God Bless America

New York – US Republicans wasted no time in drawing God to their cause on Monday as they peppered the opening of their party convention here with a heavy mixture of political pieties and gospel music.

Religious references filled New York’s Madison Square Garden where a flow of party speakers was punctuated by musicians appearing under the banner of “preachers and patriots.”

“George W Bush is a man sent by God to lead this nation in challenging times,” Florida Republican chair Carole Jean Jordan said at a meeting of the state’s delegates held as the gala got underway.

The audience then fervently recited the American pledge of allegiance after being reminded that a legal bid by an atheist to remove the words “one nation under God” from the pledge had failed earlier this year.

The pledge was recited again on the convention stage ahead of a religious invocation by Sheri Dew, a Mormon church leader and staunch defender of the family values so favoured by the Republican right.

In a magazine article earlier this year, Dew compared the battle to uphold traditional family values, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage, with the fight against Hitler in the early 1930s.

While an array of more liberal Republican politicians is set to dominate the stage in the coming days, the conservative and religious leitmotif running through the event is intended to appeal to the Christian right of the party that Bush is eager to woo.

‘Chosen by God’

“I don’t think this religious theme is going to be visible throughout the week, but it’s a theme that energises the heartland base,” said political scientist Sherry Bebitch-Jeffe, who is observing the convention.

“I think Bush has a quiet sense of having been chosen by God after the September 11 terror attacks.

“It’s intended as a message for the right before the party puts on the moderate face it wants to show the world now.”

Even as routine party business was conducted, one speaker after another chanted the patriotic mantra “God bless America,” as musicians punctuated the politics with a jazzy mix of country and Christian tunes.

Among those appearing at the gathering held under the tightest security in convention history are Christian singer Gracie Rosenburger, Christian rock band Third Day, gospel singer Donnie McClurkin and Christian pop artist Michael Smith.

The “preachers and patriots” theme, designed to appeal to country dwellers, is the brainchild of Frank Breeden, the convention’s entertainment director and a former president of the Gospel Music Association.

Religious conservatives

The pious beat and the subtext of the convention reflects the White House’s drive to win the votes of the estimated four million religious conservatives who strategists believe failed to vote in the 2000 election.

But the party is trying to send an awkward double-message ahead of the November 2 polls, in which Democratic contender John Kerry is hoping to topple Bush, as it also tries to reach out to more liberal independent and Democratic swing voters.

To lure them into the polling booths, the Republicans are laying on prime-time convention speeches by its more secular and socially more tolerant stars.

The social moderate speakers who start taking the podium on Monday are led by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arizona senator John McCain and ex-New York mayors Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch.

Koch, a former Democrat and a Jew, may as well have been speaking about religion when he joked about his seemingly-incongruous role on stage at the Republican convention.

“Why am I here? I’m here to convert you,” he quipped to hoots of laughter.

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