A week in the US, such as I have just spent, is enough to make anybody feel a trifle fed up with God, or rather with the relentless invocation of the deity by American politicians, led by their president. No public occasion would be complete without the blessing of the Almighty being sought for whatever endeavor tops the agenda, most prominently the war in Iraq. The appeal to faith, seldom mere ritual, is usually founded upon conviction.
There is an attractive rationalist case for insisting that candidates for election anywhere in the world are required to sign a declaration forswearing religious affiliation. Had this been done in Ireland a couple of generations ago, think what we would have been spared.
Few modern political careers are compatible with religious principle. Government by atheists would relieve us of the irksome moral conceit that impels US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to do deplorable things while remaining convinced that slots are kept open for them in heaven.
Even among the enemies of democracy, at the extreme end of the scale it is easier to deal with the Irish Republican Army, whose ambitions are political, than Osama bin Laden, with whom there can be no negotiation, only global submission to Islam.
I am not in the least anti-
religious. If pressed I would des-cribe myself as a social Anglican. Yet I find myself increasingly eager to be governed by politicians who profess no pretensions to a hot line to a higher power.
The West may find that the struggle against militant Islam is an inescapable challenge of the 21st century, extending far more widely than the present engagement with a few thousand fanatics. Most of us wish to explore every avenue of accommodation before reconciling ourselves to armed conflict. Yet we now face another four years at the mercy of a US president who perceives his own God as foremost among White House advisors and regards the contest with Islam as already begun.
The last British prime minister before Blair to perceive himself in a special relationship with the Almighty was Gladstone. Yet, oddly enough, Gladstone strongly resisted General Charles Gordon's attempts to force Christian Britain into military confrontation with Islam in Sudan in 1884.
British foes of the Mahdi used many of the same arguments for deposing him as were deployed by Bush and Blair against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein: shocking tyrant; unspeakably brutal to his own people; threat to the stability of the region. Yet Gladstone rejected calls for intervention until Gordon, by calculated self-immolation in Khartoum, excited British public opinion to such a pitch that Gladstone felt compelled to act.
A relief force was belatedly dispatched up the Nile, which failed to reach Gordon in time, and withdrew amid much public anger at home.
This might be described as Gladstone's first Gulf war. Its anticlimactic conclusion provoked bitter criticism: for the failure to finish the job and depose the Mahdi.
The Mahdi died, of course, leaving his Sudanese empire in the hands of a successor, the Khalifa. The British launched their second Gulf war against Sudan in 1898, in a spirit of unfinished business not dissimilar from that which prevailed in the White House last year.
Kitchener duly disposed of the Khalifa and his Dervish followers at the battle of Omdurman, with an application of firepower ruthless enough to delight US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.