Of course it was a joke. I don't want to pop anyone's balloon, least of all the New Statesman's, but when Michele Bachmann described Hurricane Irene as an act of God, she was trying to be funny. And, indeed, succeeding. Watch the video. As the Tea Party heroine depicts the metereological devastation as a divine commentary on the size of the American government deficit, her audience fall about laughing.
There have been people daft enough to ascribe the hurricane to divine anger. Most notably, Fox News's Glenn Beck, a Mormon, called Irene "a blessing" and "God reminding you you're not in control." And that came just a few days after televangelist Pat Robertson, who has form, hinted that the recent small earthquake in Washington was a sign of the approaching "End Times". But neither of these two is a candidate for the Republican nomination, as Mrs Bachmann, to the alarm of many, most certainly is.
So what happened? The St Petersburg Times's report of Bachmann's remarks in Florida had a matter-of-fact tone and failed to mention the audience response. Taken out of context, the words went viral. Given Bachmann's Evangelical connections and some of her previous pronouncements -- her open support for Intelligent Design or her approval of wifely submissivess -- it's not surprising that many people have jumped with glee on her apparently Old Testament thoughts on divine intervention in the weather.
That said, I find it difficult to read her suggestion that God was saying: "Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now", as anything other than irony. This was a God who was not merely a Republican sympathiser but something like a frustrated taxpayer, using the forces of nature to sound-off as more humdrum citizens might on the comments section of a blog. Had she been serious, she might (like the former Bishop of Carlisle) have blamed the bad weather on "moral degredation" or the prevalence of same-sex relationships. In other words, on sin.
This minor row will pass, like hurricane Irene itself, and is unlikely to do Bachmann's campaign much damage. At most, it confirms a certain caricature of her. But it does highlight how the campaign for the Republican nomination has become religiously fraught to a remarkable degree. The other day, the New York Times's Bill Keller, suggested that it was time to confront the issue head-on:
We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a "cult" and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not "overly religious.") Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity -- and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism -- which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.
Keller writes that while he doesn't much care what a presidential candidates believes in terms of religious doctrine, it does matter to him "if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon... or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country," "respects serious science and verifiable history", or "is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed". He proposes that would-be presidents should make their views clear on three major questions designed to tease out the church-state relationship: whether America is "a Judeo-Christian nation"; whether they would have any qualms about appointing a Muslim or an atheist to the Supreme Court; and their views on evolution.
He leaves out what to many is the most divisive question of all: that of abortion. But then no presidential candidate manages to get through a campaign without having to negotiate that one.
Keller has been accused of pandering to religious discrimination, although he's the first to admit that "every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders". In a predominantly Christian society, as the United States still generally is, the most popular solution to the religion/politics dilemma has been to regard affiliation to whatever church as a sign of generic virtue without enquiring too closely into particular beliefs. Recent elections, however, have seen candidates subjected to the unrelenting interrogation of every aspect of their life and character. The idea of religion as a private space, something between the candidate and his or her God (if any), has been a notable casualty of this increased scrutiny. But the intense focus on candidates' religion does not necessarily prove that religion has become a more significant factor in politics than it used to be.
Something to bear in mind, I think, is that the US Constitution, with its separation of church and state, is stronger than any one president. The president swears to uphold the constitution; the constitution is not there to uphold the president. Its checks and balances would make it impossible for any president to enforce a theocratic agenda, even if they had one.
As for Bachmann, I find her little joke about the hurricane oddly reassuring. I mean, would she have dared to say such a thing if she was a genuine believer in a thunderbolt-happy deity? Wouldn't she be afraid that God would be unamused and aim the next tornado directly at her?