US v. UK: Public Religion and Perceptions

By Paul Keithley, Global Paradigm Fellow in England

1. What has been the most prominent topic of political or policy-related discussion in recent days? Or if you have not observed politics being outwardly discussed, what is the most prominent political topic on the consciousness of the people around you?

 

Political discussion is all about audience. Though I have heard people talking about the Scottish independence movement and I’ve seen billboards raising awareness about the changes proposed to the National Health Service, I’ve heard the most about politics through my local church. Parliament has introduced a bill that would redefine the legal definition of marriage as the union between two people, effectively making homosexual and heterosexual marriage indistinguishable legally. This is especially interesting, given the fact that the Church of England has been intertwined with Parliament and the Crown since its creation almost 500 years ago. In the US, issues such as gay marriage are secular affairs (though people often incorporate their religious views), but in England social affairs are in a peculiar situation. While the state Parliament is trying to reform the secular definition of marriage, the state Church is bound to a Biblical definition of marriage. Thus evangelical churches have begun to circulate a petition in keep the legal definition of marriage the same as the Biblical definition.

 

2. In your time abroad, what political opinions or aspects of the political environment have most struck you as surprising or unexpected?

 

British politics seem to be much more progressive than their American counterpart. For instance, topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and a national health care are non-issues. As opposed to the US, which has recently struggled with such issues, Britain seems to be remarkably at ease with such matters. The National Health Service was first created back in 1948: a generation has grown up with it and embraced it. Abortions have been provided by the state through the NHS since the late 1960’s. And same-sex marriage is widely accepted; earlier this year, Church officials, due to increased pressure from the populace, petitioned the Bishop of London to allow same-sex couples to be married in Anglican churches, a request which was subsequently denied. This is all very interesting for an American – for society back home has thankfully not fallen into the moral decay predicted by opponents to such issues.

 

3. How do people in your country of study view the United States? For example, what qualities and characteristics do they ascribe to the American people vs. the American government and its policies? Are there issues that are particularly contentious?

 

How the British view the United States is an interesting question, something about which I have become a bit concerned. Foreign perceptions of the United States are certainly aided by the practical dominance of American culture in England. From movies to television to music, entertainment provides insight into American society. As such, I think my concern for perception of the US overseas is justified when American television shows such as Family Guy and American Dad and movies such as Superbad become subjects of conversation – we in the States are not the only ones watching this content. Plenty of Britons know of the right-winged America such as Fox News – I have often heard an American lecturer in one of my classes reference such shows, to the amusement of the British students. This said, many of those in the UK have been to the United States, which I feel has countered the American media perceptions. Actually visiting the States undoes some of these judgments in much the same way that an American’s ideas of Britain from Dr. Who or the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice would change upon visiting the UK. However, the vastness of America leaves many of us without a clear picture of life abroad, an issue not present for an island nation so close to continental Europe.