When Prime Minister, Tony Blair famously did not “do God”, or so his press secretary Alastair Campbell insisted during an interview back in 2003 – in marked contrast to the candidates in this year’s American presidential election. Surveys of registered Republicans confirm that more than two thirds would never vote for an atheist, so it is no surprise to find that all 14 contenders for the Republican nomination are regular churchgoers. But each has also voluntarily and unequivocally asserted the centrality of religion in their personal lives.
In an interview in The New York Times, Catholic convert Jeb Bush declared his “love of the sacraments of the Church and the timeless nature of its message”; for the Southern Baptist Ted Cruz, “Faith is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour”; the Episcopalian Carly Fiorina “could not have endured” the dual misfortune in the same year of both the death of her stepdaughter and being diagnosed with breast cancer “without a personal relationship with God”.
Most emphatically of all, the dizzying ascendancy in the polls of paediatric neurosurgeon (and rank outsider) Ben Carson is attributable, at least in part, to his having apparently been blessed with divine favour at the beginning of his medical career.
In his bestselling autobiography, Gifted Hands, he recalls praying for God’s help on the eve of his chemistry finals, which he was convinced he was going to fail – which would have denied him entry to medical school. That night he dreamt he was sitting in a classroom when a “nebulous figure” entered and started writing chemistry problems on the blackboard that remained fresh in his mind on waking. Later that day in the examination hall, “I skimmed through the questions laughing silently … the exam problems were identical to those posed by the shadowy figure in my dream.”
Some have predictably challenged the authenticity of this sign of divine favour, but the persuasiveness of the prophetic dream is deeply rooted in American history. Many are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s dream on the night before his assassination – as related to his bodyguard William Crook – of entering the East Room in the White House: “Before me was a catafalque on which rested a corpse in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers and throngs of people weeping pitifully. ‘Who has died?’
I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer.”Then Martin Luther King’s renowned speech to 250,000 civil rights supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is steeped in the imagery of the prophetic dream, “where one day my children will live in a nation not judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character”.
And being well versed in their Bible, millions of Americans will be aware of the critical role of the prophetic dream as a guide to action – particularly in the New Testament. Joseph, it will be recalled, had three. The first when, on hearing of Mary’s pregnancy and considering whether to quietly divorce her, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying ‘Do not fear to take Mary as your wife for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost’”. Next, the flight into Egypt is prompted by the warning of Herod’s intention to “search for the child, to destroy him”. The third dream, when he is back in Israel, leads Joseph to “withdraw to the district of Galilee” to avoid persecution from Herod’s son.
Thus Jesus was brought to the safety of his new home, observes American academic Kelly Bulkeley in his book Dreaming in the World’s Religions, “by means of a series of clear, direct and unquestionably trustworthy dreams”. St Paul, too, is guided in his missionary work by four prophetic dreams described in the Acts of the Apostles including this well-known injunction: “Take courage, for as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so too you must bear witness in Rome.”
The most parsimonious interpretation of these dreams would be that they are a device for conveying God’s will, though Bulkeley notes the Church’s view of their significance has tended to be more ambivalent. Indeed, the manual used by the Inquisition in seeking out heretics cited dreams as one of the primary means by which the Devil seduced the unwary and undermined their faith.
For all that, Ben Carson’s experience and those like it remain the staple of inspirational books and fill hours of time on Christian radio and television. It will not, by itself, secure him the Republican nomination but viewed from the perspective of secular Britain, where politicians do not “do God”, it is reassuring that candidates for political office in the United States still so unselfconsciously confess to the significance of religion in their lives.
James Le Fanu is a doctor, medical columnist and science historian
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