Joan Smith: Obama enlightened? Yes. Liberal? No

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The Independent Online

Hang on a minute: the result of the American election is good news, but let's not get carried away. The Democratic Party is liberal but it's still not enlightened, and the election campaign has been a reminder of a huge gulf between the United States and Europe on a key issue. Barack Obama's Democrats may no longer be afraid of the L-word, but now it's the A-word which has to be avoided at all costs, even to the point of suing an opponent who suggests you might not believe in God. In a closely-fought Senate contest in North Carolina, the Democratic candidate reacted with fury and a libel suit when her Republican opponent wrongly implied she was an atheist. Instead of shrugging off Elizabeth Dole's accusation, Kay Hagan responded as though she'd been branded a paedophile. They both need to read Article VI of the US Constitution, which lays down that "no religious test" should ever be required as a qualification to hold public office.

Hagan isn't an atheist. So what? I'm not a Christian and I'd be mildly offended if someone suggested I was, but I wouldn't respond as though I'd been called an axe murderer. In this country, we have Cabinet ministers who are relaxed about saying they don't believe in God, and being an atheist is no bar to getting elected. In the last census, just over 8.5 million people (15 per cent) said they had no religion, and almost 400,000 showed what they thought about the question by declaring themselves Jedi Knights. In France, a poll last year suggested that almost a third of the population describe themselves as atheists. In the Czech Republic, almost 60 per cent say they have no religion.

I can't be the only secular European whose flesh creeps when an American politician declares, "We need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill" to oppose taxes which favour the rich. That was Obama, calling for "an injection of morality in our political debate" as though believers have a monopoly on fairness and justice. I would have thought there are already quite enough Christians on Capitol Hill, and many more (such as Sarah Palin) panting to join them. Last year, when an American secularist group offered a prize of $1,000 to the highest-ranking politician willing to come out as an atheist, there was only one taker: Peter Stark, a Democrat from San Francisco and the only declared non-believer among 535 members of Congress.

Atheists are the most despised people in the US, way ahead of Muslims, homosexuals and Jews, according to research by the University of Minnesota. They are regarded as "a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public" and almost half the country wouldn't vote for an atheist as president. Godless Americans – there were 29.4 million of them (14 per cent) in 2001 – deserve much better than this.

Now they have a president-elect who seems a nice guy but is confused about the role of religion in public life. Obama says he supports the separation between church and state yet he opposes gay marriage on religious grounds, like the newly-elected Senator Hagan and all those supposedly liberal Californians who just voted to ban it: "Although I try not to have my religious beliefs determine my political views on this issue... my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman." So if you happen to be a gay American and you want to marry your boyfriend, you can't, because your president-elect's religion says it's wrong. There's nothing modern, secular or enlightened about that.

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