Professor debunks U.S. stereotypes

By Diane Francis
National Post

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Richard Parker is a Harvard University professor and author of best-selling biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics and His Economics.

Prof. Parker has a mind like a mainframe computer and a body to match.

He's also a man of many "parts" -- Oxford University PhD from California, newspaper proprietor in his native state, founder of Mother Jones magazine and a former advisor to John Kennedy and George McGovern, among others. He's also an expert on religion and politics in the United States.

"I have never had a career, only interests and passions," the rumpled, 50-ish professor said in an interview this week.

He met Prof. Galbraith at Harvard and decided to write about the Canadian economist's impact as a thinker, but also to chronicle 75 years of U.S. economic history, with its wildly variant, and mostly buried, theologies from supply-side to Laffer Curves or George W. Bush's expansive tax-cuts-with-overspending agenda.

The book received rave reviews and is selling briskly. It took eight years to write and is 800 pages long.

"It was a ton of work. He wrote 48 books and his files went on forever. I taped him for 200 hours," he said.

Lately, he's been busy flogging his book across the continent, but when he's not doing that he's teaching a course at the Kennedy School of Government on religion and politics in America.

"Americans are very religious compared to Europeans. About 90% say they believe in God," he said. "But Europeans or Canadians should not make the mistake of thinking that 90% of us are fanatical or Opus Dei stalwarts or anything."

American church-going, he said, is often social.

"People go to church to teach their children values, to find dates, to sanctify marriage vows or baptisms and look to it when their moms get sick and they need someone to call at the church to help out because they live out of town," he said.

Mobility and urban loneliness drive church membership. So does dysfunction.

"Lots of people say they are religious because of social pressures and also out of a hunger for community," he said.

The result is 400,000 congregations in the United States representing 1,200 denominations.

This religious fragmentation came about as a result of the country's history as a refuge for religious dissidents. Its founding fathers revolutionized the world by de-linking church from state for the first time, which fostered competition among denominations to keep or woo believers.

"After the Revolution, immigrants who came and couldn't speak English also identified with their churches or synagogues and so did African Americans whose only institutions were their churches," he said.

Of the 90% of Americans who believe in God, about 85% describe themselves as "Christians" and are divided into the following groups: 25% Roman Catholics; 25% white evangelical Protestants; 25% mainline Protestants (Presbyterians, United Church, Episcopalian) and 10% African American evangelical Protestants. Another 5% who say they believe in God would include Jews at 2%; Mormons 2% and 1% Buddhist or Eastern Orthodox, he said.

These religious groups, or sub-sets, cluster in one of the United States' two parties, which are simply gigantic coalitions.

Roughly speaking, Democrats count on 60% of those attending mainline churches; 80% of evangelical African-Americans; half of Roman Catholics (the Europeans not the Hispanics) and 20% of white evangelicals.

The Republican coalition includes whites in the south, 80% of white evangelicals throughout the country and 65% of Hispanic Roman Catholics, plus everyone else.

"That's your politics right now," Prof. Parker said. "But the religious right within the Republican Party is problematic."

"The Republicans won't deliver what the religious right want such as faith-based funding and a ban on abortion or homosexuality," he said. "If they do, the party will become a regional party."

This is why the politics of religion should not frighten. In fact, he said extremists like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell have little following, he said.

There are also other factors besides religion such as race, gender, region, education and income, but patterns are more easily detectable in terms of religious affiliation.

"There is no fanatical, huge religious group that controls the political agenda because America is all about coalition politics by definition because we will only have two parties," he said. "Europeans and Canadians who think so are just using stereotypes, just as Americans stereotype Europeans and Canadians. It's a short-hand that makes managing the world's complexities simpler. Everyone uses stereotypes."

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