Intellectually, ours is a nation established on a foundation of reason. Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, and their American contemporaries were eager students of the European Enlightenment and examined their world - whether scientific or philosophical - through a value system shaped by the "Age of Reason." Their heroes were Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Newton. In creating a new nation they ideally saw the United States as heir to a democratic tradition propagated in ancient Athens and as an embodiment of the abstract ideas outlined in the doctrines of "Lockean liberalism" and English "Whiggery."
Alas, if only it could be that simple. To be accurate one also must factor in the influence of religion in America's creation, in particular the decidedly legalistic Calvinism of Massachusetts Puritans and the irrationalism of later evangelicals in the Great Awakening. This philosophical foundation defined by polarized world views has influenced American intellectual development since the 18th century. And, for the most part, the two have maintained their separate and distinct spheres of interest, only infrequently clashing openly.
Unfortunately in the last 25 years the tense equilibrium in this faith versus reason debate has been shattered by the growing influence of right wing Christian conservatives who have assaulted liberal doctrines at every opportunity and in every realm of society. As a result, the United States stands poised on the edge of a fascist abyss, with the forces of Christian totalitarianism already making significant inroads within the government at every level. Moreover, their assault on "modernity" and "rationalism" threatens the very intellectual fabric of the Republic with "God's law" heralded as the inevitable replacement for "secular" legal tradition. (If you doubt this as a goal for the Christian Right, take a close look at Pat Robertson's Regent University and its law school. A recent PBS documentary on Regent uncovered an explicit effort to replace the current American judiciary with personnel who would enshrine "God's law" as the law of the United States. Already, Regent University has placed approximately 150 graduates in positions with the Bush administration. Listening to the earnest, wide-eyed students of Robertson's propaganda machine, I was reminded of the chilling newsreel footage of equally enthusiastic Hitler Youth from the 1930s. )
Unfortunately, the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons are winning the propaganda war. They prey upon a largely ignorant populace, segments of which have become so alienated by economic hardship and rapid social change, that they're willing to surrender their liberties for the reassurance of a god-ordained cleansing of society's ills. Joseph Goebbels noted: "The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative." Evil as he was, the man knew what he was doing. And the Christian Right, co-opting the patriotic language, religious symbolism, and ugly prejudices of disaffected Americans, has obviously learned some valuable lessons from Goebbels and the Nazis.
After World War II many Americans proclaimed that what happened in Germany could never happen here. Our democratic traditions were too strong, they argued. We too jealously safeguarded our liberties, they concluded. Those who survived the nightmare of Hitler's Germany knew better; more realistic analysts understood how easily fascism had gained control of German citizens and the machinery of their state.
It is happening here, to be frighteningly blunt. If average Americans mirror the inactivity - and complicity - of the German people, if they surrender their reason for the politics of hatred and intolerance, and if they allow fanatics to misappropriate Christianity and genuine patriotism for totalitarian control, the United States will suffer the same fate as Nazi Germany.