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The Politics of Faith and American Exceptionalism

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Two major objects of attention during this election season reflect a key dimension of American exceptionalism: religion. First, America may soon have a president of Mormon faith, Mitt Romney, who served as a Mormon missionary and bishop before becoming a politician. Second, Rick Santorum, the runner-up in the G.O.P. primaries, led a campaign focused on religious moralizing. Santorum notably declared that "Satan" is threatening America, and decried the evils of secularism, pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Against this backdrop, Barack Obama is often depicted as a secular candidate, although that is not accurate, especially by international standards. For instance, Obama mentioned "God" five times during his inauguration speech, regularly proclaims "God bless America," and has sporadically expressed specifically Christian beliefs, such as: "We are thankful for the sacrifice [Jesus] gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection."

The influence of religion remains exceptionally strong in America compared to other Western countries. As noted by Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, modern-day Americans continue to share a faith in faith at a time when religion frequently inspires indifference or suspicion in contemporary developed nations. Four in ten Americans attend church on a weekly basis, a high proportion in the West. Americans are more inclined to believe in a definite, personal God than in a vague spirit or life force. Religious skepticism is also far less common in the United States.

Moreover, an extraordinarily large minority of Americans gravitate towards religious fundamentalism -- faith rooted in a literal understanding of scripture and a staunch opposition to modern social mores, especially in matters of sexuality, as was recently embodied by Santorum. America is essentially the only Western country where Christian fundamentalism is prevalent. This singularity is illustrated by the fact that Americans are much more likely to reject the theory of evolution in favor of Genesis-based creationism. Four in ten Americans deem that God created humans in their actual form 10,000 years ago. The same proportion expects Jesus to return by 2050. Sixty percent are equally convinced that Biblical accounts about God creating Earth in six days and Noah's Ark are true word-for-word (ABC poll, 2006). Few devout persons in other Western countries interpret the Bible literally.

As for Mormons, they represent less than 2% of the U.S. population but form an increasingly established community. Joseph Smith (1805-44), the faith's founder, reported that he was visited by an angel who led him to ancient golden plates that were buried in upstate New York. According to Smith, the plates revealed that Native Americans are of Jewish origin and were visited by Jesus after his crucifixion. Smith said that they were written in an unknown language, "Reformed Egyptian," although he was able to translate them into the Book of Mormon by using supernatural seer stones. The angel later took the plates away. Smith persuaded numerous followers that he was a divine prophet. While Mormon convictions may come across as peculiar, it is important to note that they arise out of a society where faith is celebrated and religious skepticism often frowned upon.

Only 16 percent of Americans are not affiliated with an organized religion and many of the non-affiliated still believe in God and prayer. Tellingly, when the House voted to reaffirm "In God We Trust" as the nation's motto, President Obama retorted: "I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work." In essentially no other Western country would the leading right-wing party have voted on this issue and the left-wing head of state have underlined his belief in God while criticizing the opposition's priorities.

Ironically, Americans are highly religious but they are more divided by religion than other Westerners, as evidenced by the public's conflicting reactions to Santorum's views on reproductive rights and sexual propriety. Commentators disagree about how much "culture wars" influence U.S. elections. Nevertheless, one thing is sure: in virtually no developed country are issues like abortion, contraception, gay rights, sexual education (abstinence-only or not), and evolution as controversial as in America. In almost all other Western nations, people generally hold the liberal-moderate view of these questions as a matter of consensus. Few share the ultra-traditionalist stance that represents a major side of the debate in America. Notwithstanding the influence of the religious right, many citizens share liberal-moderate approaches to faith, as exemplified by Obama. They favor greater tolerance and are disposed to conciliate religion with modern knowledge, such as by rejecting Biblical literalism and creationism. For example, a slight majority of U.S. Catholics and Mainline Protestants accept evolution, whereas less than a quarter of Evangelicals and Mormons do.

Interestingly, eight in ten Americans have indicated that Romney's Mormon faith should not be a major reason to support or oppose his presidential candidacy. Those who disagree include, in all likelihood, an appreciable number of Evangelical fundamentalists, who are particularly inclined to denigrate Mormonism as a non-Christian "cult." It is therefore remarkable that the strongest reservations about Mormon theology come from religious fundamentalists, not from moderate believers or non-believers. Indeed, few American voices have dared question Joseph Smith's account beyond the late Christopher Hitchens (a naturalized U.S. citizen born in England) and Evangelical hard-liners.

Even though America may soon have a Mormon president, the U.S. public and media have devoted exceptionally scant attention to Smith's revelations despite the fact that they are the very premise behind Mormonism. The Mormon question is envisaged in a narrower manner than probably would be the case in numerous other Western countries, as the focus in America has chiefly been limited to whether Romney's faith could cost him votes, as well as on Mormon citizens' values.

Yet, Smith's claims raise simple factual questions. For example, linguists dispute his key assertion about the existence of a "Reformed Egyptian" language, Egyptologists have ridiculed his interpretation of papyri hieroglyphics, and archeologists and anthropologists find no support for his account about Native Americans being Israelites -- they instead note that the Book of Mormon is full of anachronisms. The lack of attention to these matters illustrates the deference given to faith in America, where even constructive criticism of religion is liable to be construed as downright intolerance, unlike in Europe.

Of course, there is no valid reason to believe that America could not have a good president who happens to be Mormon. The Constitution rightly bars a religious test for office. However, this clause should not be used as a shield while religious rhetoric is used as a sword. Romney has downplayed his Mormonism but, like many politicians of both parties, he recurrently mentions God to try and obtain votes. Notably, Romney claims that the country's sharp wealth inequality is a non-issue and that focusing on it "is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God." That is quite an exceptional argument.