Most Americans probably think it’s no big deal that Barack Obama and John McCain both invoked God’s blessings at the conclusion of their election night speeches.

In fact, in a way it’s a big deal precisely because it’s no big deal.

In America, it remains entirely appropriate for political leaders to display a religious faith. Indeed it’s a liability not to have any religious beliefs, although as Barack Obama learned during the campaign regarding his longstanding ties to controversial Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright, there’s a political need to exercise some degree of discretion about where and with whom you worship.

That’s not the case in most other Western democracies. In those countries it’s regarded as bad form at best, and as a form of bigotry at worst, for a political leader to highlight a belief in God. North of the border in Canada, for example, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been criticized for including references to God in his own victory speech following the 2006 Canadian election and in subsequent public remarks.

Italian priest Father Piero Gheddo remarked on this contrast in a Nov. 5 commentary for the Rome-based Catholic news service Asianews.

“America, as a country and as a people, has preserved a different image of religion, according to the constitutional charter signed by the founding fathers in 1788, which is still in effect, with some amendments,” Father Gheddo noted. “As soon as he found out that he was the new president of the United States, Barack Obama exhorted the crowds in Chicago, concluding with these words: ‘God bless you, and God bless America.’ In Italy, a secularized country like the rest of the European community (living as if God did not exist), this would not be possible. Even our constitution does not mention God by name.”

Continued Father Gheddo, “The United States, with all of its personal and collective defects and sins, is essentially a Christian country, in which religion is at the basis of popular sensibility, the national culture is respectful of religion, and the presence of religion is widespread and much more broadly shared than in Europe. Except in the intellectual fringes, there is no militant atheism in America as in the European community. America’s national roots are not in the Enlightenment, nor are they anti-clerical, and American culture has not been influenced by the Marxist and Nazi ideologies that have shaken and devastated our continent.”

— Tom McFeely