Why the Religious Right has got everything wrong

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The Bank of Scotland has scrapped a joint banking venture with Pat Robertson, the American TV evangelist, after he made some disparaging remarks about the Land of the Pibroch and the Sporran. It was also, he claimed "a dark land", popular with homosexuals. "You cannot believe how strong homo- sexuals are," he said with unintentional comedy. He adds that Scotland "could go right back into darkness very easily".

I don't know what this remark tells us about Scotland, but what does it tell us about the Land of the Free? Many of us are tempted to suppose that while the United States is seething with religious nutcases, it is protected by its glorious "Godless Constitution". The clever founding fathers who struggled to draft the world's most durable constitution managed to exclude the word God from their politics. Church and State were irrevocably divided in America, and that was what distinguished this rational creation of the Englightenment from the Europeans. Even as the American constitutionalists struggled to get it right in 1787, Edward Gibbon was sitting in Lausanne finishing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he concluded that the greatest civilisation known to humankind fell not because of the Lewinsky-style activities of the Imperial household, not through street crime or narcotics, not through the multiracialism of the legions, nor for their perverse sexual practices with Pict or Scot when on duty at Hadrian's Wall, but through Christianity itself - an essentially anti- social, anti-political and irrational creed which undermined the state and left it vacant to the barbarian hordes.

This benign secularism of Gibbon's wouldn't mean much to the "Religious Right" of today. But how depressing it is to see that Pat Robertson isn't alone. To be a big cheese in American politics these days, you have to be not merely sympathetic to religion, but born again. At an intimate prayer-breakfast for 1,300 people in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Dole confessed that she used to keep God "neatly compartmentalised", but that now she felt "it was time to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe - and God accepted my resignation". George W Bush, the most plausible Republican candidate for the presidency, has told an audience in Houston that "something was missing in his life" - and presumably in his popularity ratings with evangelical bigots - until an encounter with "a Christian prophet" enabled him to "recommit my life to Jesus Christ".

The most bizarre testimonies have come from Vice-President Al Gore, who made a speech to the Salvation Army in which he claimed that the answer to poverty and crime in the cities was not just Private Charity but More Christianity. Mr Gore's wife Tipper is one who "practises her faith and sees its power at work". Those whom Tipper has helped, at a place called Christ House, Washington, with the problems of substance abuse have come to know the "transformative power of faith-based approaches". Take Herlinda - one of the test cases introduced to Mr Gore. One moment a junkie, Herlinda gave her life to the Lord. Now she's employed at Wal- Mart and has been "honored as employee of the month". Christianity thus bandied about by the politicians looks like a catch-all solution. "Faith- based approaches" do not cost the tax-payer one bean. They claim to be able to transform American society into a squeaky-clean Evangelical paradise in which the young people come off crack cocaine and get jobs at Wal-Mart, in which there is no abortion, and in which homosexuals disappear. In God we Trust becomes For God We Vote. This becomes Our Prejudices are Endorsed by God.

The Religious Right used to have various litmus tests for its required political candidates - like, where they stood on a Woman's Right to Choose. Now they ask them up front, eyeball to eyeball: "Have you Been Saved?" Anyone who can't say yes to that question doesn't look as if they'll be in the running for the presidency. "Americans are the most decent people on earth" - Al Gore again - "and America has the highest level of religious belief and observance of any advanced nation". Those of us who half-believe the first half of the statement do not think it has anything to do with the second half. The palpable decency and generosity of the American idea does not depend on the great swarm of ranters and bible-bashers - or it didn't used to. It depended on the inbuilt, sturdy and Godless tolerance of its constitution. This is surely the key sign that America and Europe are now moving in separate ways and already inhabit different spiritual universes. Europe, which used to be dogged by religious conflict, has learnt the wisdom of the American Constitution, and is trying to fashion itself in its rational image, in which the Churches and the State are separate. America, meanwhile, forgets its constitution and transforms itself into an Evangelical theocracy. If it succeeds in this aim it will, like Christian Rome before it, be destroyed by the very God-bothering boobies who think they are preserving its finest traditions. There's only one European leader whom you could even half-imagine wanting to share his sincere religious beliefs with political audiences - our own PM. One of the many American things about Blair is that he always seems as if he's addressing a prayer-breakfast, even, or especially, when he is telling us why it was necessary to bomb an old folks home in Belgrade. At least we can sing Hallelujahs that Blair's spin-doctors and focus groups will never tell him that he should play the holy card if he wants to be re-elected by the cynical and, where religion is concerned, pig- ignorant Brits.

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