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Whose nation under God?

WHEN John Kennedy was running for president and passions were running high about whether a Catholic could serve both the American citizenry and Rome, a joke made the rounds about a priest and a minister whose friendship nearly came to blows. Finally the priest phoned his old friend. ''What a pity," he said. ''Here we are, both men of the cloth, fighting over politics." ''It's true," said the minister. ''We're both Christians. We both worship the same God -- you in your way, and I in His."

America, which separated church and state precisely to protect the private right to worship, has long had its share of religious absolutists who have wanted to harness the power of the state to their own view of revealed truth. But never before in our history has the government deliberately and cynically intervened on the side of the zealots.

President Bush, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and company are playing with serious fire. As the joke suggests, there is no challenging revealed truth. That's why the state stays neutral.

What's under siege here is nothing less than the Enlightenment. Please recall that what we benignly remember as the Renaissance coexisted with centuries of vicious religious persecution -- Christians persecuting heretics like Galileo, expelling and slaughtering Muslims and Jews, then doing bloody battle with each other following the Protestant Reformation.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment were men of science who understood that faith could not be disputed but that reason could be subjected to the test of logic and evidence. The American Revolution was a triple triumph -- for political democracy, religious tolerance, and for the free inquiry demanded by the scientific method.

Today's religious extremists are not only trying to use the state, with all its power, as religious proselytizer. They oppose science when it happens to conflict with their version of revealed truth. They twist history to claim that the Republic's freethinking Founders, like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, were really theocrats like themselves. They long for the predemocratic world of absolutes circa 1500.

Although proponents of state sponsorship of ''faith-based" activities claim that all faiths are equally eligible, the politically dominant soon attempt to dictate the approved faith. Leon Wieseltier has observed, ''It is never long before one nation under God gives way to one God under a nation."

Last December the far right declared that religious pluralists were waging war on Christianity itself. ''They hate the idea of Christmas," said Pat Buchanan. ''Seasons' Greetings" became politically incorrect. Merry Christmas became a battle cry instead of a tiding of good will.

Frist, the Senate majority leader, continued this theme last Sunday, lending official comfort to a convention of religious extremists calling itself Justice Sunday. This confab of judge-bashers, nominally ''people of faith," is actually promoting a particular, fundamentalist Protestant faith. Some of its leaders do not even consider Catholics to be Christians.

As if to prove the wisdom of Jefferson (and the priest/minister joke), the latest pope richly reciprocates. Despite going through the motions of ecumenical outreach, Benedict XVI in his prior life as Cardinal Ratzinger made it all too clear that people who did not embrace the one true church and its dogmas were going straight to hell. Happily, most American Catholics disagree.

For now, this coalition of the faithful (who literally believe that many of their allies of convenience are destined for eternal damnation) is willing to put aside differences that will be settled in the next life and join forces on behalf of the faith-based public trough and the ecumenical crusade against an independent judiciary.

I never thought I'd live to see a time when the Enlightenment -- the Enlightenment! -- was politically controversial. Democracy, like science, depends on debate, tolerance, and evidence. And in a democracy, nothing is scarier than a political force convinced it is getting irrefutable truth directly from God.

Mercifully, religious extremists do not represent anything like a majority. We still have a proudly independent judiciary--in the Schiavo case, Governor Jeb Bush could not find a single Florida judge willing to overturn the testimony of countless doctors. And mainstream denominations like the Presbyterians have begun speaking out vigorously on behalf of religious tolerance and pluralism.

But let's be clear: Our very democracy is under assault. History is filled with cases where a small minority was able to overturn democratic institutions.

Zeal on behalf of tolerance seems almost a contradiction. But the large American majority that believes in freedom of conscience and inquiry had better get organized with the same enlightened passion that drove America's Founders.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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