Handicapping the 2016 Elections III: Religion

There's a lovely scene in the 1927/8 film Flying Elephants in which Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (not yet then a couple) are getting married to their respective on-screen spouses. It's in volume 17 of my Laurel and Hardy Collection on the 'Swiss Miss' edition and very funny.  The women in it are beautiful in a Maggie Gyllenhall-type way, which is to say that Maggie Gyllenhall has a kind of American beauty which appears to have been around for over a century.

The conceit is that the film, which features flying elephants and various other implausible, anachronistic or absurd ideas, is a depiction of the Stone Age. Society, in the form of the King Ferdinand of the Cave People speaking through some scratches on a stone, decides that all males between 13 and 99 must be married to a female ("anyone's will do") within a standard terrestrial day. So the males go looking, attempt to club a few co-respondents whilst getting clubbed and so on, and hilarity ensues. As with many 20s and 30s shorts, one does not come away with an aspiration to connubial bliss. The character of 'Iron Heart', for instance, is depicted as well placed to obey the decree having been in training for three months to marry a widow. This training consists of wrestling a huge savage bear. Simultaneously, Ollie spends most of his time being clubbed by jealous husbands in front of wives very willing to run away with him, and Stan's dance of Spring, Romance and Love is rudely interrupted by a single caption--'Winter'--and a cactus up his bum.

The scene which sticks out in my mind is that of the wedding, which is somewhat.divorced from the sacramental ritual with which we might expect a fellow to be familiar. It involves, as I recall, a wizard sticking two feathers in his ears, and blowing them out by placing a finger in his mouth. All three participants then play pat-a-cake. Finally, the almost-husband-and-wife chew the alternate ends of a string, which is then hit with a club, causing them to 'nut' each other.

America has always had a somewhat Hobbesian approach to religion. Leviathan is mighty, he walks upon the deep and his purposes are unknown, but the necessary balance to his power is freedom of conscience, as Hobbes argued. The American synthesis is fairly set; a strong yet limited state, but one which guarantees your sense of mental freedom and therefore, which brings the zero point energy of your infinite space to support the nutshell in which you are bound. It's pressurised from the inside. This is a key difference to, say, French republicanism in which the state is defined by that which it is not--not German, not religious, not monarchical, and, frankly, not very fair.

So it's not odd to find that there really isn't a case of an electable or elected extremist in presidential history. An extremist would add too much pressure, and blow the system up. Oddly, the most moderate are the ones who had extreme backgrounds; Ike, for instance, emerged from the Watch Tower Society before they were Jehovah's Witnesses, and the River Brethren, but was baptised, confirmed and communicated into Presbyterianism within days of his election. Mitt Romney--no radical--is a kind of Mormon Bishop, Barry Goldwater was a secularist who considered himself a Jewish episcopalian, and William Jennings Bryan, who should properly be seen as a religious candidate, didn't get anywhere despite trying three times. Mo Udall, who was one of the funniest men ever in American politics, and whom I would have voted for in 1976, was a Mormon, and very much ran against the stereotype being a kind of flexible Western Democrat. Honourable mentions go to Mike Huckabee, those unitarians who believe that Thomas Jefferson was one of them, and the 'failed minister' candidates--Gary Hart, Jimmy Carter, Aaron Burr, and Levi Morton. None were the sort who would really rock the boat, even Goldwater. In fact, when confronted by the religious right, Barry kicked them out of his office.

As is fitting with its flexible interpretation in America (the entire American church having once been almost forgetfully excommunicated) Catholics are not really identifiable by religion in terms of their candidacies. The radical centre, after all, is lit by a somewhat diffusive light. William Wirt, an antimason, and Rick Santorum were fairly intolerant; Newt Gingrich became tolerant; Al Smith and John Kerry don't seem to have cared about their religion; and, as ever, John Kennedy was an off mix. Sarah Palin was a Catholic renegade, and Schuyler Colfax, Ulyssses Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter are the only people whom I can think of who were aided and abetted by anticatholic feeling. I'm fairly sure that Nancy Pelosi and Mike Dukakis are not representative of the the Magisterium of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, though Nancy has at least, as I have previously blogged, attempted to introduce both St Thomas and St Augustine into the American national dialogue. I remember reading that and thinking of Eric Vogelin's argument that one really had to understand evil as an existing thing capable of influence, rather than a vacuum. Bobby Jindal is a Catholic, and one wouldn't interpret his politics in a religious way at all, anymore than the supposedly methodist Sikh, Nikki Haley, can be viewed through a confessional lens.

A smaller category are functional atheists, or at least afideists, and minority autochthonous religions. Barack Obama is 'still looking for a church', Abe Lincoln and Andrew Johnson seem to have had no fixed religious abode at all. There haven't been any representatives so far of the Nation of Islam or the Scientologists, which along with Mormonism and the American Catholics are two other obvious Usanian inventions, on the campaign trail. Pat Robertson did OK in 1988, but not well; for 2016, neither he, nor Gary Bauer, Herman Cain, or Allan Keyes have any obvious successors.

Plastic beliefs, and simple affiliation without demonstration, are far more common when one surveys the 11 Episcopalians, 8 Presbyterians, 12 Baptists, Unitarians and Methodists (4 each) and 6 dissenters who have held the office, in addition to the 3 non-affiliated, 1 catholic, and 2 Quakers. There's nothing particularly different about the 47 vice-presidents either. In fact, the frequency with which the latter office was empty because of death or, as some websites put it, 'ascension' is more striking.

In the Supreme Court, Catholics are the vast majority. In the Senate--we'll leave the House aside, because it's lalaland-- they are the plurality, with 27 Senators, though of course many ought not to be taking communion. There are 14 Presbyterians, 10 Jews, 10 Baptists, 8 Methodists, 7 Mormons, 5 Lutherans, 5 'Protestants', 4 Epsicopalians, 2 evangelicals, a Buddhist, 3 from smaller local protestant groups, and 3 godless types.

Looking through the divining water, then, it's very difficult to see anyone emerging in 2016 who wears their religion on their sleeve. I think in fact that there are several arguments against such people emerging and winning anything beyond recent history. Firstly, the Democrats have realised that African American turnout helps them, but only when their chosen candidates are, as Joe Biden put it infelicitously but staright (which is probably why people were so horrifed) 'clean and articulate'. Deval Patrick, and Cory Booker fit this bill, but Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don't, so a religious black presidential or vice-presidential Democrat is probably out of the question. Too many hands and eyes got burnt by Jeremiah Wright for that. Democrats can't really tolerate moral consistency anymore anyway, as the Wendy Davis affair shows, and so they're not going to go for anyone who, well, yknow, actually believes in anything, except maybe killing people at twenty weeks' gestation.

Similarly however, Republicans didn't have the best of times in 2012, and missed an open goal by a) driving away anyone sensible and b) taking the worst possible car-crash route to the 'Buggins Turn' of the Romney candidacy. None of their papabile are going to talk about God, and with Pope Francis on some sort of Jesuit mission to make us all communists, the term 'catholic' is going to lose the kudos it had under John Paul and Benedict with the American Right. I think Francis would rather imitate Urban and darken the skies of his Bishopric with CIA gibbets than accept another alliance with the George Bush Centre for Intelligence, or whatever it's calling itself these days, and Tim Dolan knows where his bread is buttered too.

One final point is worth making, and that is that American politics is shifting away from faith-driven moralism to a technology driven one anyway. Ultrasound pictures are pushing nonbelievers into criticism of abortion; the knowledge of constant surveillance, and the fear of federal authorities, are making everyone part of a minority which must be grounded in the tolerance of the faith of others. Stem cells are increasingly being grown, not harvested, and wholly secular interpretations of marriage will actually push believers into Church, rather than opposition, if they want to make a sacramental point. As more and more people become scientifically literate at the same time as the economic existence of everyone becomes more marginal, marking people out for sexual transgression when there is no real controlling norm will also become a minority pursuit. Historically, it was the likes of Henry Ford, J.Edgar Hoover, and Ross Perot, at the intersection of big government, bureacucracy and industrialism, (along with, say Kellogg and Winslow Taylor) who promoted and pursued socialised sexual and protestant morality. It certainly wasn't the employment agency, the farm community, academia, or the Rotary Club.

The internet has also broken the link between Christians and others who couldn't previously build their own distributist communities, and corporations and capitalists who could look on them as captive. We just are not going to see a 'religious right' or a religious left anymore. If American religious communities are to flourish, digital monasteries, reefs and networks operating in a common, plural space suspicious of active federalism, war, and social engineering would be much more likely than what we have come to call conservatism or liberalism. A candidate who could talk that language could do surprisingly well, but by its nature, it's below the dinosaur media to look at facebook and websites and other commercial and market rivals. The links are there. You just have to have faith to understand, to coin a phrase....

These points apart, Americans tend to go for public, and what one might call self-indulgent Christianity when high on credit and economic booms. More sober times tend to see them praying, but hoping for economists. Many these days aren't, properly speaking, religious at all, and the demographic which voted before Obama--the vaguely conservative, religio-friendly college graduates--are losing their influence. With the Giuliani campaign being yet the latest to show the political South as a follower, not capable of changing primary momentum, it's  very difficult to see a religious figure, who could ignore broadly plural Iowa, New Hampshire, and Northern primaries, then win the nomination in the South.

So, my point now is that religion isn't likely to be big in 2016. No one will lose because of it, and no one will win with it. That in itself represents a return to pretty near the norm, I would have thought.