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How to Think About American Politics (by a British Observer)

November 9th, 2012 | 17 min read

By Guest Writer

Editor's Note:  I am thrilled to introduce Alastair Roberts to readers of Mere-O.  Since I have started reading him a few months back, he has proved himself to be one of the most thoughtful and charitable interlocutors online.  I highly commend the below to you as an astute analysis of our American political environment. You should follow his blog here and follow him on Twitter. --MLA

In a post in response to the US election results, Steve Holmes shares some reflections upon the ‘mutual incomprehension’ among Christians that can be witnessed in many of the reactions and interactions that have followed the news of Obama’s re-election. He remarks on the overwhelmingly positive response to the news among non-American observers and the stark contrast between this and the vituperations, jeremiads, and philippics that have been elicited from some American Christians online.

'DSC_8923' photo (c) 2012, ljlphotography - license: invites us to take the incomprehension that exists between various Christians’ political positions in this context as ‘a gift that challenges us to discover the extent to which our opinions are shaped by the gospel, rather than by the culture we inhabit – and that challenges us to understand the breadth of opinions that might be consonant with the gospel.’ Rather than reacting to each other in anger or incredulity, we are invited to the sort of imaginative engagement with a different political perspective that might yield a more irenic spirit and a deeper self-awareness.

Within this piece, I – a moderately left-leaning Englishman – will attempt to work to some degree of understanding of the political imaginations of many American Christians, especially those on the right of the American political spectrum (admittedly, to many of us foreign observers, all leading American politicians can appear to be situated somewhere on the right of our political spectrum). As I am about as far from an authority as you can get on this subject, I would welcome any critical and constructive responses that would further the ends of mutual understanding.

The Unique Character of the American Political Situation

With the connectivity created by the Internet, the geographical and cultural difference between the UK and the US can easily be forgotten, lulling the observer into a false sense of familiarity with a social and political landscape that may be beyond his or her ken. Deceptive commonalities of language and overlapping discourses can also lead to the elision of distinct cultural phenomena. For instance, while the concept of ‘secularism’ plays a prominent role in theological discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, we should be cognizant of the significantly different forms that it takes.

In a similar manner, such expressions as the ‘separation of Church and State’ can have the effect of flattening out the many complex ways in which religious discourse can shape, be present within, and inform the deliberations and conversations of the public square. While England has an established church, the English visitor to America can be taken aback by such things as the greater visibility and assertiveness of Christianity in public discourse, the prevalence and power of American civil religion, and the deep politicization of American Christians.

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