Rupert Cornwell: Campaign 2008... the year of the church

It's not just Bible Belters and Republicans who feel obliged to advertise their faith

It is Christmas, the season of mistletoe, goodwill to one's fellow men, and lists of every description. So let me offer my own small contribution to the catalogue of bests and worsts of 2007. Who uttered the creepiest remark in the US this year? For me, there is only one winner. He is the all-pandering Mitt Romney a Mormon, a Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States, and currently in full suck-up mode to the evangelist Christians whose votes will decide his fate in the forthcoming caucuses and primaries.

Earlier this month, Romney was touting his Christian credentials at a speech in Texas. The event had been billed as equivalent to the historic address of John Kennedy in 1960 at which the man aiming to become America's first Catholic President lectured leaders of the Southern Baptists about the absolute separation of church and state in America, and assured them that, once installed in the Oval Office, he would not be taking orders from the Pope.

That speech, as a Kennedy biographer noted, "knocked religion out of the campaign as an intellectually respectable issue", and the expectation was that Romney would try to kill Mormonism, which many Americans still regard as a deviant cult, as an issue in Campaign 2008. How wrong we were.

Romney mentioned the M-word only once. And, far from knocking religion out of the campaign, he delivered a paean to its importance in American politics. The US Constitution was written for a "religious and moral people", he declared, insisting that "freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom". And since that moment, Campaign 2008, for Republicans at least, has been less a political event than an approximation of the arcane feuds and mysteries in the Byzantine church that I came across long, long ago when I studied medieval Greek.

For a feud, of course, you need two parties. Back in Constantinople's heyday, it was the likes of monophysites against diophysites. This time Mitt Romney's adversary is Mike Huckabee, the sensation of the Republican field who happens to be a Southern Baptist minister, and has suddenly emerged as the biggest threat to the victory Romney desperately needs in the Iowa caucuses 12 days hence.

"A Christian Leader," proclaimed one Huckabee ad, leaving no doubts as to which of his rivals might not be. In his Texas speech, Romney hit back, declaring his belief that "Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Saviour of Mankind". But that wasn't enough to satisfy Huckabee, who wondered to The New York Times, "Don't the Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" And now, in Huckabee's latest ad, some detect a white cross hovering over the candidate, driving home the subliminal message that the Almighty is perched on his shoulder.

Now maybe I'm getting carried away, what with this extraordinary confluence of political campaigning and the second holiest feast of Christendom, caused by an absurdly early primary calendar. But something has changed, over and above the weird campaign spots featuring cuddly candidates and twinkling Christmas trees.

Yes, America has always been a God-fearing country, in which four out every five people have no doubt of the divinity's existence. But religion wasn't a factor when I first covered US presidential campaigns in 1992. Back then, Bill Clinton was much too busy fighting off allegations of adultery to make extravagant professions of faith, while George Bush Snr was far too much the East Coast gent to be seen wearing God on his sleeve. Not so George Jnr, Texan and proud of it, who on Iraq and other matters takes counsel not from his own father, but "higher father".

But it's not just Bible Belters and Republicans who feel obliged to advertise their faith. Failure to appeal to the faithful arguably cost the Democrats the 2000 and 2004 elections. So for some light Christmas reading, why not invest $24.95 in God and Hillary Clinton: A Spiritual Life, a new book explaining how the Democratic front runner "relied on God for the power to save her marriage and survive the most difficult chapter of her political career". As for Barack Obama, he too has been explaining at church meetings across Iowa how he discovered Christianity.

But what about non-believers the 10 per cent of Americans who are atheist or agnostic? That's what makes Romney's line about democracy requiring religion so creepy, with its smug and self-righteous implication that non-believers don't get democracy, and are thus unfit to run for office. Worse still, it strikes a national chord. Of course you can be pretty certain Romney was pandering again. He must have read a Gallup poll in February that showed that the biggest disqualification for the presidency was atheism. Being black, female or Jewish scarcely bothers anyone. But while 43 per cent said they couldn't vote for a homosexual, no less than 53 per cent ruled out an atheist. Naturally, Mitt rules them out too.

Up to a point, the aversion is understandable. In recent years, atheists haven't had a very good press. Indeed, the best known of them was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the profanity-loving battle-axe who founded American Atheists and was killed by an employee in a lurid triple murder in 1995. Atheism had resonated in the 1960s and 1970s counterculture. But by the end of her life, the Christian Right had become the most influential voting bloc in the land, and O'Hair was a metaphor for atheism's marginalisation and semi-disgrace.

Earlier this year, the Secular Coalition of America a lobbying group that claims to represent "Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers ... and Americans" sought to unearth the highest ranking non-believer holding elective office in the US. The best it could come up with was a 75-year old San Francisco congressman called Pete Stark, a loose cannon on the Democratic far left. Of 535 senators and congressmen, he was the only one to admit he is an atheist.

Conceivably, though, things are changing. Action breeds re-action, and the army of the godless is stirring. This year, five anti-religious books have made the bestseller lists here, led by Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens of course was born in Britain, where organised Christianity is dying on its feet. That won't happen in America. Don't bet on it, but maybe Mitt Romney's creepy religiosity will soon be on the retreat.