America - Andrew Stephen doubts Americans are Christian

The US, it is said, is a deeply Christian country. But some churches have shopping malls and branche

I am always sceptical of statistics that supposedly show the US to be an overwhelmingly Christian nation. A widely accepted figure, for example, is that 84 per cent of Americans go to church every Sunday.

George W Bush repeatedly claims that he is a Christian and is desperately trying to make "values" an electoral issue this year. I even receive e-mails from the "Presidential Prayer Team", which was started after the 11 September atrocities but which now makes little effort to hide its true affinities. "Christians MUST be involved in the elections," it proclaims. It also offers an "inspirational poem" titled "No Land Like Ours" and one-minute radio broadcasts that "feature a story daily of a different American hero, revealing his or her dependence on God".

The confusion between Christianity and intense nationalism in this country is more pronounced than ever; patriotism and godliness are perceived as intertwined. The Bush-Cheney campaign team has even asked churches to hand over their directories of members, so convinced is it that churchgoers will invariably be Bush supporters. The team is concentrating its efforts on the so-called "megachurches", which have at least 2,000 people attending their services every Sunday.

Yet how Christian are these megachurches? I have my doubts. They are set up to appeal to people who do not attend church regularly, and shamelessly target the baby-boomer generation and its kids: floodlights and huge flat-screen televisions are their first prop. The McLean Bible Church, in my neck of the woods, recently spent $800,000 on sound and video systems. It averages attendances of 8,389 people every Sunday.

What is happening, I suspect, is that these churches have learned the basic rule of American consumerism: give the customer what he/she wants. The megachurches thus become part church, part shopping mall and part country club. One in Tacoma, Washington, even has its own Starbucks. Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston has a McDonald's on its 111 acres. The Prestonwood Baptist Church, near Dallas, boasts 15 baseball fields, a Fifties-style diner and a food court. New Birth Baptist Church, also in Texas, offers web links to "antiques", "dining" and "health and fitness".

In addition to the megachurches, there are 31 "gigachurches" in the US, which are defined as those that at least 10,000 people attend every Sunday; 73 per cent of all these are in Bush-Cheney territory in the South or West. Some offer bookstores and health clubs on their premises. The Lakewood Church, yet another in Houston, describes itself as a "non-denominational charismatic church" and has a congregation of 25,000 every Sunday. It says it will soon have more than 30,000 people attending the remodelled, $73m former "Compaq Centre" that was previously home to the Houston Rockets, a basketball team.

I give these examples, concentrating on mega- and gigachurches in Bush territory in Texas, because I think they illustrate an important trend. Those who attend are passive consumers, entertained by the dazzling audiovisual systems and by mesmerising "ministers"; the religious content may be superficially present, but it is hypnotic, feel-good public speaking that counts most. I turned on the television the other day and tuned in to a megachurch preacher: "It's OK to be wealthy," were the first words I heard.

It is these hyped-up congregations that the Bush-Cheney campaign is most avidly pursuing. There is, after all, little difference between the oratory of the typical megachurch and that of a political campaign meeting: in both cases, the people attending have made a consumerist choice of which brand label to support.

There are 400,000 churches in the US, and 80 per cent of these have congregations of fewer than 200. Because they do not boast the huge numbers of the superchurches, they are not campaign targets for the Republican electoral team.

Notwithstanding the chutzpah of Bush-Cheney, I am reluctant to cast doubt on the sincerity of any of those who profess to being Christian - even when they stand for "values" (be they on capital punishment, financial avarice or militarism, say) that I do not see as being consistent with the faith. It is certainly hard to see the president, the eager executioner in Texas, as embodying Christian beliefs - but, I believe, he is still entitled to be taken at his word on so personal a matter.

I do doubt that America is a truly Christian country, though. Too many of those who profess to be Christians hold values that I see as inimical to the faith. I hope I am wrong: this country could do with an infusion of genuinely Christian values. Yet they will not be found, I suspect, in the Bush-Cheney campaign team or the mega- and gigachurches they are furiously targeting.