The Genius of U.S. Politics

In Britain we usually begrudge American superiority, and prefer not to admit it. But a grand exception has been made for Barack Obama. Even right-wing media here have heaped praise on the Democratic nominee’s oratory, presence, and power to uplift with his vision of hope and unity. This week’s editorial in the conservative (and hugely sceptical) London weekly Spectator, for example, is titled ’Hail to the not-yet chief’ – the magazine offically backs McCain but is weak at the knees at the thought of Obama. If Britons (and other Europeans) could vote in November’s elections, it would be a shoe-in for the Chicago senator. You can put this down to Obama’s recognition factor in the tense Democratic race (closely followed here), European frustration at the Iraq war, as well as the sheer color and excitement of the US electoral process. Europeans usually look down their noses at the razmattaz of US hustings, tut-tutting at the influence of big business and TV-obsessed showmanship; but ever since the Iowa caucuses the dinner-table chat, at least here in London, has been unashamedly admiring of the way a candidate like Obama can suddenly appear from the wings and gain "the big mo." In watching the triumph of this particular underdog, Europeans have been forced to admit that American democracy at its best really can be, well, democracy. The contrast with our own grey politics could not be greater. Those of us who indulge a midnight compulsion to watch Obama speeches on YouTube are grabbing a hope-and-excitement fix our own politics just doesn’t deliver. But this is more than just contrasting political moments – a once-in-a-generation superstar versus the same-old technocrats in London, Madrid and Paris. The truth is that US society and politics have an inbuilt capacity for soul-filled mobilization which Europe lacks. As Andrea Useem notes, Obama is tapping American civil religion – the non-denominational, but obviously faith-driven, capacity to appeal to what is best in human nature. This God-given energy to rise above egos and rivalries and ideological differences to make common cause in pursuit of the general good is the very stuff of great politics. Movements and leaders that harness this "spirit" are capable of achieving change in the way that parishes (can) do – simply because people have the energy and will to work together. Of course, history only rarely throws up statesmen who can tap that spirit. Garry Wills, in his Head and Heart: American Christianities, namechecks the Quakers, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chávez and finally Obama as people in whom the Enlightened idealistic Christianity of the Northern elites (Head) meets the capacity for mobilization and revivalist fervor of the evangelical churches (Heart). It was the melding of these forces which ended slavery in the 1840s and segregation in the 1960s, Wills argues. American civil religion is both Head and Heart, bringing out the best in both. Enlightened religion is deficient in piety, feeling, and popular power, while Evangelicals are too prone to give reason the day off. Without each other as counterbalance, they fall into sterility on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other; yet blended, in American civil religion, and in a leader like Obama, they are a potent force for greatness. As a European, I have to ask myself if such a combination is possible here on the old continent. And the answer is no. American civil religion is powerful because faith in the US has the freedom to refashion politics – which is precisely what Madison and the other architects of the American Constitution sought. The wall they introduced between Church and State was not to protect the state from religion, as in France, but religion from the state. Religion that is free from the favors and the manipulation of the state, whether officially Christian or atheist, is free to fuel a movement that can reshape the state. In Britain, we have an established Church enmeshed with a secular state, eviscerated and largely impotent, while in European democracies spawned by the French Revolution religion is shunted into to a box marked "private" and told not to interfere in the public square. In neither model is there the capacity for political renewal through the resurgence of faith. That is what makes America special. Here in Europe we may roll our eyes at the apparent flippancy with which "Gaad" rolls from the lips of US politicians; we may abhor the religiously-fueled culture wars which entrap American public discourse; and we may be proud of being reasonable chaps who do not resort to religious absolutes to argue our politics. But when hear Obama say, "It was a dream written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation", we know that’s not just rhetoric. "Yes we can" is not a policy but the promise of a capacity to change by harnessing transcendent forces. It’s the not just the man, but the culture which created him, that can deliver. American religious culture, and the genius of its constitution, harbor not just the seeds of political renewal, but the fertilizer and the water too. Here’s a European who’ll admit it: we’re envious. Austen Ivereigh
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