Gavin Esler: The Democrats are fielding the Holy Trinity of politics

'Mr Gore's party hassuddenly metamorphosed into the United States' very own Hezbollah'
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The Independent Online

We have all heard of America's Religious Right. Now look out for the Religious Left. Just as the Republican Party turned somersaults to hold what looked like a Democratic Convention in Philadelphia by celebrating America's diversity, with black, Hispanic and Asian faces on the Convention stage, so the Democrats have also turned somersaults to stage a Republican Convention. Here in Los Angeles - appropriately the City of the Angels - there has been constant use of the Republican F-words, Faith and Family.

We have all heard of America's Religious Right. Now look out for the Religious Left. Just as the Republican Party turned somersaults to hold what looked like a Democratic Convention in Philadelphia by celebrating America's diversity, with black, Hispanic and Asian faces on the Convention stage, so the Democrats have also turned somersaults to stage a Republican Convention. Here in Los Angeles - appropriately the City of the Angels - there has been constant use of the Republican F-words, Faith and Family.

A British politician who cloaks himself in the mantle of God is immediately regarded with suspicion. When told that it was time to offer moral leadership, Harold Macmillan quipped that if people wanted that sort of thing they should consult their clergy.

In Britain, politicians who openly discuss their spirituality are about as welcome as Jehovah' s Witnesses on the doorstep, and the British associate the mixture of politics and religion as a heady cocktail best reserved for the mass irrationality of Northern Ireland, Iran, Kashmir, and the Middle East.

The very idea of a Party of God, Hizbollah, puts the fear of God into British hearts. But in the continuing re-invention of American politics, Al Gore's Democratic Party has metamorphosed into America' s own Hizbollah. Here at the Democratic National Convention in America's Sodom, Tinseltown, the party ticket formally now says Gore-Lieberman, but it is quite clear that the Democrats are fielding the Holy Trinity of Gore, Lieberman and God.

In his first joint appearance with Al Gore in Nashville, Tennessee, Senator Joe Lieberman, who is an Orthodox Jew, mentioned God a dozen times. In one remarkable passage he pointed out that the saintly Al Gore has a hot line not, as you might imagine, to the Kremlin, but to the Man Upstairs. "He has never, never wavered in his responsibilities as a father, as a husband and yes, as a servant of God Almighty," Senator Lieberman told his audience.

Imagine that son of the Manse Gordon Brown praising Tony Blair as a father, husband, and servant of God and you get an idea of how strange this would sound in Britain. It used to sound just as strange in America, too. Democrats were very suspicious of Jimmy Carter when he announced he was a Born Again Christian and had done missionary work in Pennsylvania.

But now the New Democrats are like the puritans of Cromwell's New Model Army, determined to stop any utterance that might remind people about Bill Clinton's less than saintly cavalier ways.

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez was the first victim of the New Democrat Inquisition. She set up an enormous $5,000-a-plate fundraiser in the Playboy mansion of Hugh Hefner, but Sanchez was immediately dropped from speaking at the convention until she re-canted, confessed that she had sinned, said three Hail Marys and moved the event somewhere less controversial.

The link with naked women in Playboy was too much for the Gore-Lieberman Democratic Inquisition, and so Goodbye, Bunny Money.

"I can't understand why the Democrats would be so anti-Playboy," quipped Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey, "seeing as how they've supported one in the White House for nearly eight years now." The incident shows the hypocrisy of American politics. Any association with a soft-porn magazine is strictly taboo, but nobody bats an eyelid at the fact that Congresswoman Sanchez's little bash at $5,000 a plate was the usual, legal schmoozing of the fat cat donors who grease the wheels of both American political parties. The real scandal is not the Bunnies. It's the money. But in America's new ecumenical politics - where Al Gore even raised cash in a Buddhist temple - God and Mammon are the latest political Dream Team.

Of course with Bill Clinton still in the White House, Democrats are right to be sensitive about morality. But in truth something profound is going on in this great re-alignment of American politics. Republicans and Democrats have recognised that the core of Election 2000 is not so much economics as lifestyle. To quote Harold Macmillan again, in strict economic terms Americans have never had it so good, and yet many ordinary middle income folk feel a sense of unease and discontent about their lives and the future for their children.

American elections have usually turned on the issues of war, peace and the economy. But now at peace and unrivalled as the only superpower, the US is either in the eighth year of economic expansion, as Bill Clinton argues, or even the 17th year of economic expansion, with a couple of relatively minor blips - two three-month recessions. Americans have become accustomed to low inflation, very low unemployment, and an aggressively booming stockmarket. These are taken for granted. Yet prosperity means many middle income Americans have come to ask spiritual or ethical questions of themselves and their politicians.

Business Week magazine claims to have identified a New Economy Voter, a person described as "post-materialist". These people are upwardly mobile, college educated, under 50, not interested in political party labels and meritocratic. They believe everyone should have the opportunity to succeed, and are interested in three political issues - education, education, education.

These voters ask why politics is so sleazy. They want to know what happened to old-fashioned notions of public service, helping other people, making things better. And it is hardly surprising that in an election without any sense of crisis, politicians of both parties recognise this kind of unease in the electorate. For the Republicans, George Dubya Bush says his most important philosophical influence is Jesus. For the Democrats, Gore and Lieberman publicly share with reporters the prayer they said over the phone when Gore asked Lieberman to join the ticket.

Both American parties are crowding in to the middle of politics because that is where the votes lie. Both parties are trying to suggest that prosperity is not enough, that Man does not live by bread alone, that the US has a mission to use its prosperity to benefit all its citizens of whatever colour or religion. And both parties in different ways are embracing an overt religiosity that simply does not translate easily across the Atlantic.

It could be that British prosperity means we will see the rise of the New Economic Voter in the UK too. But as he contemplates his re-election, Tony Blair, already satirised in Private Eye as the Vicar of St Albion's, must recognise that there is not much scope for New Labour to develop an evangelical wing as Al Gore's Democrats have done this week.

God does indeed work in mysterious ways, producing the most right-wing Democratic ticket in living memory, though there are clear risks in Gore and Lieberman appearing holier than thou. The first whiff of real scandal could destroy them. But perhaps Al Gore is correct in what could be called his leap of faith. Perhaps we will see in the lead up to November's election that the party that prays together, stays together - and stays in the White House.

Gavin Esler presented coverage of the Democratic Convention for BBC News24

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