary American politics. In the US, over 78 per cent of the population identifies itself as Christian. In its 250-year history, America has had 44 presidents, including President Obama. All have been Christians of various denominations, even though some of the illustrious ones — Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, William Taft — were at times accused of being non-observant. Because of this homogeneity, the religious affiliations of US presidents have rarely evoked much controversy.
Religion became an election issue for the first time during the candidacy of president John Kennedy in 1960, since he was a Roman Catholic. He, however, defused the issue by pledging that his religious beliefs would have no bearing on his decisions as president. Religion as a factor surfaced again four years ago, when some opponents of candidate Obama misrepresented him as a closet Muslim. The story was soon quashed. Son of a Kenyan Muslim father, Obama was raised as a Christian by his white maternal grandparents.
Currently, the US is preparing for the November presidential elections. The first step is the choice of a nominee for each of the two main political parties, Democrat and Republican. Since Obama is a Democrat seeking re-election, no one in his party is challenging him. In contrast, the Republican Party has an open field.
The weak economy, high unemployment rate and budgetary deficits have raised the perception that Obama may be vulnerable, greatly energising his potential adversaries. Competition for the Republican nomination has been intense, the discourse often bitter and divisive. In one state alone, South Carolina, the candidates and their supporters have spent a combined sum of $11.3m on TV advertisements.
A number of factors are likely to affect the final outcome of the elections. In recent decades, the influence of religious conservative parties has grown phenomenally, much like many countries of the world, including Pakistan and Egypt. They are playing a crucial role in the US elections, especially in the race for the Republican nomination. The Republican Party has turned increasingly conservative in recent years, drawing support from a mostly affluent, white, religious electorate.
Members of the so-called Tea Party and evangelical Christians have emerged as the two most influential components of the conservative movement. Both groups have overlapping membership and political platforms.
The Tea Party, named after the protest movement initiated against the British in Boston in 1773, advocates a small federal government, draconian cuts in federal budget and drastic reduction in social programmes, such as retirement benefits and medical coverage for the elderly. Evangelical Christians are fundamentalist Protestants that are concentrated mainly in the southern states. They are stridently opposed to birth control, including any form of abortion, gay rights and blindly support Israel, based on their interpretation of the Bible. They also hold uninformed and hostile views about Muslims and Islam.
The first three states to hold their primary elections were Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in that order. Recognising the influence of the Christian evangelicals, almost all Republican contestants have tried hard to outdo each other in flouting their conservative and religious credentials. They profess their undying love for Israel, and their passionate opposition to abortion and gay rights.
The first race in Iowa started with nine Republican candidates. Claiming to be most committed among them were Newt Gingrich, a former speaker, Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania and Michele Bachmann, congresswomen from Minnesota.
The most conservative and religious fundamentalist, Santorum, won the election, while Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire Mormon and former governor of Massachusetts, emerged as the winner in New Hampshire. At that stage, five contestants dropped out, having performed poorly. Until recently, Mitt Romney had a commanding lead in opinion polls in South Carolina, and was considered a sure bet to win the state. However, he has a serious drawback. He belongs to the Mormon church and, while they consider themselves Christians, some others, especially evangelicals, do not recognise them as such.
The Mormon church was founded in the 1820s by Joseph Smith, considered a prophet by Mormons. Concentrated in the state of Utah, they share the belief in Christ and the Bible with mainstream Christians, but in addition to the Bible they also have their own books of revelations.
Over the past week, Romney’s once formidable lead in South Carolina evaporated and, in a stunning reversal, Gingrich defeated him in the Jan 21 primary. A converted Catholic, Gingrich has been married three times and stories of his serial marital infidelities have been much in the news. Paradoxically, many of the religiously conservative electorate, some 60 per cent in South Carolina, overlooked these flaws and handed him a major victory. We don’t know what role Romney’s Mormon faith played in his defeat.
The primary elections for the Republican nominee are far from over and 47 states are yet to vote. The interminable, contentious primary elections battles are likely to benefit President Obama, as the Republican contender may have exhausted himself by the time of the national elections. Meanwhile, President Obama also has to overcome his unique disadvantage — African-American, Kenyan-Islamic ancestry.