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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 June 2007, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
America's great faith divide
By Justin Webb
BBC News, US

The current US presidential debates are almost certain to see the candidates asked to comment on spiritual issues, but some Americans are worried about the trend towards religiosity in public life.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will be challenged on their beliefs
At my twins' annual school camp in West Virginia, you are meant to leave your troubles behind.

It is an idyllic couple of days - a communing with nature which my wife gallantly insists is simply too enjoyable for her to take part in - it has to be a dad's experience.

Actually it is not that uncomfortable. The tents are sensible structures with plenty of room to stand up. There are rudimentary bunk beds you can bang your head on in the early morning.

The setting is a reminder too of the size of the United States - only two hours from the nation's capital, these are woods and fields as empty and isolated as any in the Scottish Highlands.

The kids love it. They and 20 other seven-year-olds, roast marshmallows by the campfire, catch tadpoles in the pond, and roam around, unwashed, at five in the morning in the early light of the West Virginia day, pointing their torches into each other's tents.

Silence before breakfast

"Did Cole see a bug and sleep in his dad's car? Did Peter's water bottle break? Did Talia's mum fall out of bed?" Etc etc, and then comes breakfast.

Breakfast is an indoors affair, not luxurious but hey this is America and these are middle class kids and some parents are beginning to flag by seven in the morning and there is a need for the familiar comforts of multi-coloured cereals and soy milk.

First though - a silence.

"Please take off your hats," asks the jolly camp counsellor (yes, that is what they call them). She looks down and up again.

The silence lasts less than 30 seconds and my two children discover that there are pancakes with M&Ms inside them and we give the silence not another thought.

But I am a foreigner here, an anthropologist, and one of the pitfalls of anthropology is that there are some things you have to be a member of the tribe to really get.

Unbeknownst to me the silence has caused outrage, or to be more precise, has caused pleasure to some and great outrage to others.

I discover this later when talking to a dad about the post silence debate which took place between certain concerned parents and the silence enforcing camp counsellor.

Religious divide

Basically the problem is this: What was the silence? Was it contemplative or was it religious? The distinction to my English mind was unimportant. I am personally not religious but I am not fussed about the trappings of religion in the public space.

Creation Museum, Kentucky
The Creation Museum exhibits the Earth's history according to the Bible
To me it is part of life, no big deal, but in modern America it is a big deal.

Some parents believed that the breakfast silence was an attempt by a religious cabal to take over our camp, to insinuate their beliefs into our get-together, to steal the minds of our kids.

Are they right to be in such a funk? I am not sure that they are.

America is famously religious, infamously if you like, but try as they might, the real hard-line theocracy crowd repeatedly fail to get their ideas to fly.

When you visit them, as I did, coincidentally, just days after the breakfast silence issue, you find a group of people in a funk comparable to that of the atheists.

I was at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, the day after it opened, a moment evangelicals should really have been celebrating with great gusto. And to an extent they were.

The museum is a striking place, with wonderfully life-like models of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden, and an airy, well put-together feel.

But I did not get the impression from those in charge or from those visiting, that they considered themselves to be on the march in modern America.

In fact the whole thing had a slightly beleaguered feel.

One parent confided: "At last there's a place I can bring the kids where they are taught what we teach them at home."

Another asked me almost plaintively whether I was convinced by the museum's planetarium where the sun was created after the Earth.

Freedom of choice

I had to be honest and say that I was not, but I felt quite sorry as I did.

There is nothing remotely convincing about the Creation Museum and frankly if it poses the threat to American science that some American critics claim it does, that seems to me to be as much a commentary on the failings of the scientific establishment as it is on the creationists.

At the Creation Museum goggle-eyed children watch depictions of the Great Flood

There is a reason, I think, why theocracy will never fly in the United States and it has been touched on, inadvertently, by George Bush himself.

Mr Bush often makes the point that the philosophy of the Islamic radicals, full of hate and oppression, would not be attractive to people who truly had the freedom to choose.

Similarly the philosophy of the Old Testament, so much celebrated by some evangelicals here, has a limited power to enthral free people.

At the Creation Museum, goggle-eyed children watch depictions of the Great Flood in which children and their mums and dads are consumed, because God is cross.

In a nation of kindly moderate people I am not sure this is the future.

I put my faith - in America.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 June, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




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