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

November 9th, 2012 | 15 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.

The British observer can be struck by just how bitter and protracted the US election season can be. Politics appears to assume the character of a social ‘total war’, one which must endanger many friendships across party lines. A man’s enemies truly can be from his own household, but Christ does not seem to be the immediate cause of this particular antithesis. These political antagonisms seem to leak into all sorts of areas of life to a degree that one can wonder whether many areas of escape and respite remain (sport may be one such area). Politics is construed so broadly that little seems to exist outside of its ambit.

One important difference between the US and the UK in this regard is that, for various reasons, evangelical Christian cultural struggles were never mapped so tidily onto a political divide in the UK as they have been in the US (the causes of this mapping are quite contingent and historical, a fact which the British example can help to highlight). The mutual incomprehension that exists between left-wing British and right-wing American Christians can, I believe, be relieved somewhat by an appreciation of this fact. Given the more complicated relationship between Christian social concerns on issues such as abortion and the political divides, British Christians have had greater freedom to explore left-leaning identities and have not experienced the same impetus to align themselves with various dimensions of a broader political platform on account of the political polarization occasioned by such issues as abortion. The strong tradition of left-wing evangelicalism in the UK also contrasts with its rather beleaguered American counterpart.

When thinking about American presidential elections from the other side of the Atlantic, it is also noteworthy that the president is not merely the head of government, but also the head of state. He is an immensely important person on the national and world stage, the most influential and powerful of all. Given the concentration of so much power in the one figure, it may not be surprising that American presidential elections are fraught affairs.

In this context, one possible contributing factor to the decreased acrimony surrounding UK general elections may have to do with the fact that constitutional monarchy serves the purpose of preserving the key symbolic role of the head of state from dangerous contenders, while vesting it with little actual power. America seems far more susceptible to certain forms of rebranding and disorienting and radical change in national identity than a constitutional monarchy like the UK does. While Americans have decisively turned their backs on such a form of government, there may perhaps be occasions when reflection on what they are missing out on could prove illuminating. As a monarchy, the UK also can enjoy more moments of largely non-partisan national celebration and share a national identity across political divides, recent examples being the Royal Wedding and the celebrations of HM the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I realize that I may be venturing out on the skinny branches of my American readers’ charity at this point, so I will move on!

American Political Discourse

The (over-)heated character of American political discourse struck me when I visited the country a couple of months ago. I suspect that this results in considerable measure from the over-freighting of politics, the expectation that all social problems admit a political solution, or spring from a political cause. One fears that this extreme valorization of the political can also lead to a sacrificing of principle to political expediency and an excessive sense of necessity or urgency. I don’t think that I was the only one who was dismayed to see Billy Graham and others mute their opposition to Mormonism in order to throw their weight more firmly behind Governor Romney’s candidacy.

Listening to talk radio, seeing political advertising, and reading political commentators I got the impression that the deep political antithesis is abetted by the creation of sealed echo chambers, within which both sides become invisible, alien, and impervious to the challenge of the best thinking of the other. Outrage and offence become the primary forms of interaction, creating a situation that can no longer sustain nuance, and charitable reading and representation fall by the wayside, to be replaced by political apocalypticism, hatred, fear-mongering, and ugly caricatures. For me, the treatment of Richard Mourdock’s comments concerning rape pregnancy was a good example of this failure.

I am far from certain on this point, but the impression that I have received is that the primary form of political discourse in a US context is the partisan monologue, while vigorous and agonistic political debate is far more prominent in the UK, whether on TV shows such as Any Questions, or in the context of such parliamentary interactions as Prime Minister’s Questions. I wonder whether such well-established weekly ritual rhetorical combat within a more closely bounded arena limits the degree to which political conflict spills over into wider social conflict.

Perhaps a further difference is to be found in the fact that British politics, society, and their discourse more generally have a sense of the irrational, arbitrary, idiosyncratic, fortuitous, heterotopic, ceremonial, and theatrical to them. British political, public, and legal life, authority, and discourse grows more out of rooted customs and traditions, the product of history and habit, rather than functioning as the product and outworking of some great and overarching rational system of political philosophy. As a result we have a political system that is rather resistant to rationalization – because it doesn’t and isn’t supposed to make logical sense – and can enjoy a greater degree of playfulness. Rather than being ostensibly founded upon the pure political philosophies of liberalism, British politics and public life is an eccentric salmagundi of different institutions, principles, and customs. Approaching politics as a more human, historical, contingent, pragmatic, prudential, and contextual enterprise will tend to privilege different forms of political discourse and endeavour than those that are more popular on American soil, given the importance of liberal political theory in its founding (although secularism is weakening British cultural discourse on this front, it has a far more considerable sediment of custom, tradition, and history to erode). This might also explain why so much American political discourse focuses upon the identification of the founding principles of the nation.

The form of politics that exists in the UK is less inviting to quests for ideological purity and their attendant antagonisms and undermines those inclined to take the rationalization of politics too seriously or intensely. Also, as we have an established church, the House of Lords, and the monarchy, there is a sense that the legacy of the past and our religious identity have established guardians, and the accumulated furniture of tradition isn’t about to be placed out on the driveway when a new guy moves in. This does relieve anxieties somewhat. Recognizing that the US lacks most of these things and their corresponding assurances to some extent or other may help us to understand why American Christians are so politicized and why so much importance is imputed to politically assertive ideologies.

Scale and Subsidiarity

I suspect that one of the reasons that mutual transatlantic understanding can be so hard for many of us on issues such as healthcare is that both Americans and Europeans find it difficult to understand the relative scale of the others’ countries and governments and how this informs the political imagination. America has a population five times larger than that of the UK and over forty times the land area. It is a vast country of huge demographic, geographical, racial, ideological, and religious variations.

While some foreign observers might wonder at the state of American healthcare, the necessary size and power of a centralized welfare state providing universal healthcare in such a context is immense, whatever the chosen means. More importantly, the power of such a government in people’s lives relative to the power per capita the people could enjoy relative to the government would be quite different from that which exists within universal healthcare providing countries in Europe or a country like Canada. It is all very well for political liberals to present somewhere like Sweden as the ideal example of the welfare state, but it bears remembering that the population of Sweden is only about 3% of that of the US and that it has a more homogeneous population. For instance, a National Health Service scaled to the US population could have around 10 million employees.

The US citizen has seemingly much weaker representation at the federal level: the average representative represents a population several times the size of the average British MP’s constituency. I believe that the scale of the state and the degree to which the direction of the wider society can be determined by populations that are largely oblivious or antagonistic to the way of life and values of other populations helps to explain why many who would stand to gain the most from a more extensive welfare and healthcare system are frequently the most opposed to the federal government that offers it to them.

This may also provide some measure of an explanation for the bitterly partisan character of American politics. When you feel that alien social values are in the driving seat of the nation as a whole, it is not surprising that one should feel vulnerable in the face of an expanding central government, no matter how well-meaning that government might be. This concern should also be read against the complicated history of a growing federal government, the different degree of autonomy and self-identity enjoyed by different regions prior to their entry into the union, and the retreat of states’ rights and powers relative to it, especially following the Civil War. The ceding of power in a particular area to the federal government comes with few assurances that that autonomy could ever be regained.

I suspect that there would be considerably fewer cries of ‘socialism!’ were such provisions made at the state rather than the federal level. While some British commentators might be inclined to view many Americans as blinkered hyper-capitalists, perhaps there are really some instincts of subsidiarity – the decentralizing desire to devolve responsibility for key tasks to the lowest competent authority – at play here, but with a centralizing impulse in the political system that makes it difficult to have more empowered state or other intermediate government agencies relative to federal government.Politics is not just about ends, but also about agencies: the desirability of universally accessible and affordable healthcare does not necessarily mean that the agency of the federal government is the one that should be empowered and made responsible for its provision. The fact that many Americans won’t grant to their key political agencies certain of the powers that we grant to ours may say more about the differences in character between our political agencies and theirs than it does about differences of ends.

The subsidiarity concern may come into clearer view if, instead of comparing the US situation with the government of the UK, we instead compare it to the EU government, which is far more comparable in population size (though the US population is spread out over twice the size of landmass), and within which British subjects have a similar degree of representation to that enjoyed by the American citizen at the federal level. If we then imagine a weakening of our national identity and a corresponding strengthening of our European identity we might have a better analogy for understanding why a more powerful federal government might provoke nervousness in many of its citizens, who fear the marginalization of their cultures and values to some disempowered reservation or their utter annihilation at the hands of decision-makers well over a thousand miles away (living in the north of the UK, I live nearer to Moscow than a significant proportion of the American population lives to Washington DC).

On the other hand, the decisive movement of many Americans towards the right wing and absolute philosophical opposition to a welfare state should be challenged by the recognition that an effective welfare state can exist on a very different scale to that which would typically be envisaged within an American context: a welfare state providing extensive social security and healthcare need not be a vast Colossus bestriding the world.

It seems to me that the belief that something as vast and extensive as the US federal government is not a suitable and competent agency to handle many of the complex social realities that it seeks to address is not a ridiculous one, especially for those of us who are suspicious of the universalizing and totalizing foundationalist narratives of modernity and liberalism and the frequently attendant belief that one universal set of principles, values, laws, and techniques is suitable for ensuring the healthy operation of society. I do not believe that it is particularly difficult to see that, for many, the very size of the governmental solutions to social problems could be perceived to be conducive to inefficiency and often counterproductive. Perhaps a greater appreciation of the issues of scale and scalability on all sides could inform the political imagination of all parties.

In a country as vast and variegated as the US, is it really the case that the social norms and values that work in the Deep South, for instance, should be suited to the urban centres of the East Coast or vice versa? Could it also be the case that many conservative and liberal values have distinct contexts within which they are particularly effective, but can do damage when imposed upon a society of a different character or composition? A greater distrust of abstract theory and technique and more attention to the particularities of context and the need for discretion and sovereignty over theory and method can inform a resistance to state expansion on such fronts.

However, given the abstract, universalizing, and totalizing liberal foundations of American political discourse, such genuine concerns will tend to be articulated in a form that can appear to some foreign observers as a kneejerk resort to absolute principles of limited government rather than discriminating and contextual judgments of political prudence. This is perhaps especially significant in the case of American Christians who will appeal to passages such as 1 Samuel 8 to establish firm limits for government, seemingly forgetful of matters of context, scale, differing government roles and the like (little mention is made of such things as the role of the state under Joseph in Egypt). This contrasts with other political traditions where limits of government are set primarily by developing custom and tradition, social consensus, wise judgment, and time, context, and scale are more significant factors in political deliberation. Such a tradition’s response to the overweening power of a federal welfare state might be more along the lines of encouraging the devolution of certain powers to more local agencies, rather than an abandonment of laudable ends.

Nevertheless, this idealistic and ideological impulse on the part of American political discourse holds certain crucial lessons for British Christians, for whom questions of principle and the philosophical foundations of our politics are less analysed. Unless we are alert on such fronts, it is very easy for us unwittingly to imbibe a set of deeply anti-Christian values and assumptions about the role, purpose, and means of the state. A form of political order that progresses by means of consent, judgment, and developing tradition may be less suited to establishing, recognizing, and protecting important boundaries. Provided that social shifts are incremental enough, we can move in all sorts of unhealthy directions. Perhaps this has some bearing on the differences between the place of abortion in British and American political discourse, especially among Christians (differences in this area might also arise from the fact that Roe vs. Wade smacked of judicial activism, bypassing public debate and imposing a set of values on society from on high, whereas the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in a free vote by our elected politicians, after considerable debate). British distaste for anything that smacks of extremism, celebration of tolerance, and quest for consent may leave us in danger of splitting the difference rather than standing our ground when faced with certain social evils. While British Christians might challenge American Christians concerning the limitations of ideology, conversation with American Christians can press us towards a deeper self-consciousness on such ideological fronts.

If paranoia is naturally provoked by one’s sense of vulnerability and impotence relative to capricious forces beyond one’s control, the immense actual and potential power of the federal government relative to the average citizen and the distance and weakness of the average citizen relative to the federal government goes some way to explaining the sense of paranoia that pervades American politics on all sides. When radically opposed sets of cultural values are vying for political dominance in a government which wields vast and increasing influence, it should not be surprising that political struggle tends to take the form of a death match. We should also beware of equating American ‘anti-Big Statism’ with British varieties, where libertarian impulses respond to a threat of a very different kind and scale. The power differentials that we are discussing in the case of the US are of profoundly different magnitudes.

‘Personal Morality’ and the Culture Wars

On such issues as abortion and same sex marriage, I think that we miss the point if these are considered chiefly as matters of ‘personal morality’. If abortion and birth control were merely treated as a matter of personal responsibility – the realm of women’s bodies being outside of the government’s jurisdiction – that would be one thing. However, giving sanction to the performance of abortion through forcing companies to buy abortion or birth control-covering insurance, for instance, is slightly different. Treating abortion as a woman’s right, to be provided for and defended by the state, is also different from saying that what women do to their own bodies is not something over which the government has jurisdiction (as one does not have the ‘right’ to do whatever one wants, even in realms of one’s own jurisdiction). One can still maintain women’s jurisdiction over their bodies and the pre-political character of the unborn child while placing severe restrictions on medical abortion procedures as harm-causing (as such procedures fall under the government’s purview), or merely tolerating but giving no approval or sanction to their performance.

Likewise with same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is only reducible to a matter of ‘personal morality’ if marriage is not a reservoir of public meaning or an institution ordered towards wider societal ends, the wellbeing of parties other than the couple, and receiving social sanction and support as something conducive to the achievement of certain common goods.

While American Christians are frequently presented as the chief aggressors in the culture wars, the culture wars that they have been waging were for the most part not really initiated by them, but by a belligerent set of progressive values, values that often hold considerable sway in centres of influence, to which they seek to provide organized and unrelenting resistance. They are frequently castigated for the fierceness of their counter attack. However, given the nature of the American system, I think that a sense of the vulnerability and endangered character of Christian cultural norms and values is not entirely unreasonable. Likewise, given the characteristically universalizing and absolutizing nature of much American political thought and discourse and the size and reach of American government, it is harder to encourage a détente between conflicting values. Many Christians in the UK, lacking this same sense of vulnerability to radical cultural shift, and more inclined to take a settled status in the society for granted, have put forward less of a struggle and often been taken off guard by the shift away from Christianity as a result.


The thoughts above are not presented as final pronouncements on the subject of the difference between American and British politics. I am generally unqualified to speak about politics on either side of the Atlantic: it is extremely rare for me to comment on the subject. Rather, this is a tentative attempt to think about the differences between UK and US politics and to fumble towards an understanding of why many of my Christian brothers and sisters on the other side of the Atlantic arrive at political convictions that seem quite alien to my own.

As such, my primary goal is to give a stumbling word that opens a constructive conversation, one within which we are all opened up to the critiques and insights of our fellow Christians on the other side of the Atlantic. I suspect that significant portions of the analysis above won’t survive closer scrutiny, but believe that the conversation could prove beneficial to all parties, producing a deeper awareness of the blindspots and principal insights in the political thought of Christians on both sides of the Atlantic.

So, over to you. What are your thoughts on the distinctive character of the political stances of American Christians? How do you believe that Christians from other parts of the world could better understand these? What are some of the things about the politics of British Christians that are particularly perplexing to American Christians? What are the key differences between the American environment and that in other countries that might help to account for some of our political divergences?

Alastair Roberts is pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology at Durham University.