If the Core Course were… The X-Factor

On this week’s X-Factor… they’ve reformed churches! Written epoch marking poetry! Transformed political and philosophical systems! But now, six well-known religious figures face their biggest challenge yet: the X-Factor judges! What will they make of their caustic, but strangely specific and pedagogical deconstructions of their performances?


Song choice: “Thinking of Me” by Olly Murs

Simon: Look… it was clearly an important song for you Augustine, but this was just too personal. It was all over interiorised, like you spent your whole song getting further and further into your self. We all like to discover the real contestants, but the rap about stealing pears as a child seemed horribly out of place. If I’d wanted a sense of radical interiority, I’d have put Descartes through. So I can’t say I liked it.


Song: “You’re not the Boss of Me Now” by They Might be Giants

Louis: Luther – you’re a breath of fresh air to a competition that has become bloated, over bureaucratic and, if I’m frank, blighted by nepotism and simony. People like you, Luther – you’re different, you’re new and you’ve got a rapidly developing fan base. I think you have long term appeal and real staying power.

Simon: Luther, I know you think there is widespread corruption here. You’re not the first to say it – I feel like some of that was just reheated Conciliarism and Hussite heresy. But what I can’t stand is your constant undermining of my authority – I think that it has come to a stage where you’ll have to leave this competition. Set up your own rival show if you think that I’m so bad. See how it goes – I can’t imagine that anything will come of it.


Song: “Love you More” by JLS

Dannii: Wow Rumi, that’s the most amazing performance we’ve seen tonight. At times it seemed as if you had about seven different voices coming through in that song. My only criticism was that maybe it was a bit long – when we’ve had the Masnavi form before on this competition it has always been more concise than that…

Louis: …Danni, he is what he is. I loved the poetry and you know what I really like, Rumi? The dancing – it was superb. It left me ecstatic.



Song: “We are Not the Same” by Good Shoes

Cheryl: I just didn’t connect with any of that, Moses. It’s not that I’ve not considered the fundamental philosophical problem of the Hebrew Bible’s anthropomorphic description of God, just that I didn’t feel like it was addressed satisfactorily. It felt like you were just setting up an image of God that was too radically different from what I’m used to; a God so far out of this world that I can’t have anything to do with him.


Song: “The Ultimate” by The Roots

Louis: Shankara – I loved the staging, the robes… very Eastern, brilliant. That bit with the snake…

Simon: …it was a rope, Louis. We all knew it was a rope. Look – I think your ideas have some merit, but you were just downplaying individuality far too much. You are like the anti-Augustine. Besides, I wasn’t getting exactly what you meant by the term Brahman. Was it God? Was it “the ultimate”? It wasn’t clear and I didn’t really get it.


Song: “Give Peace a Chance” by John Lennon

Cheryl: I love what you’re wearing, Gandhi – it’s very fresh and now.

Louis: I just don’t see how that song fits into “Religious Classics” week – we all know how John Lennon felt about religion. It’s just ripping up the rulebook again, I’m sorry…

Simon: Oh forget the rulebook, Louis. Gandhi, the problem I have with you isn’t your delivery; it’s how convincing the material is. It’s all very well talking about peace, but how do we react to violent situations? Listen, we could all fast and engage in non-cooperation, but what impact would that actually have when people are fighting and dying on the streets? I’m looking for someone that I can market in a violent, angry world – and I’m afraid that I’m just not sure that people will buy this whole non-violent philosophy thing.

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Physicality and New Rituals: Internet Religion

Life would be very different without the internet. We wouldn’t be able to keep up to date with earth shattering news and important developments that will have major implications on our everyday lives. On a more serious note, the internet has made a major change to our lives as students and teachers – whether through the easy access to information afforded by online journals and  Blackboard, to the digitisation of previously inaccessible texts (which as a historian, makes me very happy!). The internet has certainly opened up religious boundaries in a way that we couldn’t really have imagined twenty years ago. The rise of the practice of Wicca, for example, has been specifically linked to the way in which the internet has enabled people to explore religious traditions that might previously have been deemed off-limits. Practitioners have been thrilled by the opportunity to discuss their faith with similarly minded people who they would not have had the chance to meet in everyday life. At the same time, however, some older Wiccans bemoan the fact that the internet has attracted young people who want a “quick fix” version of their faith, exploring it only to access spells for their own benefit or as a way of rebelling against their parents. Internet communities that were initially welcoming of outsides have therefore shifted to a sceptical and even hostile attitude towards those exploring the tradition. Online communities can therefore be as problematic as offline traditional communities: it can be tempting to put the boundaries up once the community has established itself.

At the same time, we need to ask what sort of religious practice flourishes online. We saw in the lecture some of the ways in which different faith traditions attempted to use the internet and how these attempts almost always returned to emphasising physical locations: whether through virtual pilgrimages by paying people to physically visit Hindu temples or sending prayer requests to be posted in the Western Wall in Jerusalem. From personal experience I know that this is true: after my conversion via internet the online community I was a part of organised several physical meetings. I have good memories of various visits to meet internet friends, where amongst other things I ended up being interviewed for a 2004 Channel 4 documentary on apocalyptic Christianity and directly insulting a potential US presidential candidate (tip: always check who’s standing behind you in a lift).  This begs this question – if internet religion always returns us to the physical, has it actually changed anything tangible about the way in which we function religiously?

One example might be found in Pauline Hope Cheong’s examination of reactions to Michael Jackson’s death on the internet. Using Emile Durkheim’s definition of ritual as “revitaliz[ing] communal sentiments and a sense of sacred purpose”, she shows how responses to Jackson’s death have been used to create a sense of “transcendence” in cyberspace. Through YouTube videos and online prayers, she argues that his fans were able to function in different ways: as an evangelistic call, as a chance to pronounce judgement upon his critics, and as a way of extending his memory. This, she claims, allows the internet to become “the living virtual grave for the enactment of pious religiosity”. The idea of fans clustering around a virtual shrine; of a cross-media and unified understanding of what death means and how it can be applied might be a little disconcerting (it seems slightly morbid and distasteful), but perhaps this is the way in which the internet will function in the future. It’s worth considering if the internet, if capable of creating new classics, is also capable of creating new understandings of both life and death as well.

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Who’s afraid of Mahatma Gandhi?

By Atreyee Sen

A year ago I met a friend at a national-level policy-making institute in Delhi. He had been awarded a large grant for improving the condition of rural schools in Bihar. While travelling through the countryside inspecting educational infrastructures, he uncovered a curious phenomenon. State-sponsored artists had painted the walls of village pre-schools with stunning portraits of Indian political stalwarts, but in most of these crèche-cum-nurseries, the children, the carers or the local Hindu nationalist organisations had covered the portrait of Gandhi with thick newspapers and strong tapes. While guiding me through photographs of Gandhi’s covered face, he asked: ‘Why do people want to hide the Father of the Nation?’ While pondering over this question, I went to see a controversial play, Gandhi vs Mahatma, which focused on Gandhi’s family life. It represented Gandhi as a harsh father to his eldest son while he fully extended his paternalistic affection to his followers. While travelling through Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state, I met a group of widows who made home-spun cotton by using the spinning wheel, the latter being Gandhi’s symbol for individual and national self-reliance. However, the nature of cloth production changed in the state and the middle classes were no longer interested in wearing rough cotton. The proliferation of western brands, cloth mills and ancillary industries economically marginalised these women and prevented them from playing roles as nation-makers. More recently, I stumbled upon a ‘Gandhi edition’ of Amar Chitra Katha (Immoral Stories through Images), a comic book series, where the editor clearly stated that he was inept at representing a man who was not a martial hero. The artists found it particularly hard to sketch Gandhi’s assassination as ‘the man did not die in the battlefield while fighting for his kingdom’. Obama glorified Gandhi in his 2010 speech to the Indian parliament while investing millions of dollars in the production of bat-wing stealth bombers which can ‘take out civilians without being detected’. From presidents to production managers to pre-school children, does the world need to forget Gandhi?

I am not uncritical of Gandhi, and I have learnt enough about him to view him as a shrewd man and a ruthless politician. My lecture on Gandhi (from an anthropological perspective) adequately brought forth his foibles, and the wide gaps between his philosophy and his practice (especially his politics of celibacy and masculinity, and the incapacity of poor peasants to act as ‘perfect’ recipients of a complex religio-political vision). But he was also a man in the pursuit of personal and political truth and integrity which, he believed, stemmed from the roots of benevolent Hinduism. He brought forth the possibilities of peace, and developed a critique of unfettered capitalism, consumerism and modernity. For me, Gandhi was also a successful reformer. He believed in women’s education, in the rehabilitation of widows (even though he did not recognise the contribution of prostitutes to the national movement), in the abolition of untouchability, in religious pluralism, in the care of the poor, in the social integration of leprosy patients; and he found creative, rebellious ways of translating his thoughts into practice. That, in my opinion, was the crux of his life-long philosophical exercise. For humans not just to be actors and agents within the realm of religion and politics, but to lead exemplary lives so that others may follow. And in this way, an expanding network of compassionate social and economic relations could create a global humanity. Would it be hard to erase the legacy of Gandhi because he makes the world feel guilty about being individualistic, consumerist, bounded, intolerant, lustful and violent? Even a portrait of him reminds us of other options, it warns us, yet we turn a blind eye.

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Translating Shankara (Śaṃkara, Śaṅkara)

By  Jacqueline Suthren-Hirst

Mulling on Monday’s lecture, I wondered a bit more about the question we ended up with:  what are we doing when we translate an eighth century text in Sanskrit into modern English?  Should we be trying to build bridges with it to help us enter into its thoughtworld (using what Prof Williams referred to as an assimilative translation) or trying to realise how very different a worldview it presupposes (using a defamiliarising one)?  Should we be making the strange familiar to us or, through another perspective, making what is familiar to us strange?

Let’s take the onion-skin meditation.  First of all, the image of peeling away the layers of an onion is mine.  So I used something with which you were all familiar to help you envisage a technique which was probably (and is probably!) very alien to most of you.  But the way the layers are peeled away to try to get to the very centre of the onion (is it a final layer of cells, or space within?) is very reminiscent, at one level, of the notion of peeling away the ‘sheaths’ or layers which the Taittiriya Upanishad envisaged over two and a half thousand years ago.  And the way Shankara builds on that text – removing food (body/matter), breath, mind (thoughts), understanding (making sense of things), bliss (the highest good/value) to help the pupil understand brahman beyond/within can be modelled quite nicely by the layers peeled away.

At another level, though, we will have completely missed the fact that the original text was based on a precise arrangement of the Vedic ritual altar, and that Shankara is also getting us to look at that which is eternal and the ground of all, beyond the world of ritual which for him ties us to rebirth.  Does it matter that I didn’t mention that in the lecture?  Or that the understanding of what constitutes a person (the five sheaths)  uses categories which look relatively familiar but belong to a very different psycho-physiology?

What about ‘God’ as a translation for ‘brahman’ then?  You had some good ideas on this one and I hope that you will think about it further in the seminar.  Does it, for example, make any difference if I write ‘Brahman’ with a capital letter and no italics, making it sound a bit like a proper noun, or name?  (There aren’t any capitals in Sanskrit. by the way).  Even the way we choose to write the word in roman letters (this kind!) starts to affect the way we think about its possible meanings.

As part of an assimilative translation, the term ‘God’ might help us to understand the notion of brahman as the ground or source of all that there is.  Because it comes from a root √bh, to grow great, it could bear similarity to the notion of God as that than which no greater can be conceived.  Shankara makes a point similar to this near the beginning of his commentary on the Brahma Sutras.  But ‘God’ comes with a lot of cultural loading – or rather many different cultural loadings.  And for many of us, whether we subscribe to such a view or not, ‘God’ implies a monotheistic view which we might subconsciously contrast with a polytheistic (and possibly idolatrous) ‘many gods’ view, or with a pantheistic ‘God is everything’ view.  We might not even question where such categories come from or whether they really fit much Indian material.  (Come to John Zavos’s “Religion in Modern South Asian History” to think about this further!).

This isn’t simply an issue of our cultural and historical difference from Shankara’s world though (whatever our own backgrounds might be).  The pupil, as we saw in the Thousand Teachings extract, comes to a point where he wants to worship brahman.  But Shankara asks him:  Why do you say, “I am one thing and He is another”?  The pupil needs to go a step further and realise that the principle of consciousness which grounds him (and the pupil is male for Shankara) is none other than the principle of consciousness which grounds the whole universe.  That is why, according to Shankara, the Upanishad can say:  ‘You are that’ (i.e. you are identical with the source of all = Self = brahman).  (Other Indian thinkers profoundly disagreed with him)

But as we saw, if we then say, ‘You are God’, that completely distorts what Shankara is getting at.  You, the individual, differentiated by your mental-material constituents, are certainly not God.  You need to strip those away, says Śaṃkara, to realise the Self which grounds us all.  It is that Self which is brahman.  All else is superimposition, our misconceptions of what brahman is.  (By the way, you might have spotted that I have used another familiarising translation here: ‘Self’ for ‘atman’.  This is the standard translation now.  Earlier translators chose ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’.  What are the different resonances of each word for you?  What might that alert you to?)

How might we capture Shankara’s understanding of ‘brahman’ in a defamiliarising translation, then?  Sometimes it is rendered as ‘ultimate reality’ – a phrase which has various layers of meaning.  Does it have any for you?  For those familiar with Shankara’s thought, it recalls that Shankara, like some Madhyamika Buddhists, recognised a conventional level of reality and an ultimate level – or rather, there is only one reality but conventionally we misperceive it.  The task for the person who desires liberation from the world of rebirth is to understand it correctly.  And that is where our discussion of language came in.  So I leave you with the question to go on thinking about:  if brahman is beyond language, but Vedic language is the only valid means of knowing brahman, how does language work to help ‘make the penny drop’? Or is the first presupposition incoherent, as some of Shankara’s later opponents would argue?  Where then does his understanding lead to? A void? Atantalising glimpse? An insoluble puzzle? or, liberation?


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Religious Poetry and Popular Music: Five Examples

Professor Williams’ fascinating lecture today highlighted some of the many ways that religious poetry can work on its readers. Standard, conversational speech often tries to communicate a “plain” meaning. This is especially the case in religious instruction. If I preach a sermon, for example, I aim to take a text or the abstract commandments of God and make them intelligible to the day to day life of the believer sitting in the pews before me. Religious poetry, however, does not function in this manner. In Professor Williams’ words it acts as “creative speech”: it works to open the reader to new states of being and view the divine in a different manner. In this way religious poetry is “mind altering” in the best possible way – whether it is Rumi providing us with glimpses of the divine by his surprising interruptions and shifts in authorial voice in his poems, or the paradoxical images of purity and impurity used by John Donne (“Except you enthral me, never shall be free\Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me”).  But religious poetry is still alive and well today in a surprising context: popular music. In the following post I want to highlight five songs  that highlight way in which contemporary artists have used their lyrics to get the listeners to consider different religious positions (with Youtube links so that you can listen). Being focused on Western artists, this list is entirely Christian – please let me know if you have any further suggestions for other faiths!

Sufjan Stevens, “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”\“To Be Alone with You” (Illinois 2005\ Seven Swans 2004)

Stevens is one of the most theologically interesting artists performing today – see “Vesuvius” from his later album (which I’ve written more extensively on here). On “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” he shocks the listener with his stark articulation of the Protestant doctrine of mankind’s total depravity (universal sinfulness). The song features the chilling tale of the infamous serial killer and rapist, leaving the listener horrified at his deeds before Stevens closes with the admission that “even in my best behaviour\ I’m really just like him”. A similar inversion occurs in “To Be Alone With You”, in which Stevens declares his desperation to be with Jesus (“I’d swim across Lake Michigan… To be alone with you”) before the dawning realisation that Jesus had in fact given up more than the singer could ever hope to sacrifice to have fellowship with him (“You gave your body to the lonely… a wife and a family…To be alone with me\ You went up a tree [i.e. the Cross]”). These inversions, like the best religious poetry, aim to shock the listener into reconsidering the situation they find themselves in and re-examine their own religious positions.

Vigilantes of Love, “Resplendent” (Audible Sigh, 1999)

A haunting folk rock song by the Bill Mallonee led band, “Resplendent” deals with the tragedies hitting a farmer in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Like the book of Job, the song tackles  the inscrutability of God’s purpose. After losing both wife and daughter and seeing his harvest destroyed, the farmer is left to ask whether it is his sin, the randomness of life, or Satan’s persecution of the faithful that is responsible for his suffering: “How much of this is meant to be\ How much the work of the Devil\ How far can one man’s eyes really see\In these days of toil and trouble?\ How much of this is failing flesh\ How much the course of retribution?…” The song, again echoing Job, disturbingly offers no answers to the tragic turn of the singer’s life, before wryly observing that all men like to disavow responsibility for their own decisions: “My, my how we declare our innocence\Long after we’ve made our contribution”. Mallonee’s work is probably the most theologically interesting of anybody working today, I’d encourage you to dig a little deeper into his catalogue if interested in deep thought in music.

The Mountain Goats, “Genesis 3:23” (Life of the World to Come, 2009)

A band with an unconventional religious background (band leader John Darnelle attends both a Catholic Church and Hare Krishna meetings), the Goats’ most recent album featured tracks each based around a particular biblical verse. This song, based on the verse where Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, reimagines the singer’s visit to his old house. Forced to pick the locks to enter, Darnelle muses on the failures and disappointments of dashed hopes. What was once familiar to him becomes alien and frightening. What was once a place of comfort and peace has become a place where he must hide his presence: while recalling a place that was once “familiar and warm” now he must “cover up [his] tracks” as he leaves. Returning to his own home he, like Adam and Eve, is forced to contemplate the newly open and uncertain world. Even the stars now appear threatening: “like teeth in the mouth of a shark”. As a meditation on the first verses of Genesis it works, like much of the album, remarkably well.

Belle and Sebastian, “Ghost of Rockschool”, (Write About Love, 2010)

A recent article noted that as opposed to artists catering for the “Christian” market (recording “praise and worship” songs) who sing to a God “up there”, believers working in mainstream contemporary music tended to record music reflecting the immanence of God and his closeness in everyday life. God, in other words, is all around us.  “Ghost of Rockschool” reflects, simultaneously, how close the divine is to singer Stuart Murdoch and (conversely) how far away: “I’ve seen God in the sun\God in the street\God before bed and the promise of sleep\God in my dreams and the free ride of grace\But it all disappears and then I wake up”. The song concludes, however, with the singer finding God’s presence in other people: “I’ve seen God in the puddles\And lanes besides houses\I’ve seen God shining out from her reflection”. In other words, those who follow and love God, those who reflect his glory and his created image, manifest God to us.

All of these songs try to tell us something about ourselves and something about the divine. They don’t necessarily offer all the answers, but give us new prisms through which to examine our own religious beliefs (or lack of them). Whether these songs offer, along with Rumi’s poetry, “the essence of our state” is questionable, but they amply display the survival and flourishing of religious poetry in contemporary society.

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Jewish-Christian Relations

The relationship between Jews and Christians is complex. While there is a long and shameful history of anti-Semitism in the Christian church, at the same time there has often been a wide variety of overlap between the two religions. So Maimonides’ thought was useful not just for Jews, but for Christians as well.

Perhaps one of the most interesting times for Jewish-Christian relations came in the mid seventeenth century in England. The English had a somewhat strange relationship with the Jewish people – Edward I had expelled all Jews from the country in 1290, meaning that ever since then there had been no official Jewish presence in the nation. By the mid-seventeenth century however, pious Protestants were beginning to wonder whether the lack of Jews in the nation was actually harming the country. Reading the Old Testament in a more literal fashion than many of their predecessors, they believed that the Gentiles may not have replaced the Jews in God’s favour. Instead, the Jewish nation was still God’s and could expect to be finally restored to Palestine where (after they had converted to Jesus) they would rule the world. After the chaos of the English Civil Wars, a growing clamour began to emerge for Jewish restoration to England. This hope in England chimed with that of a continental Jew, Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who believed that the time was right for the Jews to return to England. In 1655 he was granted a passport and came to London to petition Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell for Jewish re-entry, and rights in the country. Cromwell, who believed that Jews played a crucial part in prophecies of the end times, called a conference to discuss the rabbi’s proposals, at which merchants, theologians and lawyers attended.

The discussion in the Whitehall Conference, held in December 1655, was fractious. Merchants were suspicious that foreign Jews would prove unwelcome competition, while theologians were split between those who felt that England was under judgement for expelling the Jews and those who felt that the Jews were under judgement for killing Christ. Most alarming of all, for the majority, was Menasseh himself. As there was no official Jewish presence in England, the majority of those at the conference had never met a Jew in the flesh. They had naively presumed that as soon as Menasseh saw the “pure” Christianity practiced in England he would be so impressed as to convert. Yet the rabbi (unsurprisingly) was quite happy being Jewish. Indeed, the conference began to discuss the possibility (and this disturbed them greatly) that Christians might convert to Judaism. In the end, these fears won out. The conference (much to Cromwell’s disgust) closed without reaching a decision. This provoked a pamphlet war between them that produced two well-known works – William Prynne’s toxic Short Demurrer, a work that reiterated the false charge of the blood libel and Menasseh’s majestic answer, the Vindicae Judaeorum (Vindication of the Jews). Menasseh stayed in London for a number of months, before departing heartbroken that no official readmission had emerged from the conference. His own congregation in Amsterdam had already lost patience with him and it is easy to view his mission as a total failure. Yet this might not be the case. The Whitehall Conference recognised that there was no legal barrier on Jews returning to the nation, while Menasseh’s presence forced the tiny secret Jewish community in London to reveal itself. When it did so, no action was taken against it. While official readmission would have to wait until the restoration of Charles II, Menasseh may just have unwittingly achieved his major objective. His story remains an unusual, but compelling, example of how Jews and Christians interacted.

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Church and State in the US Elections

If you need an illustration of the relevance of debates on church and state you could do worse than cast your glance across the Atlantic. The upcoming midterm elections have exposed that the issue is, for many, at the heart of the issues being discussed. This debate on the separation of church and state has raged throughout American history. While the founding fathers of the republic may have feared the establishment of a government run church (or a church run government!) their ancestors, in seventeenth-century puritan migrants, had often attempted to set up cities run as orderly, godly theocracies (Boston being a pertinent example. This dual tension has run through the American psyche up to the present day.

The first amendment to the US Constitution stated that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1802, argued that this “[built] a wall of separation between church and state”. Where as in the past presidents such as George Washington and John Adams had called days of fasting and thanksgiving (in other words, involving the state with a particular religion), Jefferson shied away from the recognition of any state sponsored form of faith. While Jefferson may have been clear on his position, however, exactly what the first amendment meant has generated considerable debate. Does the fact that Congress cannot establish a religion mean that faith must be kept completely out of public life? Some would answer this question in the affirmative – witness the succession of court cases on prayer in public schools, the teaching of creationism and the presence of the Ten Commandments in court rooms. Others, however, would see constitutional separation to be more about preventing the government from establishing any institution along Church of England lines rather than removing all religion from public life. After all, Jefferson’s letter was to a group of Baptists worried that they were being disadvantaged – separation, they argue, is designed to avoid favouritism rather than remove God from public life.

This age old debate is one of the key points in the current electoral cycle. One of the interesting things about the new “Tea Party” movement (disaffected conservative Republicans) that has emerged lately is their open use of religious rhetoric. Many Tea Party supporters are evangelical Christians who favoured the approach of the Bush administration. President Obama is seen as a Marxist, Atheist or even a Muslim – a leader who has abandoned the “godly” principles that governed the foundation of the USA.  This means that the role that religion should play in the state is often brought up – either to attack opponents lack of faith, or by those same opponents to raise the spectre of theocracy. One of the Tea Party’s most visible candidates, Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell, has recently courted controversy over her understanding of the constitution on the issue of this separation. While this Guardian article picks up on her apparent lack of understanding of the issue, the video debate suggests that O’Donnell’s view of the first amendment is not that it expressly prohibits the involvement of church and state, but rather that it seeks only to prohibit the establishment of a church. Her recent focus on God, who she claims has called her to be “His voice” in the senate, shows that she is not shy in using her faith as part of her politics. While she may be at the more extreme end of the debate, the fact that she was selected to run for major political office shows something of the appetite for politicians who do not view the separation of church and state as total. The direction that the tea party movement and their relative strength means that watching their influence will be one of the most interesting elements of next week’s vote.

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