So, one of the two big contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has decided it's time to dispense with this notion about the rule of law in America.

In Tim Pawlenty's view, the president isn't in charge, nor is Congress or the judiciary, nor even all three.

Nope. His exact words: "God's in charge." And that, he said, should be the first principle of governing in the United States.

I haven't heard a politician put it quite so bluntly since my assignments in Iran a decade ago.

When I hear pronouncements like that here, I always try to imagine the reaction if a leading candidate in Canada or Great Britain or even deeply Catholic France said the same thing.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is testing the water for a presidential run in 2012, addresses the CPAC convention in Washington, Feb. 19, 2010. (Associated Press)

Here, it nearly went unnoticed.

Pawlenty, the 49-year-old governor of Minnesota, didn't specify whose God is actually in charge. But it's probably safe to say he wasn't talking about the Muslim God, given the sensibilities of the crowd.

Or the Hebrew God, either. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which Pawlenty was addressing in Washington, D.C., has become a redoubt for social conservatives, and while they like to describe America as a Judeo-Christian society, their emphasis is certainly not on the Five Books of Moses.

No, Pawlenty was talking about the Christian God.

Or, at least, his evangelical version of the Christian God.

And the great thing about declaring that God is in charge is that you then get to act as His spokesman, since He doesn't make stump speeches or write legislation.

Fiscal talk

Pretty clearly, Pawlenty has calculated that speaking on behalf of God about public policy issues will be necessary if he wants that Republican nomination two years from now.

Not where moderate Republicans are concerned, of course. They'd far rather hear fiscal talk than God talk.

But politicians like Pawlenty, who was until recently regarded as a moderate himself, are much more interested right now in the embrace of the hardliners.

Republican hardliners are the ones making the most noise these days, grabbing the headlines and actively working against the moderates in their own party.

In fact, the John Birch Society was allowed for the first time in decades to operate a booth at CPAC.

Birchers famously regarded fluoridation of water as a Communist plot and still want America out of the UN. Their philosophy could fairly be described as anti-government in the extreme.

Ideologically impure

Moderate Republicans are in fact keeping a low profile right now, as well as a wary eye on some of their own colleagues, people such as Senator Jim DeMint, a hardline hero who's actually organizing challenges to Republican incumbents judged ideologically impure.

DeMint says he'd rather have "30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs."

To political pros, that's an idiotic political strategy, but as populist conservative anger erupts around the country, you won't hear many Republican strategists say that publicly.

Newspaper columnist George F. Will says it, though. Considered by many as the grand old man of American conservatism, Will laced into the hardliners last week.

Populism, he wrote, is "a celebration of intellectual ordinariness. This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites.

"Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess."

Revenge of the bumpkins

George Will isn't running for president, though, and Pawlenty almost certainly is. So the Minnesota governor tossed out a ton of populist red meat for his audience at CPAC.

Their opponents, he said, are the "elites," which, he insinuated, are a bunch of effete wimps who look down on the ordinary working man.

Here is how he characterized the elite view: "'You know, maybe [working-class Americans] are not as sophisticated, because a lot of them didn't go to the Ivy League schools.'

"Or, 'You know, they don't hang out at our Chablis-drinking, Brie-eating parties in San Francisco.' And the implication is, you know, we're kind of bumpkins."

Notice the reference to San Francisco. We all know who congregates there, don't we? And notice the "we're" in the last sentence about bumpkins.

So here we have Tim Pawlenty, a law school graduate and high-profile member of America's political class, a man who makes a great deal more than the average working American, putting himself on the other side of the fence from the so-called elites.

George W. Bush, a multimillionaire and holder of a postgraduate degree from an Ivy League school, often used the same rhetorical gimmick. But while Bush unhesitatingly named Jesus as his favourite philosopher, I can't remember him ever declaring God to be in charge of governing.

Money and debt

Of course if someone like Pawlenty actually tried to impose his version of God on how America is governed, the Supreme Court justices would probably have something to say about it.

Even the most conservative of them draw a clear line between church and state.

And ultimately, God is just a distraction in this fight. The real issue is money and debt.

As Mike Pence, a Republican congressman from Indiana, told the conference: "When it comes to more borrowing, the answer is no. When it comes to more spending, the answer is no. When it comes to more bailouts, the answer is no."

And, of course, when it comes to more taxes, the Republican answer is no, no, no.

The trouble with such Republican vows is irreducible mathematics: The U.S. currently spends more than it takes in, to understate the case grossly.

So the no-tax-increases, no-borrowing position means the Republicans will at some point — and that point should be coming soon — have to say what exactly they would cut.

So far, it's all just been generalities about "limiting the size of government."

But the big entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — are by far the single biggest area of government spending. They are immensely popular with voters, and, as the population ages, their cost is poised to explode.

Will Republicans cut them? Now there's a question. And politicians, not God, will have to take responsibility.