It was a truly amazing (f. OE amasian: to astonish; confuse) day in 2008 when the Republican presidential nominee John McCain decided that, after eight years of George W. Bush, what the American voting public wanted most was an increased presence of the religious right in the White House, and selected the ostentatious Christian fundamentalist Sarah Palin to be his running mate. A virtual unknown at the time, it scarcely took twenty four hours for Palin’s fantastic ignorance to come to light and by now it is already, just three years on, the stuff of imperishable legend. Here was a woman who didn’t just despise the intellectual in general and the scientific in particular; ridiculing the established facts of evolution and climate change and noisily advocating the teaching of Genesis as truth in schools. She didn’t just wear her astounding incuriosity about the world outside of America – having only received her first passport a year previously - with pride. No, here was an authentic, five-star fruitcake, who for two decades belonged to a church whose attendees had a habit of speaking in tongues, and who believed that when the universe was created by God – a mere 6,000 years ago – Adam and Eve walked side by side with the dinosaurs. Alarming comments were dug up of her referring to the invasion of Iraq as a “task that is from God”, and only this week the Guardian revealed that during her tenure as Governor of Alaska she once literally asked for the Lord’s help in drafting the state budget.
Yet for those of us who found the will to keep up with the American right after this dispiriting low, the even more amazing spectacle has been the speed with which each successive emerging Republican figure has managed to outshine Palin in stupidity, demagogy and theocratic crackpottery.
First there was Christine O’Donnell, a woman of such breathtaking political ignorance that she didn’t know – and refused to believe, when told – that the Constitution mandated a separation between church and state (a highly instructive glimpse of what an America under her stewardship would look like), and who made the career-finishing decision to unironically proclaim on national television that she was “not a witch”. Then came Michele Bachmann, the confirmed 2012 contender who despite being billed as a ‘Palin With Brains’ (whatever the point of that would be) nevertheless shares all of the ex-Governor’s convictions about Darwin and the environment, and has managed to add further statements of flabbergasting historical inaccuracy of her own, such as her claim that the founding fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery (abolished in 1865, eighty-nine years after the Declaration of Independence). She also speaks without embarrassment about her frequent contact with the Creator, having acted on His considered advice not only in marrying her husband but also in running for Congress in the first place – thus making the modest assertion that she, like the Pope, is God’s personal pick for the job. And by the time we were given Donald Trump, I began to seriously wonder if the whole charade weren’t an elaborate Democrat conspiracy.
But the most damning evidence of how radically removed the Republicans have become from reality is surely that the candidate currently leading the race to 2012 is a man who believes that when the Messiah returns – an event we can expect any day now – it will be to preside over the galaxies from the state of Missouri. His name is Mitt Romney, and if reports from Monday night’s assembly of Republican heavyweights are anything to go by, he will be the man nominated to contest the Democrats in next year’s election.
Naturally, a religious extremist of even the most benign kind in the White House would be cause enough for consternation. But a strong case can be made that Romney’s Mormonism poses additional threats unique to the cult. The most obvious is that the Mormon Church already has a President of its own, regarded as a quasi-divine “prophet, seer and revelator”, and Romney’s statement in 2007 that “no authority of my church [...] will ever exert influence on presidential decisions” seems hard to swallow in light of, say, his fanatical homophobia (on the podium Monday he boasted warmly of his opposition to the repealing of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”).
Another consideration, raised by - inter alia - Christopher Hitchens in the run-up to the ‘08 election, is that until 1978, the Mormon Church was “an officially racist organisation”. At the time he pointed to the story in the Book of Mormon of “the ancient battle of Cumorah” (upstate New York), in which
[T]he Nephites, described as fair-skinned and "handsome," fought against the outcast Lamanites, whose punishment for turning away from God was to be afflicted with dark skin. Later, in antebellum Missouri and preaching against abolition, [Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church] and his cronies announced that there had been a third group in heaven during the battle between God and Lucifer. This group had made the mistake of trying to remain neutral but, following Lucifer's defeat, had been forced into the world and compelled to "take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan; and hence the negro or African race.
As he went on:
Until 1978, no black American was permitted to hold even the lowly position of deacon in the Mormon Church, and nor were any (not that there were many applicants) admitted to the sacred rites of the temple. The Mormon elders then had a "revelation" and changed the rules, thus more or less belatedly coming into compliance with the dominant civil rights statutes. The timing (as with the revelation abandoning polygamy, which occurred just in time to prevent Utah from being denied membership of the Union) permits one to be cynical about its sincerity.
Witness, then, the double standard: while you can bet your house that if even a moderate Muslim were to announce his entrance into the presidential contest, the Tea Party zealots would howl themselves hoarse about anti-Semitic passages in the Qur’an and hadith, a man who makes no secret of his belonging to a mildly decaffeinated version of the Ku Klux Klan can stand tall in front of those very same people as the grinning crowd favourite. And this from the party of Abraham Lincoln...
There is of course a temptation to rejoice in it all, on the grounds that it makes an Obama re-election a near certainty. But then one remembers what a flaccid disappointment that character has turned out to be. I think most Americans, and indeed most Democrats would have liked to see the Republicans put forward at least a half-serious contender, if only to make Obama work that much harder for their votes. Instead, the GOP has decided to implode spectacularly in its own irrationality. For the next four years then, welcome to the paucity of hope.