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Why Are British Conservatives More Religiously Tolerant than American Ones?
In a little less than a month, the roughly 160,000 members of Britain’s Tory Party will choose a new leader to replace Boris Johnson. Since the Tories hold a majority in parliament, that new leader will become prime minister. After a process of parliamentary winnowing, there are two candidates left: Liz Truss, the former foreign secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer. Truss leads in the polls but Sunak interests me more.
He interests me because it’s impossible to imagine someone like him being nominated to lead the Republican Party, America’s closest equivalent to the Tories. It’s impossible because Sunak describes himself as a proud Hindu. When sworn in as chancellor, he put his hand on the Bhagavad Gita. He doesn’t eat beef and on his desk has a statue of the Indian god Ganesh. An openly Hindu candidate would have zero chance of national leadership in today’s GOP. That’s not because America is more intolerant than Britain, or even because the Republican Party is more intolerant than the Tory Party in general. It’s because the Republican Party is far more intolerant religiously. And it’s interesting to ask why.
But first, I want to make a special plug for Jewish Currents’ subscription drive. If you’re interested in Israel-Palestine, Jewish culture, or the American left, you’ll love Jewish Currents’ writing and reporting. And if you dream of an American Jewish community that is committed to American democracy, planetary survival, and Palestinian freedom, you’ll feel that you’ve found your intellectual home. Currents is currently offering a special promotion that comes with a cool tote bag. You can subscribe here.
I also wanted to mention that this Friday’s Zoom call will be at a special time—11 AM ET, not Noon. Our guest—rescheduled from a couple of weeks ago—will be Yale sociologist Phillip Gorski, author of The Flag and the Cross, a fascinating and disturbing book about Christian nationalism and Christian Zionism in the US. As always, paid newsletter subscribers will get the link on Wednesday and the video the following week.
Back to Rishi Sunak. If you doubt my contention that an openly Hindu—or, for that matter, an openly Muslim or Buddhist candidate—would have no chance of leading today’s Republican Party, consider this. Although Hindus constitute roughly the same percentage of America’s population as they do of Britain’s, there’s not a single Hindu Republican member of Congress. Last year the Pew Research Center noted that of the 261 Republicans in the House and Senate, 258 are Christian, two are Jewish and one doesn’t list their religious affiliation. (The two Hindus, two Buddhists, and three Muslims who currently serve in Congress are all Democrats). By contrast, two of the Tory’s party’s most prominent figures—Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel, have both spoken about their Hindu faith. A third Tory leader, Suella Braverman, the Attorney General for England and Wales, is a practicing Buddhist.
I specifically identified Sunak, Patel, and Braverman by their religion, not their ethnicity. I’m not arguing that Republicans don’t elect politicians of South Asian descent. They do. Bobby Jindal served for eight years as governor of Louisiana before seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Nikki Haley, who spent six years as governor of South Carolina, is often touted as a future GOP presidential contender. But there’s a critical difference between Sunak, Patel, and Braverman on the one hand, and Jindal and Haley on the other: The Americans converted to Christianity. They also both took on Americanized first names. That’s their right, of course. I’m not suggesting that Jindal and Haley’s faith is insincere. But given how central Christianity is to Republican political identity, it’s unlikely either would have enjoyed political success without converting. After all, according to Pew, 53 percent of conservative Republicans say being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
The GOP is capable of racial and ethnic inclusion. Jindal and Haley were popular with grassroots Republicans, and so were Ben Carson and Marco Rubio. Mayra Flores, a Mexican American woman elected earlier this year from South Texas, is the congressional GOP’s newest star. But it’s almost always a shared conservative Christianity that allows white Republicans to embrace Black, Hispanic, or Asian candidates. Which means conservative Christianity, which can foster racial and ethnic inclusion can foster religious exclusion at the same time.
The GOP’s Christian identity doesn’t exclude all non-Christians equally. Because many conservative Christians are philo-semitic—as evidenced by their use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” to describe American civilization—Jewish politicians can prosper in today’s GOP so long as they express ardent admiration for the Christian right. Josh Mandel offered a fascinating case-study in how that’s done when he sought the Republican nomination for Senate earlier this year in Ohio. In an advertisement this spring, Mandel declared that his grandmother was “saved from the Nazis by a network of courageous Christians. Without their faith, I’m not here today.” His campaign website featured a cross and an American flag.
Mandel declared himself both proudly Jewish—his children attend an orthodox Jewish day school—and fervently pro-Christian. And had Trump not endorsed his opponent, J.D. Vance, he would likely be the Republican nominee for Senate. For Muslim Republican candidates, however, proudly asserting your own faith isn’t an option. While 94 percent of Republicans would vote for a Jew for president, according to Gallup, only 38 percent would vote for a Muslim. Which means that in the rare cases in which Muslim Republicans run for office, they have to do more than praise Christianity. They have to virtually adopt it themselves.
Take the case of Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania. In a statement on his religious identity earlier this year, Oz wrote, “I was raised as a secular Muslim,” leaving open the question of whether he remains a Muslim today. He then added that his wife, “is a Christian who attended seminary and whose mother is an ordained minister. We raised our four children as Christians and beamed with joy watching them and our four grandchildren become baptized.” In other words, don’t worry, Islam is in my past. My family is Christian now. When Barry Goldwater, who identified as Christian despite having a Jewish father, won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, a Jewish wag quipped, “I always knew the first Jewish president of the United States would be an Episcopalian.” That’s no longer for true for Jews, but in the GOP it remains true for politicians like Oz, Jindal, and Haley. Conservative Christians will overlook your non-Christian background so long as you jettison that faith in favor of theirs.
I’m not claiming there’s no religious bias on the other side of the Atlantic. Given the Islamophobia stoked by the “war on terror,” the British scholar H.A Hellyer has suggested that it’s easier to be an openly Hindu Tory politician than an openly Muslim one. That’s an important caveat. But the Tories still aren’t as Islamophobic as the GOP, a party whose voters largely supported Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
When it comes to religious tolerance, the Tories have more in common with Democrats. The reason, I suspect, has to do with British society. In recent decades, the British population has become far less hegemonically Christian. A 2018 study found that only 38 percent of Brits now identify as Christian. Ten percent identify with other religions and a remarkable 52 percent identify with no religion at all. In the US, secularization has been growing rapidly as well, but with a sharp partisan tilt. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, only 52 percent of Democrats now identify as Christian compared to 79 percent of Republicans.
The Democratic Party, like both of Britain’s major parties, is now so religiously pluralistic that it’s willing to elect candidates who don’t identify as Christian or even “Judeo-Christian.” Democrats are now half as likely as Republicans to say being Christian is important to being “truly American” and liberal Democrats are only one-fifth as likely to affirm that claim as conservative Republicans. It’s because most Democrats have divorced Americanism from Christianity that so many of them voted for a culturally Jewish but essentially secular presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. And it’s for that same reason that most would vote comfortably for Kamala Harris, who describes her religious identity as syncretic. Harris has explained that “My mother, an immigrant from India, instilled the same idea in me on trips to Hindu temples. And I’ve also seen it reflected in the Jewish traditions and celebrations I now share with my husband, Doug. From all of these traditions and teachings, I’ve learned that faith is not only something we express in church and prayerful reflection, but also in the way we live our lives, do our work and pursue our respective callings.” That kind of answer—spiritual but not exclusively Christian—is acceptable in today’s Democratic Party. It’s not acceptable in the GOP.
That’s why there’s no Republican Rishi Sunak. The GOP can’t embrace Christian nationalism and religious diversity at the same time.
I tried for many hours on Sunday and Monday to write about this weekend’s war in Gaza. But Sunday was a fast day, which made it hard to think clearly. I couldn’t come up with anything I felt happy with.
Here’s something I wrote a few years ago that tries to dispel several myths that help American Jews avoid facing the horrible truth of what Israel does in Gaza.
I don’t know when or even if the horrifying injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people will end. But I do believe that Americans will be judged for our government’s role in perpetuating it. “In a free society,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel during the Vietnam War, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I don’t know how we’ll be held to account. But for me, part of believing in God is believing that, somehow, we will.
See you Friday at 11 AM,