Our producer Ray Kirstein has been on assignment in Europe, gathering foreign opinions and perceptions about the current presidential race. He spoke with Daniel Ogden, Lecturer on Globalization and American Politics at the Uppsala University in Sweden, and Dr. James W. Davis, Director of the Institute for Political Science and Professor of Political Science at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland about what their conversations about the 2012 race in America sound like and what role religion plays in their own elections.
Dr. James W. Davis
Click the “play” buttons above to hear the extended interviews. Click here for Daniel Ogden and here for James Davis to download them. Scroll down to read the transcripts. Click here to listen to the April 21, 2012 State of Belief Radio program as broadcast.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: DANIEL OGDEN, DR. JAMES W. DAVIS[WG]: A few years ago, I was in an international meeting with the World Economic Forum, and amid numerous voices from various places in the world, I heard for the first time the opinion that there are many people in the international community who think they ought to get to vote in presidential elections in the United States, making the argument that the President of the United States often influences and impacts them and their lives even more than the leaders of their own country; very interesting observation! Well, our producer, Ray Kirstein, has been on assignment in Europe gathering foreign opinions and perceptions about the current presidential campaign going on in the United States. Earlier this week, he spoke to Daniel Ogden who is a lecturer of Uppsala University in Sweden. [RAY KIRSTEIN, PRODUCER]: Mr. Ogden, what do you see as the perceptions and reactions to the current United States presidential primary season, so far, in Europe? [DANIEL OGDEN, GUEST]: In Europe, it’s difficult to say; Sweden is rather special because there’s an enormous amount of coverage of the American political process here in Sweden. I would say Sweden is very different than the rest of Europe in that aspect. Another country I can compare it to is Great Britain, where there is not at all the same amount of attention or informed debate going on about American politics. Sweden is really special. I would say Scandinavia in general, but especially Sweden; and in some ways Norway. So Sweden is very well-informed, and there’s a lot of news coverage in Sweden. That’s probably not the case in other, say, continental countries, like France and Spain and Germany. So Sweden is rather special. [RK]: How do you think the level of interest in this year’s US campaign compares to past elections? [DO]: Well, I’ve been living here since the 1960’s, and I think every election has been covered well – of course, especially now with the internet and, you know, everything else that we didn’t have in the 70’s – but I think there is the same amount of attention. Perhaps there was more in 2008 because of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and, you know, the previous Bush administrations and so forth – but I don’t think this election has any more or less. It’s sort of a constant level of exposure to what’s going on in the United States, it’s the same amount of reporting – and even with mid-term elections, there’s a good bit of reporting here in Sweden so again, it’s a remarkably well-informed country when it comes to America, and very interested in what is going on in America in that way. [RK]: You know, I think Sweden and Scandinavia in general have the reputation for being solidly secular societies. [DO]: Yes. [RK]: There’s been a lot of consternation among many Americans regarding the level of religious rhetoric in this campaign. How does that resonate in a place like Sweden? [DO]: That is something that Swedes find rather hard to understand, and is something I take up in my courses: importance of religion in United States, and it’s easier to discuss those things in a classroom. When it comes to the media reporting, it’s a little bit more difficult; but I think there’s just generally a sense of, you know, how can this be going on in the United States, how can religion and politics be so closely linked? So you’re right, I mean, Sweden is a very secular society, and certainly religion and politics don’t play, you know, any sort of… Well, there is a Christian Democratic party in Sweden, but with the exception of that, I mean, religion doesn’t take part in the political discourse here as it does in the United States. So people do find it rather strange, it’s one of the things they find – at the same time they find very, very interesting about the United States – but it’s something which is very foreign to the Swedish, sort of, experience, to say the least. [RK]: With the recent withdrawal of Rick Santorum from the GOP primaries, do you think that maybe the level of faith-talk might subside a little bit? [DO]: I don’t know if it’ll change it all that much. I mean, Rick Santorum and his views were seen as being rather extreme from a Swedish perspective, but there’s so much that we take for granted in the American political process, of God coming into the political discourse, that we just take for granted: God bless America and things like that – a candidate will say it at the end of his speech, this is perfectly accepted and is something that would be very strange here. So, I think those elements are the ones that we as Americans take for granted, they’re still in the discourse. But those are also things that Swedes find rather unusual, and, for example, in my class, you know, why do candidates say these things, and so forth. So you’re right, I think this might reduce at least the type of religion and social issues that Santorum was focusing on, but I think those social issues, they’re not going to disappear; the Tea Party is still very, very active, I think it’ll be part of the presidential campaign, but you’re right, there seems to be a shift more towards the political side of the political discourse instead of religion – and we’ll just have to see what happens. [RK]: Let me ask you this. Can you imagine a scenario where religion, where the personal convictions of a candidate or political leader in Europe might affect their career the way it would in the United States? [DO]: No, it’s considered to be, you know, a private matter. The same thing with, like, if somebody gets a divorce or the Prime Minister, now, and his wife are separating – there’s just a very brief report in the media, and that was it. And, you know, people hope that whatever happens they can work out their problems or whatever, but it wasn’t a political issue; and it is the same thing about religious as well. So, say, there is a Christian Democratic Party, a very small one, which is in the government coalition; but, I mean, in terms of an individual’s religious beliefs, nobody really would – no, it’s considered to be a personal matter, so I wouldn’t see faith itself as being an obstacle to a political career. Sweden isn’t a country of aggressive atheists or anything like that, it’s just it’s seen as being a personal matter, and they’re separate, religion and politics. [RK]: What themes emerge in conversations with your colleagues and students in regard to the way the US political system functions today? What comes up most frequently? [DO]: I have to think. I mean, there’s a great emphasis on the domestic political situation, the election campaign and everything is well-debated, well-explained and everything. I guess I would almost have to say foreign affairs is probably the most important thing, you know, what America is doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the situation in the Middle East generally, and even American relations with China and so forth – I think there probably is a greater concern with those things. I mean, in my teaching, a lot of it has to do just with the nuts and bolts of the system: how do you explain federalism, and how do you explain the presidential electoral system and things like that, is something I’ve been doing in past weeks now. So there’s an interest in both the nuts and bolts of the system; also the personalities involved, people like Omaba and so forth. But I guess foreign affairs is a really big area of interest, just because what America does in the world has such an effect – maybe not immediately, directly on Sweden, but certainly indirectly – and Sweden is very much an outward-looking country; so again, it’s not just about the United States that people learn, but they’re very well-informed about the rest of the world, whereas I would say, like, in Britain or France or Germany, perhaps understandably, the news is focused mainly on the national news, not the worldwide perspective. [RK]: I’m curious, how would you characterize the perception in Sweden of the Obama administration up to this point? [DO]: Perhaps, sort of, paralleling some views in the United States: that there were great expectations, and they had the feeling that – I think quite, unjustifiably – that feeling that he, sort of, didn’t fulfill his promise, whatever that might be. You can certainly find people expressing that.
On the other hand, you can certainly find people expressing that it was such a tremendous change that happened in 2008, an African-American becoming elected President, and this really changed American history – and then one has a much more positive view of his presidency.
The criticism, I think, again, going back to foreign affairs is more: the war in Afghanistan, there are Swedish groups there as well; Iraq – of course, that was a situation that he inherited – but I think, generally, a positive view that he has done something good, although yes, you will find people feel that, especially with the deadlock in Congress and so forth, you know, which isn’t exactly easy to explain, that, you know, the President should be able to do something more. And then, back in my courses, try to explain how the President is supposedly among the strongest individuals in the world, but that that strength is more in foreign affairs than, quite often, on the domestic scene, just because of the way the system works. But I think, generally, a positive perception of what he’s done; maybe wanting him to do a bit more, whatever that might have been, but as I say, not terribly different than similar views you find in the United States.[RK]: Mr. Ogden, if our entire audience were in your classroom right now, what would be the most important thing that you would want to say to them? [DO]: I guess the most important thing is to register to vote, and then to actually vote – because that’s another big issue that can be difficult to explain – the relatively low voter turnout. In Sweden, if the voter turnout is, like, 80%, then that would be like a national disaster, that it had fallen so low. So I think that’s the most important thing; and perhaps not to be, sort of, put off by the bickering in Congress and the two different sides and so forth. And I don’t know, somehow – I mean, I’m interested in politics, but I know it’s difficult just to be, you know, turned off by that sort of thing. But somehow one has to, sort of, look beyond it and have tolerance, because this is the way the system works – and look at the important issues and see what one feels one’s self and what sort of society one wants to have and then, you know, vote accordingly. So just to remain informed, and act on the knowledge one has. [WG]: That’s State of Belief Radio producer Ray Kirstein, talking American politics from a Scandinavian perspective with Daniel Ogden, who teaches courses on globalization and on American government and politics at Uppsala University in Sweden. Now, Ray also spent some time with Dr. James W. Davis. Dr. Davis is the Director of The Institute for Political Science and Professor for Political Science with a focus on international relations at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland: [RK]: Dr. Davis, what do you see as the perception of, and the reaction to, the current US primary season, so far, in Europe? [DR. JAMES W. DAVIS, GUEST]: Well, I think there’s quite a bit of interest in the Republican field, or what was the Republican field. I think most Europeans find it quite amazing that everybody from a former governor to a former Speaker of the House, to a former pizza executive can run for the nomination; and so I think they find the nature of the field quite interesting. The characters were colorful, I mean, if you think of Herman Cain or if you think of Michele Bachmann, these are all interesting characters from a European standpoint. And so I think there has been a fair degree of interest, if bewilderment, at the sorts of topics and themes that have characterized the Republican primary. [RK]: You know, many Americans do see this is a most unusual election, with so much extremist langue and rhetoric. Has that raised eyebrows on the other side of the Atlantic? [DD]: Certainly with some European observers. I mean, there’s a certain smug attitude toward Middle America, but I think more thoughtful European observers are really much more interested in trying to understand how it can be that some of the themes and issues that have come up in the primaries could resonate with Americans in the 21st Century. I think that’s particularly the case when, all of a sudden, questions of contraception became central to the Republican debate. I think for most Europeans that’s a strange development in the year 2012, and so I think thoughtful Europeans are trying to understand how that could be, whereas there are some, sort of, rather arrogant attitudes that, “Well, those are the Americans, what do you expect?” [RK]: Do you feel this election is getting more or less European attention than previous campaign seasons? [DD]: I think it’s getting less attention than the last election did, and that was because, I think, George Bush was such a polarizing figure, both in the United States and in Europe, that the interest of the Europeans in American politics had really reached a high point. And so I think there was much more interest in the last cycle, and in particular on the Democratic side, I think the primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was really exciting for Europeans to watch – as it was for many Americans – to have the first serious woman candidate for president competing for the nomination of a major party against the first serious African-American candidate; so it was really a very exciting and electrifying campaign in the primary season. And then, of course, in the general election with John McCain representing, sort of, a view to the past, and Barack Obama something of the promise of the future, and so I think Europeans were very excited. They’re less excited this time, or less interested I think, although there is a fair amount of interest in the Republican candidates, and the various swaths of American society that they seem to represent. [RK]: Dr. Davis, you’ve spent much of your life in the United States, now a number of years in Europe. Americans are notoriously disengaged from foreign matters – until there’s a war or a crisis. Do you think there is too much or too little attention paid by Europe toward American politics? Because what you’re describing is very similar to conversations you hear in the United States; but you don’t hear Americans talking about European politics. [DD]: I think, probably, Europeans pay much more attention to American politics than Americans pay to European politics; and there’s a good reason for that. The United States is still the only global superpower; it still accounts for something like 25% of global economic output; and so what happens in the United States is of consequence for Europe, whether Europeans are interested in it or not. And so I think it’s quite normal that Europeans would pay attention to what is going on in the United States. Of course, they’re going to pay much more attention once we get into the actual campaign between a Republican and Democratic candidate – insofar as it looks like that Republican candidate will be Mitt Romney, I think people will start to pay more attention to Mitt Romney, try to get to know a little bit more about him and what his positions are, and try to gauge what a Romney presidency might mean for Europe. [RK]: You know, religion has been a very prominent part of this election, and I’m wondering if European observers find this to be notable in the current campaign cycle. [DD]: Yeah, I think there’s a fair amount of bewilderment on this side of the Atlantic when it comes to religiosity in American politics. I think it’s not so much the fact of religiosity as it is the form. If you think about European politics, there are, in most European countries, very strong Christian Democratic parties which, at their base, have a set of Christian values informing their policies. But the overt references to God, or to what God would want or to how God judges a particular public policy proposal or how God condemns a particular government policy, I mean – that type of religiosity is fairly foreign to Europeans, and is the cause of some bewilderment. Mitt Romney is, of course, quite interesting from the standpoint of his Mormon faith, because Mormonism is an American export; it’s a genuinely American religion, and something that’s still not widely known or understood in Europe. And so I think there’s a fair amount of interest in what that means; what is Mormonism, and what does it mean to be a Mormon politician? [RK]: When knowledgeable Europeans talk about the current state of the American political system as a whole, what themes emerge? [DD]: I think what’s most perplexing for Europeans is how it can be that the United States, which is clearly part of the West, can spend so much time debating issues that seem to be of such secondary importance to voters in Europe; and so, when we get off onto debates about contraception, debates about what in Europe would be considered private matters – the private morality of politicians – and in a time when we’re really still struggling with the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression – that bewilders Europeans. Europeans don’t understand that. And the notion that it’s the business of government to regulate private behavior of citizens, that it’s the business of government to engage in this type of social engineering is perplexing. It’s particularly perplexing insofar as it was always thought to be the United State that was the guarantor of individual liberties, and the Europeans who were more wedded to the notion that there was a strong relationship between government and society – and so, Europeans are perplexed at what seems to have been a reversal in the ways in which these two electorates deal with social issues. [RK]: Dr. Davis, can I ask you how would you characterize the term of Barack Obama so far? [DD: I think Europeans are, in general – or, a majority of Europeans, I think – would probably feel very comfortable with the general thrust of Barack Obama’s policies; but I do think that there is a sense that the promise of his presidency has not been fulfilled, and so I think there is a bit of a disappointment. And I think that’s particularly felt when it seems that Barack Obama is really pivoting toward Asia, that Europe is not the first address for the Obama administration when it comes to looking for a partner to solve world problems. I think the Europeans are beginning to sense that the center of gravity in world politics is shifting to Asia, and they’re scared about that; fearful that they’re going to lose their position in the world, and insofar as they think Obama might have something to do with this, I think there’s a bit of a disappointment, particularly felt in places like Berlin. [RK]: And do you have a prediction for the election outcome this fall? [DD]: You know, I think things are tracking well for the president. I think the economic data – although the most recent data is perhaps not as strong as some might have hoped for – but the trend is going in the right direction, and I think insofar as he can keep people focused on economic fundamentals and make a clear distinction between the types of policies that we had before the economic crisis and the types of policies that he’s trying to put through now, I think as long as he can keep the focus on these issues, it looks pretty good for him. But it’s going to be a hard fight, needless to say. [WG]: That’s Doctor James W. Davis, director of The Institute for Political Science and Professor for Political Science with a focus on international relations at the University of Saint Gallen in Switzerland. He spoke with State of Belief Producer Ray Kirsten. Please visit us online at stateofbelief.com to find out more about the show, hear extended interviews, read transcripts and sign up for our podcasts, brought to you by Interfaith Alliance.
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The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.