The USA has long fascinated me, and I have embarked on a series of reflections on culture in the USA, using American film or television as a prompt. This is the fifth article and considers politics.
At least one can say that in the USA politics is rarely boring. The characters (and many do play a character role) are often larger than life. I had twelve years between visits to the USA, with my latest coinciding with the start of the international covid explosion (February – March 2020).
Among many themes that came to mind from my latest visit was that of a more defined political polarisation usually based around contemporary moral issues. Certainly, many Americans who are registered voters have become more entrenched in their political orientation, but rather than taking all their parties’ policies on board, it seemed that now more people were following a party for one issue or policy.
This allowed them to vote in good conscience for people who they did not like personally or even abhorred, because they believed in the sanctity of the issue or policy more.
The West Wing
The role of religion figures prominently in many political films and TV series, simply because of the foundation of civil religion in the USA, but I think for its longevity and impact outside of the USA, The West Wing is significant. Idealistic to a fault, it was even nearly ‘even-handed’ in how it portrayed opposing presidential candidates in its last season.
There is a key episode (No. 25) “The Midterms” that has prompted significant discussion and analysis, including by Australian John Dickson in his book A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible. In this episode President Jed Bartlett buttonholes a conservative talk show host at a White House gathering, asking several of the usual red herring questions about aspects of Old Testament culture and theology.
Bartlett seemingly gives an unassailable critique that renders the talk show host speechless and portrays her views on homosexuality as simply indefensible in a modern age. As Dickson however explains, these questions can be answered and answered well.
The scene itself is simply a pure liberal fantasy designed to ratify the interests of a certain group of viewers (the context is based on a chain letter attack on a real conservative talk show host), as well as teach those still ignorant the better path to enlightenment.
Religion seeps through The West Wing. It is more than a civil religious context highlighted by Bartlett’s personal God debates in “Two Cathedrals” (Episode 44), and in another episode “Take This Sabbath Day”, (Episode 14) Jed seeks counsel over the matter of capital punishment from his family’s priest.
Quaker and Jewish views also come to the fore here. The highly emotional topic of capital punishment in the USA is given a full-fledged moral treatment culminating in the ritual of confession at the end.
The Ides of March (2011)
This film directed by and starring George Clooney is the sobering alternate to the idealism of The West Wing. The film interestingly confounded left- and right-wing critics because it looked at two Democratic contenders without self-promotion of the Democratic way of politics, presenting the internal political struggle in an almost Shakespearean tragedy way. Faith and morality are absent here in equal measure.
Whether one orients to the idealistic or the realist, no-one should be surprised that there has been growing polarisation. I have commented on this before. The issues between the major parties are more distinct, but nowhere more prominent than in the areas that are part of the contemporary culture war.
The conservative and Christian community has felt more alienated as the focus and priority of American life has been inverted in a short space of time to an agenda now dominated by sexuality and identity politics. From just over a decade ago where same-sex marriage was a matter not even on Barack Obama’s initial progressive agenda to a present administration doing its best to consider ever more radical policies with such earnestness that one could think they were now self-identifying as the self-righteous.
‘How do Christians Fit into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.’
Tim Keller wrote this above titled oped piece for The New York Times in 2018, and continues a theme he enunciated in 2009 when asked a Big Think question: “Do either of the parties espouse true Christian values?” Keller commended involvement but not association of either party with the Christian faith (though he has since made an essentially pragmatic change to his personal policy of non-disclosure).
A helpful article by Daniel Strand in Juicy Ecumenism on Keller’s position of moderation (April 4, 2019, Ideology Matters: Time Keller and Politics) considers the broader issues in this increasingly polarised environment and the impact of ideology in limiting the impact of moderation.
Suffice to say, even moderation is taken as a position now, and when the issues have become more personal as all sexuality and identity issues do, the focus can become more personal as well.
It was illuminating to learn in the podcast series Everything Just Changed (with USA pastors Brad Edwards and Bryce Hales) that internal political debate has become such a strong feature among church members that it is increasingly impacting on the ministry. People may stay or leave depending on what they hear or don’t hear from the pulpit.
There was always a tendency in the USA for didactic messaging to take place, whether by left leaning or more conservative pastors, but usually people attending a particular church leaned that way, so it was not an issue. What was revealing is that many ‘ordinary’ pastors are now afraid to comment on issues even if the members ask or want to know where their pastor stands.
Pastors fear that taking a stand on matters will prompt a focus on their party orientation, even if they don’t have an orientation. These matters include marriage, family life, gender, and identity, but one matter highlights the growing polarisation more than all the others.
I need to conclude this article with a reference to my next topic: Abortion.
In the USA, one’s position on abortion has become a major, if not the prime marker for political orientation or at least voting. It is also a prime marker for determining whether one is viewed as an orthodox or faithful Christian. These two factors: politics and religion, have become more intertwined than ever before.
Peter Bentley is a Sydney (Australia) based writer and commentator on church, media and cultural issues. He is a former President of the Australasian Religious Press Association.