Tag Archives: USA

Watching the Debate

Last night was the first of the US Presidential debates, which after initial suggestions by John McCain that it should be postponed, went ahead with the participation of both major candidates.

Since of course it took place in the middle of the night UK time, various of the UK channels have been rerunning either the whole debate, or highlights. You can watch the full debate on the BBC News site. Of course in the UK we don’t have a say, but thanks to the close relationship our governments have recently had with each other, it does have an effect on those of us in the UK.

I’ll leave any discussion of the finer points of policy, but what was interesting was comparing it to what happens over here. Certainly we’ve never had face to face debates like this, what we most commonly have is a series of programmes where each of the individual leaders of the political parties face an audience of voters. Perhaps the main example of a programme where we have opposing parties together is something like Question Time. The interesting difference between both formats and this presidential debate is the silence from the audience. In the UK there is usually an instant response from the audience to statements by the politicians, and on a number of occasions politicians have been heckled by members of the audience. The other difference was, I guess in part due to the rigid time-boxing applied to the debate, there wasn’t that much confrontation. There were a number of points where it was pretty obvious that Obama thought he was being misrepresented, tried to cut in, McCain kept ploughing on with his point, and Obama just capitulated and indicated to the chairman that he didn’t wish to respond.

Commentators seem split over who came out best. Both campaigns are not surprisingly claiming victory for their candidate, but it wasn’t really clear to me who won. In terms of policies I’m always going to be much more towards Obama, but then in a world driven by soundbites, things like McCains KGB line over Russia, however corny it may seem, probably go over a lot better than trying to explain the massive complexity of the political situation in the former Soviet Union. You can make your own mind up by watching the full debate.

20080926_Oxford_MS_FirstDebate0377 originally uploaded by Barack Obama.

Finally Some Division Interrupts the Sunbathing at the Primates Conference

Until last night, for members of the press, the Primates Meeting in Tanzania has been a somewhat boring affair. Firstly, the meeting itself has been kept carefully separate, so effectively the media have just had to sit around by the pool and gossip. Such is the flakiness of the internet connection, that in fact Ruth Gledhill who has stayed in London is able to produce just as complete reports as Stephen Bates. Largely it seems that those over there have been left with nothing much to do but sit by the pool sunbathing.

The reason the press has been so bored, is that up until now, events have not gone according to the script. First off, thanks it seems to a bit of strong leadership from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Jefferts Schori, and the Archbishop of York John Sentamu (invited by Rowan Williams to represent the Church of England allowing him to focus on chairing the meeting) were allowed to stay, and other primates didn’t leave. Yet again it seems that it is an example of how in this whole sorry affair, people are happy to try and boot another group out, but won’t leave themselves.

Following that, the report that was widely expected to back the conservative line that the Episcopal Church was ‘in breach’ of the Windsor report, actually came out and said that they were pretty much in line – more than that it criticised the anti-Windsor actions of people like Archbishop Akinola who have been setting up Churches in the US, as reported by Stephen Bates. Having said that this did produce some reaction – but again this was on the web, not from the conference centre.

There was a bit of excitement yesterday, when Archbishop Akinola, returning from a meeting outside the primates part of the conference centre got spotted and cornered by the press – although he was less than talkative…

However, the press got a little bit of division last night, when seven of the primates failed to attend the communion service – although it should be noted that this was half as many as failed to attend at the previous meeting two years ago. This does seem to be the first bit of real division that has occurred amongst the primates. Giles Fraser predicted the tactic:

Especially keep in mind the first principle of effective warfare: take their strength, and turn it into a weakness. Make them feel they are fighting for the truth of the gospel. Make them feel that everything hangs on it; that it’s all down to them. That way, they will be able to justify any behaviour — cruelty, bullying, division — and eventually the whole thing will collapse in bitterness and recrimination. Allow them to do our work for us. The fact that they won’t take communion together is a cracking start.

Alongside this, last Sunday Ruth Gledhill compared this sort of behaviour to what happens to her five year old son.

Putting it in to context, in the Guardian today, Giles Fraser also highlights quite how much this high level Church politics and globe trotting really matters:

For the communion allows bishops of crisis-stricken dioceses to get on a plane and reinvent themselves as players on the world stage. Many parishes see less and less of their bishops as they clock up the air miles.

In the traditional Church of England, the parish is the unit that matters to most worshippers. And at the level of the parish, the crisis in global Anglicanism is irrelevant. While bishops and archbishops squabble and plot, the local church gets on with saying its prayers and caring for the needy. These faithful are now being badly let down by their leadership.

So what will be the outcome? I really don’t know, but I’m half expecting a compromise to be reached. Look at what’s happened. In terms of the conference, aside from the publicity stunt last night, there have been none of the predicted walk-outs, and as Giles Fraser has pointed out, how relevant will whatever happens be to the people on the ground anyway? Thankfully Dave Walker (sadly another person who couldn’t find a news organisation or Church expense account to fund a week in the sun) is on hand to put it all into context.

Archbishop Akinola avoids the press and The White Sands originally uploaded by scottgunn.

30 Days – Religious Perception

30days.jpg

I’ve mentioned 30 Days, the series created by Morgan Spurlock after he made Super Size Me earlier in the year. Recently the second series of 30 Days has been showing in the UK, and after our trip to Canada we had one episode left to watch, an episode which finds a confirmed atheist who spends 30 Days living with a devout Christian family, attending both their services and Bible study classes. Interestingly both the atheist and the Christian parents had been brought up in Christian families, and both had reached a point where they had made a big faith decision, in one case having been brought up a Methodist to become atheist, and in the other to move from being Catholic to the McKinney Fellowship Bible Church that the family were now attending.

Unlike some of the other episodes, there wasn’t any significant change in the beliefs of any the participants, although there certainly was a greater understanding of the position of each group. What I found really quite surprising though is quite how much the attitudes and behaviour of most Americans differs from what their constitution actually says.

The first amendment to the US Constitution explicitly forbids the government from establishing a state religion or even being seen to prefer a certain religion, nor to prohibit the free exercise of religion. So unlike the UK, where prayer is a legal requirement in schools for example, any sort of prayer is regarded as unconstitutional. Having said that the show featured in background segments a number of problems that atheists face. For example the show featured a group of atheists who formed a church – an association of people sharing the same set of atheist beliefs – and applied for a tax break that was given by the government to any church. The application was thrown out because they didn’t believe in any sort of deity or divine being. As the group pointed out, they believed this to be contrary to the first amendment. They also highlighted that the decision in 1956 to officially adopt ‘In God We Trust‘, and to put it on bank notes also contravenes the amendment, as does the Pledge of Allegiance – particularly since the words ‘under God’ were added in 1954.

Interestingly the daughter of the atheist in the programme had refused to use the words ‘under God’ when reciting the pledge at school, substituting ‘under the Government’ instead, and been bullied by other students for doing so. This highlighted quite how badly atheists are seen in the US. The programme quoted figures from a survey of 2000 US citizens that found atheist at the bottom of the list of people “sharing their vision of US societyâ€?, and the group in society that respondents were least happy for their offspring to marry. Compare this with the results of the regular Gallup poll into Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design which finds that 53% of respondents believe that ‘God created man exactly as the Bible describes it’ and, the pretty widespread misunderstanding during the street vox pops in the programme that atheists don’t believe in anything at all you can start to see why they are unpopular. For the record, the programme highlighted that atheists believe in a lot of things including humanism and naturalism, and at one point, one person questioned on the street even described atheists as both progressives and communists (obviously hadn’t come across the biblical verses that underpin Christian Communism then…).

The programme also took a look at a couple of Christian groups and places to balance out the atheist group, including a group that I’m sure Howard would appreciate, Denver based Biblically Correct Tours who were shown giving tours of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and trying to fit dinosaurs into the creation story (according to the tour guide shown on the programme they were created on the same day as humans and co-existed with human beings before their extinction – there is apparently no evidence that they existed millions of years before humans even appeared). The followed this up with a visit to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida, which alongside a daily passion play includes a number of Christian themed exhibits, and even includes the worlds largest model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. The sequence also included a shot of the price list at the concession stand – King David Chicken Sandwich anyone?

The whole irony of the programme was that a country like the US that seems proud of it’s heritage separating Church and state is largely Christian, and yet the UK, where Christianity is the state religion as a culture is significantly more secular.

Changes Seen from Google Earth

Having a play around with the latest version of Google Earth, I thought I’d check out the place in the US where I worked over my last summer vacation from University, and close to the only mountain I’ve ever climbed, Flagg Ranch Village in Wyoming. However, it’s not the place it was when I was there, if you look at the location on Google the roads shown are laid out as I remember, but switch to satellite only view and all you can see is just open ground – the rustic buildings that I remember are all gone. However too the north is the big posh new Flagg Ranch resort. Having said that, from my memories of the complaints that we got from the mostly American clientele about the rustic conditions (we can only get one radio station!) a posh resort is probably going to go down better…

God’s Next Army

What would the world be like if the most powerful country in the world, was run by a regime with just as extreme religious views as fundamentalist republics such as Iran, or the former regime in Afghanistan. In the same way as in those countries, everything in this powerful country is driven or decided based purely on the scriptures of their religion without question.

This is the vision of the future that was shown by God’s Next Army, a programme looking at the phenomenon of Patrick Henry College in the USA. Despite the historic basis of the United States, in which the separation of Church and state is enshrined in the constitution, the college is aiming to ‘re-Christianise’ America, to ‘preserver the world from the sinfulness of man’. Essentially the people behind the college are looking to turn the United States into a Christian Republic. 80% of it’s students have been home schooled, kept separate from mainstream schools, and indoctrinated with their fundamentalist beliefs from an early age, with little contact with differing world views from their own – or as one participant in the programme said, protected from the ‘moral decay of the world’. They go from home schooling into a college that continues with these hardline beliefs. Worringly, students from the college are already making inroads. The college is conveniently located close enough to Washington DC that it’s students can become interns in the machinery of government – indeed the college has already provided the current White House administration with more interns than any other college. It’s students also volunteer to help with lobby groups, indeed the programme showed the students lobbying in opposition to a payment of compensation to people affected by asbestos.

Everyone at the college, both academics and students have to sign a statement of faith. Perhaps the only part you need to read is the following:

The Bible in its entirety … is the inspired word of God, inerrant in its original manuscripts, and the only infallible and sufficient authority for faith and Christian living.

However the full statement is available online. Essentially everything is claimed to be founded on biblical principles, but essentially biblical principles as viewed through the lens of fundamentalist Christianity.

For example the statement of faith has the following example with regards to property:

Private Property: As God’s image-bearers with dominion, and stewardship responsibilities, over the remainder of creation, men and women have the inalienable right to own and manage their own property, subject to government regulation only in the unusual situation where the rights of others are endangered. Government systems such as communism and socialism, which give the government primary control over property, are a violation of God’s creation order.

I’m sure most people would read that, and question how that fits in with a number of biblical passages, but perhaps the clearest example is Luke 14:33:

“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.�

The programme included a number of these theological and philosophical conflicts, which seem bemusing to those outside, but so clear cut to the students. For example when interviewed on his beliefs, one student stated his opposition to abortion, his opposition to gay marriage, both for biblical principles, and then with no hint of irony started quoting Thomas Jefferson on the right to bear arms. Bear in mind that Jefferson was also one of the chief architects of the separation of Church and State – take for example this quote from a letter Jefferson wrote in 1813 which seems somewhat apt:

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government�

Essentially, I find the prospect of a United States administration, so loaded with the single minded world view and unbending fundamentalist Christian beliefs put forward by the college just as worrying as any regime based on fundamentalist Islam, not least because in relative terms the United States has significantly more power. Whilst supporters will quite probably point to the statement on the PHC site that ‘no leader or group of leaders may ever acquire unchecked power’ as what would separate them from regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan, I’d counter that the fact that since they are specifically looking to move towards a Christian Republic fundamentally means that those members of society who are not Christian, or are not Christians from their particular wing of the Church, are improperly represented – one of the fundamental reasons for the separation for church and state put forward by Jefferson. How can a group of people who have been brought up and schooled at home, separate from the broad range of belief in society, and educated at a college that again teaches the same beliefs, separate from the broad range of belief in society, possibly be able to represent or even understand the breadth of society that a country represents.

I have no objection to Christian voices being heard in government, but it should be exactly that, voices, and should be part of a representative array of voices from all communities and groups within the country. Whilst there is much argument over the close ties between the Church of England, and the state in the UK, I would suggest that situation here is somewhat different from what Patrick Henry College is trying to establish. The Church of England is so broad that in many debates, there are a multitude of voices, with Bishops and other senior churchmen often holding opposing opinions on a multitude of issues. This broad range of belief extends to Christian politics in the UK too. I know many staunch Conservative supporters who are Christian, but equally I know Christians who regard Christianity and Socialism as being closely tied together. Indeed I know of one clergyman who around election time was renowned for preaching from the pulpit that he believed all right minded Christians should be voting Labour! The same is true of Christian education in this country. Here aside from some notable exceptions, most schools are run based on a Christian ethos, rather than being Christian schools. Hence when I was growing up, the nearby Catholic school was also popular with Muslim and Hindu families wanting a a strong ethical basis for their child’s education. This is what makes me so uneasy about Patrick Henry College, here most Christian schools will quite happily contain a breadth of Christian belief, and in many cases those with non-Christian beliefs, or no religion at all. PHC has a comprehensive set of beliefs that all staff and students must sign, and apparently no room for any breadth of opinion – and more than that, their students, indoctrinated with these beliefs are increasingly being found all across the government of the most powerful country on the planet. Worrying indeed…