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Columnists

In faith we trust

Agnostics anonymous

Barack Obama's victory has been widely and euphorically touted as the end of identity politics in the USA. The McCain campaign's coded and divisive appeals to the 'real America,' were rejected, which is certainly good news. But it's a bit premature to start burying identity politics per se: religious identity politics once more played a depressingly huge role in the way this election was conducted.


Obama's electoral majority rested on his ability to take some of the Christian votes that underpinned recent Republican successes. Of central importance to his campaign was the attempt to overturn the popular image of the Democrats as the anti-religious party. His 2006 'A Call to Renewal' speech criticised secularists for dismissing religious and moral issues too lightly. Obama established himself as a credible candidate in specifically Christian terms.

On the campaign trail, the rumour that Obama was a closet Muslim, the diatribes of Jeremiah Wright and his unguarded remark about alienated citizens who 'cling to guns or religion' all threatened to de-legitimise these credentials. To counter this, Obama played them up, insisting that he is 'guided by his Christian faith'. He urged voters to help him be 'an instrument of God', working to create 'a Kingdom right here on Earth'.
From Sarah Palin's Pentecost-alism to Mitt Romney's Mormon-ism, religious identity politics are stronger than ever. Only in this context can Obama's victory be understood.

And both political parties seem now to accept this unquestioningly.
In another first for this election, both presidential candidates submitted to televised cross-questioning in a specifically religious arena, answering questions about the role of their Christian faith in their own personal and political lives from the Rev Rick Warren. Warren prefaced the event by saying, 'We believe in the separation of Church and State, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics.'

It seems very few would now disagree with Warren on this point. Americans United, a group advocating clearer separation of Church and State, deplored the use of religion in both parties' electoral strategies, complaining that 'our country has reached a new low in muddling faith and politics.'

The unlamented outgoing occupant of the White House has voiced his doubts that an unbeliever could ever be President of the USA; it's difficult on the evidence of this election not to agree with him. Obama ran with the slogan 'Change we can believe in'. Regrettably, the American people's belief in the importance of believing looks less like changing than ever.