Don’t be so hard on evangelicals
We are too dismissive of Sarah Palin's religious convictions
The President leaned back in his swivel chair and stared at the ceiling. He stared so long that the silence became embarrassing for his speechwriters. Then, finally, he leaned forward and, using his trademark phrase for dictating to his secretary, he said: "Dorothy, take a law."
The words he then delivered became known as the "Four freedoms", a crucial statement of the rights Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to defend. And the second was this: "The freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, everywhere in the world."
Norman Rockwell made famous posters of these freedoms, and I had them up on my wall when I as a student. But for the American people, freedom to worship hasn't just been a student sentiment. Many of them have died defending it. I wouldn't be here today, writing this, if they hadn't.
If a British politician were to deliver a speech on freedoms or an English artist was to commemorate them with posters, I doubt that freedom to worship would be among them.
We are suspicious of politicians talking about God. Tony Blair used to go to bed with the Bible most nights but made sure that the press didn't find out. He feared, he said, that people would think he was "a nutter".
So for us, the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate is alien. It's not just that she likes to kill moose (rather than buy them from Waitrose like any normal person). It is also that she is, shock, horror, a religious Christian.
My views of religion are far, far away from those of evangelical Christians. I always tell my Christian friends that I struggle hard enough with faith in God, so I can only admire the fact that they have faith in the idea that God had a son. But for all the distance between my views and theirs, I feel distressed at the way their religious views are so often treated with casual contempt.
Now Sarah Palin is not, as has been suggested, a creationist. There is no reason to think her religion all that exotic, actually. But that is not the grounds on which I wish to defend her.
To start off with, I am surprised that I hear contempt for evangelicals from Jews. We wave horseradish in the air on religious festivals, we mix apple with nuts and call it mortar, we hang tangerines from the roof of the garden shed and eat lunch in it in the rain.
I will always remember the look on my nanny's face when she told me that the boys needed to bring in some grapes because "erm, I think they said that the trees were having a New Year celebration". So where do we get off thinking someone else's religious practices are eccentric?
It is also not true that the evangelicals are the source of bigotry in America. Or that it is always a bad thing when religion and politics mix.
Read a history of the civil-rights movements. It was the Christian preachers who led the country away from the evil of segregation. Martin Luther King only led the movement because of his role as a Christian leader and his great speeches were religious in tone and content.
Yes, there are Christian bigots. There are also non-Christian bigots. And while religion may lead people into error and prejudice, there are many routes to those particular vices.
When I read an account, a dismissive one, of the views of Sarah Palin's first pastor (the man who led a church she left once an adult), I recognised them immediately. His evangelical view of the redemption of the world were held by one of my greatest heroes. Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the man for whom Shaftesbury Avenue is named, the man for whom Eros was placed in Piccadilly Circus, held precisely the religious tenets of Governor Palin's pastor.
And Shaftesbury was driven by these views to pass laws to stop children being sent up chimneys and working terrible hours in factories. His religion led him to set up the ragged schools and to devote his life to the poorest. His evangelical Christianity drove this man to visit lunatic asylums and dirty streets, driving himself on to help their wretched inhabitants.
I find it hard to see the religious convictions that led him to these acts as solely a negative thing.
So when viewing Sarah Palin, I suggest we recognise that this country and America are very, very different. In this country, as Alastair Campbell once memorably put it, politicians "don't do God". In America, opinion polls suggest that voters can tolerate almost anything in a political leader except the idea that they "don't do God".
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times