Progressive Revival

    “Of course,” Patricia told me,
leaning in close, “of course English people don’t even like the Scottish.”
Patricia, the funny, perceptive, activist wife of a progressive Church of
England vicar, made a face. ” I have no idea if you’ll be able to elect Obama,” she said.
“We’d never vote for a Scot for high office;  so I’m not convinced white people here would ever elect a
black man.”

    In talking about religion, race,
and politics this week with British voters of different ages and backgrounds,
I’ve come to believe again, albeit with some light rolling of the eyes, in
American exceptionalism. But I’ve also come to see the ways in which the image
of America–its faith and its politics—carries meaning for English (and, to
some extent) European Christians.

    For the last week, I’ve been in
England to work with “emerging” postmodern Christians of all denominations.
This is, of course, a country with a state religion, ubiquitous churches and
mosques, and a powerful evangelical movement; but the spectacle of religion as
part of electoral politics is almost entirely absent here. Paul and his wife
Jeni,  a young Christian couple who work in
management, were appalled by the way American candidates proclaim their faith.
Jeni describes herself as English -“and I love it! I like the queen, I’m
passionate about London–” and she grew up as a preacher’s daughter. She
remembered, approvingly, when a reporter badgered Tony Blair with questions
about his church’s minister. “Tony Blair just said, ‘We don’t do religion’ and
that was that,” she said. “As it should be.”

    Such discretion means  the set-piece issues of abortion and
gay marriage that have become staples for the U.S. Christian Right in election
years fail to arouse much passion among voters in Britain. “Abortion just isn’t
a political issue here,” said Dave, a self-described socialist serving as the
vicar in a London parish. Dave, an influential preacher who left the
evangelical movement to become an Anglican priest, remembers “a few” attempts
to stir up outrage over abortions. “But really,” he said, “that was all settled
in 1969.”

    What remains unsettled in England
and in Europe are issues of race and immigration. As in America, different
generations understand race in very different ways. For Jeni, the young white
English woman who grew up dating a black man, religion–in her case, the Nation
of Islam followers who taunted her–is often  a force for racial separation. For  Fuzz, a Australian church consultant in his 50s who works
across the Middle East and Asia, Christianity is a force that’s capable of
transcending racial and ethnic boundaries. But all believe that American racism
is, as Dave the vicar put it, “extreme,” and that levels of racial conflict in
America are higher than in Britain or its former colonies. Strikingly, they
tend to read American movements for racial justice–both black and Latino–as
essentially religious movements led by Christian preachers. And they tend to
believe that today’s equivalent political power lies not in Christian workers
for racial justice, but in the fire-breathing, uncompromising, social
conservatism of  the mighty army of
right-wing Christian voters.

    It’s testament to the political
genius of the Christian Right that it’s exported abroad -and confirmed in the
minds of American voters–this image. None of the British voters I spoke with
had any idea of the actual percentage of the U.S. electorate who self-identify
as evangelical -just 8% in 2007, according to evangelical pollster George
Barna. None of them knew that Barna also showed, back in 2004, that a third of
all born-again voters thought abortion was morally acceptable, and about the
same percentage thought homosexual relationships were morally acceptable. 

   But that’s politics. Spin,
marketing, money and power. And as lovely as the English disdain for mixing
politics and religion might seem to me, the reality is that in the absence of
an established church, American churches do constantly compete in the marketplace
for power. American religion, to the slight horror of our friends in Britain
and beyond, remains right down in the mud of political life, mixed up in
inextricable ways with the common life of citizens. May God have mercy on us

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