I am in England (yes, just England) for a few days, and as always, I am intrigued by the subtle and not-so-subtle contrasts between this context and my own.  Sunday’s papers were full of stories about the Chilcot Inquiry, a formal investigation into Britain’s entry into the Iraq War.  Many of us in the US have longed for such a process.  The current governments on both sides of the Atlantic are downplaying the importance of doing so “…its in the past…” one Tory over here said recently.  The Obama administration seemingly feels likewise, and the Democratic leadership in the US Congress has other fish to fry at the moment.  So, we will have to experience it vicariously throught the inquiry here in Britain.  And, it has functioned that way.  Goverments fail to realize that, while they can feel some kind of closure on the epochal nature of the run-up to the war, the rest of us aren’t there yet, and shouldn’t be.  We need to ponder this.  In light of this, Americans would be advised to look into what Chilcot is revealing about our own Administration’s actions 2001-02.

More than one US pundit noted that Barack Obama’s appearance at the House Republican retreat last Friday bore a resemblance to the British tradition of Prime Minister’s Questions.  Those sessions involve a give-and-take unheard of in US politics, where Presidents typically insulate themselves from direct, public, accountability and scrutiny.  I, for one, always had a fantasy of George Bush being interviewed by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.  It would not have been pretty.

Americans who don’t know what I’m talking about: look it up.  Former British PM Tony Blair experienced the British form of accountability the same day as he appeared before the Chilcot Commission.  That was the theme of much of this Sunday’s coverage.

But, as a scholar of media and religion, something caught my eye in a commentary about Blair’s testimony.  Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Patrick Cockburn was devastating in his criticism of Blair, suggesting that he was, above all else, incompetant:

“It is this mixture of amateurism and evangelical conviction which made Mr Blair such a lethally inept leader before and during the war in Iraq,” he writes.

The use of the term “evangelical” caught my eye.  as I pondered its intent, I began to unravel layers of meaning in it.  As I thought about it, I came to reaqlize that these involve both meanings that are particular to, and reflective of, the contexts of the US and Britain.  Here are a few of them:

There is, of course the “real” meaning of evangelical in this context: something like “advocate.”  Then there is the historic meaning in Britain, with it commonplace over here to point to the role of evangelicalism in social reform–particularly anti-slavery activism–in the 19th century.  Thus, “evangelical” can mean religiously-motivated political action here.  Then there is the transcultural meaning.  It is one of the effects of mediated globalization that people in the UK have had ever more instantaneous access to US political discourse for the past few decades and are increasingly confident about invoking American political tropes into discourse here.  Thus a British commentator can also mean a received trope of US Evangelical politics when the term is used.  This is doubly meaningful in light of Bush’s own Evangelical roots and motivations–a matter of great suspicion on this side of the Atlantic.  Thus, evangelical an also mean naively interventionist, given that history and context.  Interacting with this notion is another referent specific to the UK context: the abiding suspicion over here of Blair’s own religious roots and motivations.  Observers on the left, in particular, were always concerned that Blair’s public professions of faith were signs of an imminent turn in Bush’s direction.  Cockburn’s juxtaposition of it with “amateur” is telling.Blair’s subsquent conversion to Catholicism has done little to diminish this suspicion.  That is also a layer.

So there is a lot to that word, “evangelical.”  At least to a scholar of media and religion.

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