HARD TO IMAGINE…. The debate among the British candidates for prime minister is surprisingly captivating — it’s on right now, if you want to check it out — and I was especially fascinated by a voter’s question about an upcoming U.K. visit scheduled by Pope Benedict XVI. The voter wanted to know, given the pope’s views on science, health, and diversity, and given the Vatican’s scandal involving sexual abuse of children, would the three major-party candidates welcome the papal visit?

All three candidates — Conservative leader David Cameron, Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg, and incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown — offered roughly the same response. They strongly disagree with the pope on social issues — stem-cell research, contraception, gay rights — and abhor the church’s ongoing scandal, but would nevertheless welcome Benedict, out of respect for England’s Catholic population and in deference to religious diversity.

But the way Clegg began his answer was rather striking:

“I’m not a man of faith but my wife is Catholic and my children are being brought up as Catholic….”

Now, it was amazing enough to hear all of the candidates clearly support a progressive (by U.S. standards) approach to social policy. But even more remarkable was watching a major party candidate feel entirely comfortable describing himself as not being a person of faith, knowing that this acknowledgement probably won’t affect his electoral chances.

It stands in pretty stark contrast to politics in the United States.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.