It's policies, not prayers, that we want

'What is so alienating about the US presidential campaign is not the piety itself, but the way it is used like a campaign slogan'

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There's one biblical saying that some politicians don't seem to set all that much store by, these days. "When you pray, enter into your closet, and shut your door, and pray to your Father which is in secret." The American presidential campaign has just been set alight not by some great new policy idea on the economy or the environment, but by the fact that Al Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, has decided to start praying in public, and he's making sure that everybody knows about it.

There's one biblical saying that some politicians don't seem to set all that much store by, these days. "When you pray, enter into your closet, and shut your door, and pray to your Father which is in secret." The American presidential campaign has just been set alight not by some great new policy idea on the economy or the environment, but by the fact that Al Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, has decided to start praying in public, and he's making sure that everybody knows about it.

In an address last week, Senator Lieberman proclaimed to the United States: "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose." He says that his confidence in standing up for God is striking a chord with the American nation. Apparently, people come up to him now on the campaign trail to say, God bless, and that they are praying for him. But exactly what policies this reaffirmation of faith might lead to - that's being left rather vague.

For some of us, this just about sums up what we find so alienating about the American presidential campaign. It isn't the piety itself, but the way that this piety is now being used like a campaign slogan, allied with a bizarre coyness over the policies that might result from a White House on intimate terms with God as opposed to a White House that just got on with governing.

Lieberman isn't alone in his displays of holiness. Since he's an Orthodox Jew rather than, like Al Gore, a born-again Christian, you might be tempted to applaud his bravery in talking about his faith - and the above injunction to secret prayer comes from the New Testament, so it needn't resonate with him. But even before Gore named Lieberman as his running mate, the two main presidential candidates were hawking their love of God around the electoral marketplace.

George W Bush has already told us that the philosopher who most influenced him was Jesus Christ. Here is the man who, as governor of Texas, has presided over sending dozens of men to their deaths, including, last year, two boys who were just 17 when they committed their crimes. So would he have been following Jesus's philosophy, "Judge not, that you be not judged", or "Blessed are the merciful", or... But perhaps it's just too cheap to throw the Bible at politicians.

Still, it's pretty hard to resist, now that they have started prancing about pretending they are clergymen rather than power-hungry politicos. A few months ago, Gore said, wonderfully, that when he got stuck with a difficult choice he asked himself, "What would Jesus do?". That could be a useful question. Maybe he asked it when amassing over $50m for his campaign, and decided that these days, Jesus would have given up that weird and outdated idea of giving away one's worldly goods.

Agnostics and atheists are usually not very bothered by other people's declarations of faith; why should we be? What you choose to believe, whether it's in the pronouncements of the newspaper horoscope or the reincarnation of your spirit, is your choice and nothing that your neighbours should get too het up about.

But this religious debate is fuelling a new kind of intolerance in the US. It is not, notably, an intolerance of any religious minority, but an intolerance of secularism. These politicians are trying to frame their religions as all-inclusive parties to which anyone is invited: anyone with a stake in God, that is. So George W Bush will address a Jewish assembly and say that "Jews and Christians and Muslims speak as one in their commitment to a kind, just, tolerant society", and Lieberman will address a predominantly African-American Christian church and pay tribute to the "inspiration of Jesus of Nazareth". But the latter will also warn us not to believe that "morality can be maintained without religion". The US might be able to accept the idea of a Jewish vice-president, but it would be unthinkable that a self-confessed unbeliever could now attain that office.

Still, we Brits can look at all that pious posturing across the Atlantic and think at least it couldn't happen here. But couldn't it? OK, our politicians are unlikely to tell us that they take their instructions directly from Jesus. But even in a country with steadily falling numbers of regular churchgoers, the leaders of the major parties must be seen to trot off to church. And there has been, throughout the last decade in Britain, a growing emphasis on presenting politicians not just as the deliverers of particular policies for whom we should vote if we agree with those policies, but as moral individuals for whom we should vote if we sympathise with their personal creed.

Tony Blair has rushed fervently towards this new framing of the political debate. Before becoming Prime Minister, he spoke of his Christianity as the reason why he rejected both Conservatism and Marxism. Since being Prime Minister, he has called for a new moral purpose in Britain, and he has emphasised and paraded his own churchgoing and conventional family life. He is then puzzled when people don't buy the moral mood-music, when they seem to want policies as well. "It is bizarre that any government that I lead should be seen as anti-family," he wrote in bemusement in one of his leaked memos.

Maybe the politicians think that we'll applaud their frankness if they share their religious convictions with us. After all, if we are going to vote for them, it might be just as well to find out where their moral temperament comes from. But the odd thing about all this religious chat is that it doesn't tell us anything about what matters with a politician - that is, what they will do with power. Indeed, what we tend to find is that the greater the piety, the muddier the ethics in practice.

After all, if we look back to the US, any politician who bashes the Bible with the regularity of Bush, Gore or Lieberman might be expected to give the electorate some hard moral choices. Instead, the debate over real ethical issues has hit an all-time low. In a country where one man, Bill Gates, owns the same wealth as 40 per cent of the nation, Bush is talking of trillions of dollars of tax-cuts to help the wealthy get wealthier. In a country where more than a third of people have no health insurance, Gore is talking not about healthcare for all but about tinkering with prescription charges.

Help for the developing world? Surely a priority for these Christ-like figures, but we hear not a peep about it. The ever-rising numbers of people spending their lives in prison? Five per cent of all adult males, a disproportionate number of whom are poor and black, get locked up in the US, and hundreds await execution. It's a revolting spectacle, watching politicians get self-congratulatory about their personal holiness, while closing their eyes to the immorality of their policies.

Let's hope religiosity is one arena in which British politicians will hold back from following their US counterparts. Certainly, politicians should be careful - the UK electorate has little tolerance for biblical injunctions. In a country where fewer than half of the people say they follow a religion, politicians might find that too many statements of faith or pictures of themselves going to church will alienate rather than charm the electorate.

Even in America, a far more religious country, the rise of religious rhetoric has been matched by a mass turn-off by the electorate. The number of young people who watch any of the political conventions on TV has fallen by a fifth over the last 15 years, while voter turn-out had fallen to under half the electorate in the last election. What voters on both sides of the Atlantic still seem to want is policies, not piety. But whether they'll get what they want, God only knows.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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