Worshippers of wisteria lane

How Christian are the desperate housewives, in thought and deed? Not very. And neither, despite what

I spotted something unusual in the political columns in Washington last month. Senate Republicans were introducing a peculiarly hateful bill that would have made it illegal for Americans to offer aid of any kind to clandestine immigrants. What struck me most was the response of Senator Hillary Clinton. The bill, she said, was "certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures, because this bill would literally criminalise the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself".

You might expect evocations of Jesus to be common in a country which boasts that it is 85 per cent Christian and whose president insists his every move is dictated by God. Yet when it comes to political policy, specific references to WWJD (from the "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets that were in vogue here a decade or so ago) are actually rare. The truth is that America may see itself as an overwhelmingly Christian country - but it is also remarkably unencumbered by the teachings of Christ.

The current cliché that George W Bush is turning America into a theocracy could not, in fact, be more false. There may be 400,000 churches in America but only 35 per cent of Americans, at most, regularly attend them. In the words of the religious/environmental scholar Bill McKibben, "America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behaviour." The rest of us, at least, know and accept that Jesus would not be pulling execution levers in Texas, despatching helicopter gunships over Iraq, bringing out the dogs at Abu Ghraib or disparaging blacks, women, gays, immigrants and the poor. The trouble is that most Americans don't.

Surveys repeatedly show a stunning ignorance of even the most basic tenets of Christianity. Barely one in three Americans knows that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Jesus. Less than half can name even two of the writers of the Gospels. Forty per cent can repeat no more than four of the Ten Commandments; 12 per cent think that Joan of Arc was the wife of Noah.

Here we come to the nub: three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves". In fact, these words were spoken by Ben Franklin (1706-90) - who, like most of America's founding fathers, was a deist with only vaguely Christian beliefs. Thomas Jefferson even brought out the scissors to create his own Bible, which is still given to senators today: it included the teachings of Jesus, but cut out the inconvenient stuff like the virgin birth, the miracles and the Resurrection.

This input of politics and exclusion of divinity, indeed, helps explain the fusion - confusion, perhaps - between professed Christianity and political extremism in America. The First Amendment of the US constitution dictates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion", but the result, in the words of Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Centre in Virginia, is that "it is as if we got freedom of religion in 1791 and then we were free from religion after that".

To put it another way, Americans appropriate for themselves what they see as the constitutional luxury of proclaiming their unparalleled piety to Jesus, but then eschew the ethical values that should logically result. This is why Hillary Clinton's decision to bring Jesus - Jesus! - into a debate on the morality of immigration law is strangely un-American, and so unexpected.

Much nonsense has been written about the 2004 presidential election and how exit polls showed that Christianity and "moral values" swept Bush back into the White House. That has gone into history as fact, swallowed without question by the media on both sides of the Atlantic. By way of antidote, let us take one of my famed reality checks on life in the US. I do not particularly like doing so, but I will take divorce and abortion as symbolic issues that define the prevalence of Christian values.

An analysis of the 2004 poll results shows the audacity of Bush and his supporters in claiming to represent moral values - as opposed, implicitly, to guys such as John Kerry (actually a devout Catholic). Thirteen of the 15 states with the highest divorce rates voted for Bush; those with the lowest (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont) voted solidly Democrat.

Teenage births in Bush's home state of Texas are more than double those in Kerry's Massachusetts. People marry younger in the so-called Bible Belt and fewer Catholics live there, but that hardly explains why, at the last count, Texas had a divorce rate of 4.1 per thousand inhabitants and Massachusetts the lowest in the country - 2.4 per thousand. Overall, more people actually marry in Massachusetts than in Texas. Moreover, the abortion rate in Bush's ostensibly 85 per cent Christian US is 21 per thousand women aged 15-44, compared to 6.8 per cent in the secular Netherlands. William Bennett, the Republicans' high priest of moral values and author of The Book of Virtues, turned out to have been a secret high-stakes gambler all the time he was promoting his own piety. Viewing figures for Desperate Housewives are far, far higher in Bush states than in Kerry states.

All right, maybe that's silly, but my point is that myths about religion in America abound. Bush claims to read the Bible every morning, but rarely goes to church; Hillary Clinton, Antichrist to the Republicans, is a lifelong Methodist who attends every Sunday.

The perpetual get-out of the far right is that the Christian requirement to love your neighbour is something to be obeyed privately or through "faith-based" organisations, rather than by the government. That explains, they say, why official overseas aid from the US is only 0.16 per cent of gross national income, compared with Britain's 0.36, France's 0.42 and Norway's 0.87. Americans give generously out of their own pockets to whom they want, they say: that is the difference between freedom- loving America and all those high-taxation socialist countries.

Once again the figures tell a different story. Even though they get big tax breaks for donating to charity, Americans as private citizens still give less per capita than (say) the Swiss or Irish or Norwegians - and 98 per cent of what they give stays in the US. David Kuo, Bush's deputy director of faith-based initiatives from 2001-2003, resigned in disgust when he concluded that "compassionate conservatism" was nothing but empty words.

There are signs of a fightback. Hillary Clinton herself, whom I described here last year as the Democrats' most likely candi- date for the presidency in 2008, wants her party to "take back" religion - which she is now clearly trying to do. There are also some decent Christian organisations not sullied by the loony right. Yet the truth, as Michael Lerner argues in his new book, The Left Hand of God, is that the Democratic Party has bought into the "ethos of selfishness and materialism" and abandoned its focus on social justice as an expression of Christian belief.

In the meantime, the stranglehold of what Bush and his cronies glibly call "people of faith" - and by that they mean neither churchgoers like Kerry and Clinton nor the nation's six million Muslims - remains largely unchallenged. A new Gallup poll says that the more frequently an American attends church, the more likely it is that he or she will be in favour of war in Iraq. WWJD? The rest of the world knows, but America doesn't.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Religion: who needs it?