God is on everyone's side in the race for the White House

THIS TIME last week, Alan Keyes, a tub-thumping religious conservative who happens also to be black, was celebrating an unexpected victory in the South's first Republican "straw poll". Mr Keyes, who hosts a nationally syndicated radio show and has thrown his hat into the presidential ring for the second time, found that his pro-God, pro-morality, anti-abortion message had persuaded a 99 per cent white audience of deep-southerners to back him.

Mr Keyes owed his victory in part simply to the fact that only one other presidential candidate turned up in person. The quality of his oratory may also have had something to do with it: for entertainment, he was streets ahead of Senator Orrin Hatch, the other candidate present. But it was his articulation of religious faith, moral values and "priorities" that Alabama's voting delegates later cited for their decision. "He expressed our priorities," they agreed.

No one believes that Mr Keyes's victory brings him much closer to the White House, but this white southern response to a black preacher in what is known as the "bellwether" state of the South was a straw in the wind of the gathering campaign for next year's presidential election. Talk of morals and values and, yes, God, is finding a receptive audience. And the more receptive the audience, the more the candidates are building their beliefs into their platforms.

God, of course, has long been a staple of political discourse in the United States, for all the constitutional separation of church and state. Congressional sittings open with prayer from the chaplain. "God bless America" is sung at public events. Ronald Reagan introduced the presidential "prayer breakfast", which has continued as a presidential institution since. Profession of religious belief - Protestant, Christian belief, it should be stressed - is seen as a plus in a politician and rewarded with votes from a still largely God-fearing, church-going (and still majority Protestant) country.

Even President Clinton seems rarely more relaxed than when attending or addressing church gatherings, often with his own well-worn Bible in hand. He and Mrs Clinton attend Washington's Foundry Methodist Church regularly, and did throughout the travails of the past year. His response to the disgrace of the Lewinsky affair was to appoint a team of spiritual advisers.

But while God is ever-present in US politics, especially during election campaigns, seasoned political observers note that this time the candidates are wearing God unusually demonstratively on their sleeves. The chief surprise is not that the candidates from the religious right, such as Mr Keyes, Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer, are parading their faith and values to beneficial effect, but that the mainstream candidates are, too. The favourite for the Republican nomination, George W Bush - who has struck a more centrist stance than many of his rivals - made one of his first major campaign speeches at a Houston church and spoke of his decision to "recommit my life to God", crediting his faith with helping him to beat his alcohol problem. Elizabeth Dole speaks of being "reborn" and "turning to God". And for the Democrats, Vice-President Al Gore has made several appearances before religious groups, describing himself as a "person of strong faith".

Just as striking - and distressing for the religious right - is that all three candidates couple their professions of faith with hedging on - or in Mr Gore's case outright support for - that touchstone electoral issue, abortion.

One explanation for the prominence of religious language is that these three candidates are Southerners: either brought up in the South and/or, in the cases of Mr Gore and Mr Bush, answerable to a Southern constituency. Religious language of the born-again variety is much more a part of everyday life there than in the North.

Another explanation is the sense that the electorate suffers, as one Bush aide put it, from a "post-Monica hangover", and hankers after a President who will, in Mr Bush's felicitous phrase, "uphold the honour and dignity of the office". The prevailing view seems to be that, jus as an electorate disturbed by Richard Nixon's dishonesty propelled Jimmy Carter to the White House, Mr Clinton's successor will be his moral opposite, and morality in the USA is associated with God.

Whether this calculation is correct is another matter. The right's attempt to play the "morality" card during the last Congressional elections (when the impeachment process was at its height) was a dismal failure. A recent opinion poll placed "the moral crisis in our country" only tenth out of 11 concerns that voters want to see candidates addressing. It attracted 6 per cent, against 18 per cent for healthcare reform, 14 per cent for pension provision, and 9 per cent each for education and taxation.

Even if voters are concerned about "values", there remains a question of how far they equate values with God, especially a Protestant God. The proportion of non-Protestants in the US is growing fast, with the increase in numbers not just of Catholic Hispanics but also of Muslims. The promise of both leading candidates, Gore and Bush, to promote the use of "faith- based organisations" as channels for state-funded social assistance could also hold electoral risks if it is seen as obscuring the divide between church and state.

In the end, a record of unblemished personal integrity may turn out to be more of an electoral plus than any profession of faith in God, however sincere. And in this, the former basketball star Senator Bill Bradley, faithful husband and admired man of honour, may have a hidden advantage. He is also one of the few candidates to speak about values without bringing God - his, or anyone else's - into the next sentence.

GEORGE W BUSH 'Getting tough on crime is easy compared to loving our neighbours as ourselves. The truth is, we must turn back to God and look to Him for help.'

GARY BAUER 'There are too many people in the elites of America ... too many people who have forgotten that our liberty comes from God, not from any man'

ALAN KEYES 'Look not to money, look not to power, but look only to the Lord our God to guide your steps: then I believe that you will stand where America needs you to stand'