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Gary Younge
God help America

Stand on the star today and you can witness the city's latest confrontation as the Alabama supreme court house plays host to prayer circles and television trucks in a showdown between the state's most senior judge and the country's highest court.

This particular dispute is cast in stone. Two-and-a-half tonnes of granite, displaying the 10 commandments, which was placed in the rotunda of the courthouse two years ago by Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore. The US supreme court told him to remove the monument, which violates the separation of church and state. Moore refused, saying that Christianity forms the bedrock of the American constitution and his conscience.

Since the deadline passed at midnight on Wednesday, Christian activists have descended on the town from all over the country, keeping a 24-hour watch to make sure the monument is not moved and establishing phone trees to rally the faithful if it is. Many have T-shirts with slogans every bit as intolerant as the south's reputation. "Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder," says one. (It is difficult to imagine how many more people you could offend on one piece of summerwear.)

They appear as dotty as they do devout and determined. "What you're watching is that the socialist, communist elements are attempting to push out God from the public domain," Gene Chapman, a minister from Dallas, told the Montgomery Advertiser. Those subversive elements include the national rightwing Christian coalition and the seven southern, Republican judges.

On Thursday afternoon, Moore vowed his undying opposition to the removal of the commandments; by Friday he had been suspended and his lawyers announced he was prepared to relent. Yesterday, the monument was still there and the crowds of believers kept coming, determined to martyr themselves before a lost cause.

It would be easy to deride the defenders of the monument or to dismiss the whole charade as the latest illustration of the scale of degradation in America's political culture. However, Britons would do well to remove the mote in their own eye before resorting to ridicule. The only reason America can have these disputes is that it has a constitution that separates church and state (which we don't).

For, while the spectacle is certainly ridiculous, its symbolism is significant. The US is at one and the same time one of the most fiercely secular and aggressively religious countries in the western world. The nation's two most sacred texts are the constitution and the Bible. And when those who interpret them disagree, the consequent confusion resonates way beyond Montgomery.

This is a country where 11 states, including Alabama, refuse to give government money to students who major in theology because it would violate the constitution, and where nativity plays are not allowed in primary schools. It is also a country where, a Harris poll showed, 94% of adults believe in God, 86% believe in miracles, 89% believe in heaven, and 73% believe in the devil and hell.

These two competing tendencies produce some striking contradictions. The supreme court and both houses of Congress all invoke God's blessing before they start work. But children are not allowed to say the words "under God" when they pledge allegiance to the flag at the start of school.

So while there is a constitutional, albeit contested, barrier between church and state, there is almost no distinction between church and politics. Indeed, when it comes to elections, religion is the primary galvanising force and the church the central mobilising vehicle.

This is one of the few truths that transcends both race and class. White evangelicals and black Protestants are the two groups most likely to say that their religion shapes their votes at least occasionally, according to a survey by the non-partisan Pew research centre. Since these two constituencies form the cornerstone of both major parties, it would be impossible for either to win an election without them and inconceivable that they could do so without the support of the church.

But the influence of religion goes beyond domestic politics or social issues such as abortion and gay rights to crucial areas of foreign policy. Another Pew poll revealed that 48% of Americans think the US has had special protection from God for most of its history. Moreover, 44% believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people, while 36% think that "the state of Israel is a fulfilment of the biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus".

At this point America's internal contradictions become an issue on the world stage: the nation that poses as the guardian of global secularity is itself dominated by strong fundamentalist instincts. There are two problems with this. The first is that, as became clear in Montgomery last week, there is no arguing with faith. Fundamentalists deal with absolutes. Their eternal certainties make them formidable campaigners and awful negotiators - it is difficult to cut a bargain with divine truth.

The second is that America's religiosity is not something it shares with even its few western allies, let alone the many countries that oppose its current path. Yet another poll shows that among countries where people believe religion to be very important, America's views are closer to Pakistan's and Nigeria's than to France's or Germany's.

These differences go all the way to the top and explain much of the reason why the tone, style, language and content of America's foreign policy has been so out of kilter with the rest of the developed world, particularly since September 11. For these fundamentalist tendencies in US diplomacy have rarely been stronger in the White House than they are today. Since George Bush gave up Jack Daniels for Jesus Christ, he has counted Jesus as his favourite philosopher. The first thing he reads in the morning is not a briefing paper but a book of evangelical mini- sermons. When it came to casting the morality play for the war on terror he went straight to the Bible and came out with evil. "He reached right into the psalms for that word," said his former speech writer, David Frum.

Bush speaks in the name of the founding fathers but believes he is doing the work of the holy father. He cannot do both and condemn fundamentalism. But if he feels he must try, he might start with the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."

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