We were never a Christian nation
Contrary to what the Evangelists think, we did not start as a very Christian nation. It's true that before the Constitution, all the states were theocracies: so much so that in Congregationist Massachusetts, they hanged Quakers in public for being Quakers. That's why our founding fathers banned the practice of public officers having to swear a religious oath (and didn't mention God at all in the Constitution). For the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation was not a qualification for office. Jews, Protestants, Deists, atheists, Satanists, whatever -- you could be anything and still run for President or any other office. We were founded as a nation of religious equality. It was essential that the Constitution separate the church from the state, because all the state churches hated one another so much. See Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy by Frederick Clarkson.
Now the same hate is back. Our Evangelical Talibans hate America, and their hate has been given a voice by the Bush administration. At a time when 60% of us believe in the actual existence of the Devil, Professor Mark Lilla from the University of Chicago writes an interesting essay on the role of religion in our history. He concludes:
"The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the 'end times,' the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement -- all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.
No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so. If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers."
Prof. Lilla is right about this, but what he does not pursue is the need, or at least the appeal, of an ecstatic group psychology.
Why am I a child of the 60s? Because we were swept into being by an ecstatic movement. The freedom and joy of pre-marital sex; the invention of the tight band/group as the fulcrum of rock 'n roll (bands who wrote their own songs); the protest against colonial war (Vietnam); the justice of civil rights -- this was an ecstatic movement, fueled by the convenient availability of ecstasy-creating drugs. It was like religion, and that's why it was so formative and normative for an entire generation.
That's why it also scared the bejesus out of all conservatives, so much so they're still fighting the 60s, even though they've lost.
Anyway, where is the ecstasy and idealism of the left today, to posit against the ecstasy of the radical right, our Evangelical Talibans? We should make the war on poverty (the best way to merge all the good antis, like anti-racism and anti-sexism), which Martin Luther King was about to launch at his death, a campaign of idealistic fervor, of ecstatic righteousness, of religious craziness -- if we sincerely want to replace the psychosis of greed and aggression and war in our Republic with true compassion. Intensity is all. Let's get ecstatic about our beliefs. Meet the ecstasy of hate with the ecstasy of love.