Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

George W Bush and Ronald Reagan used 'values' issues - 'God, guns and gays' - to persuade conservatives to vote against their own economic interests. This time, though, the pocketbook is more likely to prevail
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A few years ago, it might have created a sensation. There was James Dobson, often described as America's most influential evangelical Christian leader, accusing Barack Obama of deliberately setting out to mislead the faithful, and of "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter".

You may not have heard of Dobson, a pediatric psychologist who heads an organisation called Focus on the Family. At 72, he looks more like a corporate chieftain than a minister. He operates in the same corner of the market as the far better known Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, but lacks their intemperate outbursts.

Yet Dobson – not either of the two above – was credited with a key role in getting out the religious vote crucial to George W Bush's narrow electoral victories in 2000 and 2004. His tirade against Obama might therefore have been expected to draw considerable attention. Instead, America scarcely raised its collective eyebrow. What's happening in the country supposedly in thrall to religion as no other in the Western world?

On the face of it, not much. The US is still far more serious about The Almighty than we post-religious Europeans. More than 90 per cent of Americans believe in God, three quarters in an afterlife, and almost 60 per cent in the existence of Hell. Six out of 10 pray at least once a day outside religious services, and eight out of 10 believe in miracles. But they are not the intolerant, Bible-thumping zealots of caricature.

These figures come from a fascinating poll just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which also found that Americans no longer dogmatically insist (if they ever did) that their own faith is the only one that offers salvation. Instead, three quarters said that "many religions can lead to eternal life", including more than 60 per cent of evangelicals.

Even more striking – not least in light of President Bush's claim to consult a "higher father" than his own earthly (and very experienced) one – religion is not the guiding principle when people take important decisions. Only 29 per cent said it was, compared with more than 60 per cent who said they relied on reason, common sense and practical experience. Yes, Pew found, the more people go to church, the more likely they are to be conservatives who vote Republican. But even that bond is loosening.

No one, of course, would have expected Dobson to have come out with an endorsement of Obama, whose campaign is trying to woo younger evangelicals to the Democratic cause. But like many on the religious right, he is dubious of John McCain too, publicly doubting his conservative credentials, and even telling supporters in February that, "As a matter of conscience, I cannot, and will not, vote for John McCain." And this even after McCain had gone to Canossa, or more exactly Falwell's Liberty University, to grovel at the feet of a man he had once labelled, along with Pat Robertson, an "agent of intolerance".

In all likelihood, Dobson's coolness spells trouble for McCain. Ever since the early 1990s the Republicans, helped by the sex scandals swirling around Bill Clinton, have gone all out for the religious vote. As a witty colleague noted back then, it was surely the only instance in recorded history when a political organisation threw its lions to the Christians. This time, most white evangelicals, a cornerstone of the Republican electoral coalition, will surely vote for McCain in the end, if only as the lesser of two evils. But if they can't be bothered to do the thankless, unpaid get-out-the-vote work that so helped Bush in the vital swing state of Ohio in 2004, what chance does McCain have of winning the White House in an otherwise dreadful year for his party?

Worse still for the candidate, the religious right just doesn't wield the political clout of four years ago. Part of the blame lies with scandals – sexual and financial – which have swirled around several of its most prominent figures. A stronger reason though, and one hinted at in the Pew survey, is the tougher times in which we live.

You would think that economic and political troubles might push voters toward the reassuring comforts of faith. Maybe they still do, to an extent. But if Pew is right, people are becoming less doctrinaire and less exclusive. And, under the pressure of bleak economic reality, one of the great electoral paradoxes of America may be crumbling.

A few years ago, Thomas Frank published a wonderful book, What's the Matter with Kansas?, explaining how across poorer swathes of the US, including his native Kansas, people voted Republican, against their economic and political interests. The Republican (or rather Ronald Reagan's) stroke of genius was to persuade them that what most mattered were bedrock conservative values that made America great, and which Democrats had betrayed.

But that was back in the 1980s and 1990s, when wealth, nationally if not in Kansas, was indisputably on the rise. Now things are getting worse everywhere, Kansas included. November's election will be a classic pocketbook affair in which "values" such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and the cast-iron certainties of biblical creationism, may not be as important as the price of petrol, the maxed-out credit cards, the threatened job, and the bailiffs who are on their way to repossess the house.

Righteousness is an easy luxury to indulge in when markets are booming – but less so when the markets are going to hell in a handcart, and Republicans are being blamed for the mess. Which, I suspect, is why the harsh words of James Dobson fell on deaf ears. In this year of earthly, not spiritual, crisis, it doesn't much matter whether he supports McCain, Obama or neither.

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