…once we begin to notice the new forms that mystical feeling has taken, we can see their impact almost everywhere.
As it happens, we often fail to recognize the effect as spiritual, because American history has led us to expect our national spirituality to be explicitly religious, tied to the nation’s churches. These new supernatural entities—or, at least, these new manifestations of the enduring human desire to perceive something supernatural in the world—have broken away from the theological understandings that would once have helped corral and tame them. We are like a people who dismiss ghosts as archaic, superstitious nonsense, even while we imagine that all around us are ectoplasmic projections of the dead we just happen not to call ghosts. Spirits and demons, angels and demigods, ﬂitter through American public life, ferrying back and forth across our social and political interactions, the burdens of our spiritual anxieties.
Think of it this way: We live in what can only be called a spiritual age, swayed by its metaphysical fears and hungers, when we imagine that our ordinary political opponents are not merely mistaken but actually evil. When we assume that past ages, and the people who lived in them, are deﬁned by the systematic crimes of history. When we suppose that some vast ethical miasma—-racism, radicalism, cultural self-hatred, selﬁsh blindness—determines the beliefs of classes other than our own. When we can make no rhetorical distinction between absolute wickedness and the people with whom we disagree: The Republican Congress is the Taliban! President Obama is a Communist.’ Wisconsin’s governor is a Nazi!
We live in a spiritual age, in other words, when we believe ourselves surrounded by social beings of occult and mystic power. When we live with titanic cultural forces contending across the sky, and our moral sense of ourselves—of whether or not we are good people, of whether or not we are saved—-takes its cues primarily from our relation to those forces. We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological. When how we vote is how our souls are saved.
Through the long centuries after the Middle Ages, the combination of liberal Protestantism and scientiﬁc materialism slowly drained Western civilization of its metaphysical density: devils, specters, elves, magic, all fading away. The disenchantment of the world, the sociologist Max Weber called it, and by the late 1800s, most educated Americans probably had no strong belief in any supernatural entities beyond the bare Christian minimum of the individual soul, below, and God, above.
The otherworldly genius of the nation, however, would not leave it so. Over the last hundred years, America’s metaphysical realm has been gradually repopulated with social and political ideas elevated to the status of strange divinities: a scientifically acceptable re-enchantment and supernatural thickening of reality—born of the ancient religious hunger to perceive more in the world than just the give and take of ordinary human beings, but adapted to an age that piously congratulates itself on its escape from many of the strictures of ancient religion.