There's One Thing the US Presidential Contenders All Have in Common: God

Note: In this article, Timothy Garton Ash, a British commentator and author, gives his perspective on the 2008 presidential race from the other side of the Atlantic.

We all know Christmas begins earlier every year, but imagine if it were to begin in May. And that's May the year before. This is what's happening with the presidential elections in the US. There are another 17 months until the actual vote next November, but the campaign is well under way. On Tuesday, I watched a television debate between 10 Republican contenders, following a similar one between the Democratic hopefuls last Sunday. At this rate, election fatigue will set in before we've even reached election year. Candidates are not merely nailing their colours to the mast; under media interrogation, they are compelled to take up detailed positions that they'll then find difficult to shift. This is not good for US policy.

Meanwhile, the inhabitant of the White House is, in an important sense, already ex-president Bush. As a key former vice-presidential aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, goes to jail for perjury, the Bush administration increasingly resembles a badly shot-up, heavily listing aircraft carrier, limping towards port with, still faintly visible on the bridge, the tattered remnants of a sign proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." Even the Republican candidates in Tuesday's debate either damned Bush with faint praise or praised him with faint damns. Or not so faint. Asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer what use he would make of ex-president Bush if he became president, congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado said Mr. Bush would never darken the doorstep of the White House again.

Yet for another year-and-a-half, Bush will be the most powerful man in the world, invested with the powers needed to block a G8 initiative on climate change, push through an irrelevant and divisive antiballistic missile shield and order a tactical nuclear strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The one thing he'll find it difficult to do is to put together international coalitions for action based on trust in current US leadership. Apart from anything else, everyone will be looking to his potential successors. This long limbo is not good for the world.

The post-2009 US one begins to glimpse in these early pre-presidential debates is a defensive, resentful, slightly truculent place. Although leading Republican candidates such as John McCain will not accept this, the American people have basically decided that the Iraq war is over and the mission has not been accomplished. It's not a matter of when but how the US withdraws militarily, even if that withdrawal is, in the first instance, only to a few fortified camps and a fortress embassy in the green zone in Baghdad while the carnage and ethnic cleansing continues all around. The lesson that most Americans seem to have drawn is that the US should have less of these foreign entanglements in future, and look to its own.

Both on trade and on immigration, the atmosphere is increasingly protectionist. The fiercest clashes in the Republican debate were about immigration. Partly this was internal politics. Because leading candidate John McCain is co-sponsor of a bill that could have the effect of legalising some 12 million illegal immigrants, other candidates had a chance to score off him. Rudy Giuliani described the bill as "a typical Washington mess". But there's something deeper going on here as well. The undertones of panic recall nothing so much as Europeans agonising about Muslim immigrants in their midst, despite the fact that the majority of migrants here come from a western cultural background, being mainly Spanish-speaking and Christian. "We are becoming a bilingual nation," said one of the candidates, "and that is not good." A sentiment that would be entirely at home on the French or German right.

What remains fundamentally different from the old continent is the way American politicians not merely have religion but wear it on their sleeve. An extreme example is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Answering a question about evolution versus so-called intelligent design, Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister before he became a politician, said simply: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth." He didn't know when or how exactly God did the business, but do it He certainly did. To say you didn't believe that, he added, was in effect to say that you didn't believe in God. Then he quoted Martin Luther: Here I stand, I can do no other. And he earned, from the audience at St Anselm College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Manchester, New Hampshire, a fair round of applause. In answer to a follow-up question, he said: "If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are welcome to do it."

Jesus -- I found myself inwardly exclaiming, as a post-Christian European -- Jesus, what century are we in? Yet other candidates hastened to second him, albeit in more elliptical ways. John McCain praised the eloquence of "Pastor Huckabee" and went on to say he had no doubt God played some part in "the time before time". (Code-phrase for the Christian right. Decoded: this speaker is one of us, you can give him your vote.) Senator Sam Brownback assured us that "there's a God of the universe that loves us very much and had a part in the process". Well, that's all right then.

But don't think this religiosity is confined to Republican candidates. In an earlier debate, organised by a left-liberal Evangelical group called Sojourners, the three leading Democrat contenders, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barrack Obama, vied with each other in testifying to the importance of their faith. Edwards did say firmly "I believe in evolution," but he quickly added that "the hand of God today is in every step of what happens with me and every human being that exists on this planet." Asked a painful question about how she coped with Bill's infidelity, Hillary Clinton said she was sustained by "my faith and the support of my extended faith family, people whom I knew who were literally praying for me in prayer chains, who were prayer warriors for me."

Angela Merkel, who chairs this week's G8 summit, comes from a party described as Christian Democrats and a church called Evangelical, but I don't think you'd ever catch her talking about prayer warriors. Next to the Atlantic ocean, this is perhaps the greatest European-American divide. On reflection, I realise I was wrong about Christmas. In Europe, it doesn't merely start in May the previous year. In US politics, every day is Christmas.

Saint Anselm's most famous formula was "faith seeking understanding." There is a deeply reasonable argument to be had -- and many secular rationalists are conducting it -- about the basic claims of this faith. But since religion is not going to disappear from US politics any time soon, there is an equally important exercise which consists of seeking to understand what this religiosity actually implies for Democrat or Republican policies in the world.

That is a very different question. Religious American politicians who may seem to secular Europeans to be irrational in one area of their being can be reasonable, rational and liberal in their policies in the world -- more so, on occasion, than some secular European leaders. For proof positive, you need look no further than another Clinton, Bill. The candidates' professions of faith merely tell you they are American politicians. Everything else depends on which of God's messengers you get.

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