Even as the economy dominates the US Presidential elections, an increasingly bitter campaign reflects and heightens the conflict over the place of religion in American public life.
Much of the recent debate centres around the decision of John McCain, who has previously criticised prominent televangelists, to appoint Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin is a conservative evangelical Christian opposed to gay marriage, stem-cell research, and abortion, and her selection is widely been seen as McCain's attempt to appeal directly to the Christian right. Like him, the media have also found in Palin’s family – of her five children one son has Down’s syndrome, and an unmarried daughter is pregnant - an attractively visual embodiment of her beliefs.
Meanwhile, a significant minority of Americans mistakenly believes Barack Obama to be Muslim and – in this respect, Constitutional commitments to the freedom of religion count for little - therefore doubts his identity as a ‘real’ American. Obama also drew criticism for his remarks, during the Democratic nominations campaign, about working class Republicans who "cling to guns and religion", and he has struggled to distance himself from his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who is a staunch critic of mainline US politics at home and abroad.
The implications of these debates are not confined to the campaign trail. During the 2004 elections, Democrats in north-east Ohio complained that Republicans had targeted Amish and other simple living Christian groups, alleging that victory for pro-choice Democrat John Kerry would see a “baby-murderer” in the White House. By persuading them to register and vote, the Republicans helped secure Bush’s victory, not just in the battleground state of Ohio, but nationally. At the same time, they also challenged the Amish’s centuries’ old commitment to the radical separation of church and state, which is usually held to entail a rejection of any kind of involvement in secular politics.
Traditionally, Americans tend to unite behind a newly elected President. But the current campaign’s exposure of fundamental disagreements over religious and ethical questions suggests that this time around, such a reconciliation is unlikely.