Heard the one about the school in North Carolina which taught pupils that Southern slavery was a "relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence" and "a far cry from the horrific descriptions given to us in modern histories"? Sadly this is no joke. It's a textbook example of Christian revisionism at work in Bush's America, where equal opportunities can mean teaching creationism alongside the theory of evolution and a Republican lawmaker recently called for novels with gay characters to be banned from all public libraries.

An appropriate bill, sponsored by Alabama representative Gerald Allen, has been pre–filed for the 2005 legislative session and could be debated within two weeks of George W Bush's multi–million dollar inauguration spectacle on 20 January. If the bill is passed, Allen told a reporter, libraries would "dig a big hole and dump [the books] in and bury them". His reasoning: "Our culture, how we know it today, is under attack from every angle," and children needed to be protected from the "homosexual agenda".

While views such as Allen's are a minority, they certainly contributed to Bush's victory in last November's presidential elections, which saw him returned with a greater majority despite taking the country to war twice and overseeing a record budget deficit.

The extreme has entered the mainstream, and an already colourful political landscape, where Hollywood stars and pro wrestlers are elected to high office, has shifted its focus from the liberal east and west coasts of the Clinton years to the 'red' states of the midwest.

It is a phenomenon that took many outside the US, particularly in Europe, by surprise: how could one of the world's oldest and most advanced democracies fall under the spell of irrationality to the extent that one of its most cherished principles is under threat?

The First Amendment of the US constitution, designed to prevent government interference in matters of faith, has all but been ignored by an administration keenly aware that it owes its fundamentalist 'base' significant favours.

Perhaps if European humanists had paid more attention to their US cousins, warning as they have of the steady rise of the religious right, this shift would not have come as such as surprise.

New Humanist asked some of America's leading secular activists for their perspective on the Second Coming of G W Bush. This is what they had to say.

Ana Lita

Today, Christian conservatives have their own army of PhDs to lobby and support President Bush's 'values–based' positions. For instance the current administration claims that abortion causes health problems for women, including breast cancer, and at the behest of his religious conservative base Mr Bush sharply limited research on embryonic stem cells.

There is little doubt among scientific circles that, if successful, therapeutic cloning offers hope to victims of heart diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injury and other debilitating diseases.

In the view of many humanists, the ban on federal funding of research on new stem–cell lines that has been imposed by the Bush administration under the influence of the anti–abortion movement should be overturned. Of course, humanists maintain that such research should, when carried out, be subject to rigorous ethical oversight. At a minimum, policy–making related to such a potentially enormous scientific advancement as embryonic stem cells research should be examined within a moral context broader than that of the current US administration's interpretation of its own religious prescriptions.

To this end the IHEU Appignani Center will primarily focus on raising the awareness of bio–medical issues, especially those that could arise in the foreseeable future, at the UN, as well as on developing and implementing an international programme for lobbying important policy makers. The Appignani Foundation relies on the humanist consideration that scientific research is the most reliable path to truth, therefore bioethics needs input from the rational, humanist ethical perspective. The developments of bioethics today could determine the course and direction for humanity for the next hundred years, anticipating where modern biology will lead us. Such important considerations should not be left solely to the current US administration.

A worldwide raising of voices is required to help scientists in their endeavour. Humanism best provides a human–centred approach to medical and bioethical issues and a rational, forward–looking, broad–based ethical perspective.

Ana Lita is the Executive Director of the IHEU–Appignani Center for Bioethics in NYC

Matt Cherry

The aftershocks from the election will run much deeper into the fault lines of American government and society. Just as the Thatcher administration transformed the political landscape of Britain by moving major segments of the economy from the state to the private sector, the Bush administration is shifting major segments of public life from the secular to the religious sphere.

Great swathes of public policy — education, social programmes, the prison system, the environment, medical research — are being handed over to Christian fundamentalists as government shifts support from secular institutions to radical religious organisations.

Faith–based education is being introduced into public schools through programmes such as abstinence–only sex education. Even creationism is on its way back, dressed up as 'Intelligent Design'.

Mainstream scientific, professional and policy organisations are being systematically attacked. They are subject to hostile audits and tortuous new regulations. Their funding is cut. Their experts are being removed from influential federal advisory positions and replaced by unqualified religious advocates.

It has taken the religious right decades to reach this point. In the 1960s they realised that they couldn't fight political battles in isolation from cultural battles, or cultural battles in isolation from political battles. So they built a cultural movement with enough strength to take over a political party. Now they are using the full power and resources of government to support their cultural movement.

This is a self–reinforcing cycle. Political power is used to strengthen a grassroots movement that delivers more political power.

Christian 'dominionists' are waging war on the Enlightenment values that gave birth to the United States as a secular republic and want a permanent majority with which to change America into a Christian state.

Progressives, too, must learn they cannot fight political battles in isolation from cultural battles, or cultural battles in isolation from political battles.

Secular forces outside the US should focus on stopping the spread of fundamentalism and religious politics to other countries. That includes doing more to separate church and state in Britain while the religious fundies are relatively weak.

Matt Cherry is president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Molleen Matsumura

The real question now is whether American progressives will put up a good fight to stymie Bush's worst excesses. There is some reason for hope: Several civil liberties organisations (eg American Civil Liberties Union, pro–choice groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State) have reported that the day after the election, they were barraged with membership applications, unsolicited donations, and website visits.

The possible effects on the rest of the world may be more worrisome. The structure of American government is such that it is harder for voters to influence foreign policy than domestic policy. Bush's refusal to abandon his expensive military adventure, combined with his conservative ideology, will mean the US will continue to limit support for population control and global environmental protections, among other progressive programmes. Humanists abroad will need to influence their governments not just to pressure the US, but take more independent action. I see hopeful signs in such EU activities as the intervention in Iraq, and programmes to rebuild the economy and civil society in the Balkans.

Concerning what we in the US call the 'culture wars': It seems humanists in other countries face parallel challenges – witness the religious strife in India, the struggle for a secular constitution for the EU, burnings and bombings of mosques and churches in the Netherlands following Theo van Gogh's murder, the French government's decision to ban the wearing of religious garb in public schools. I hope that our compatriots will find creative solutions that set a good example!

Molleen Matsumura is the author of the online humanist advice column, Sweet Reason ( www.humaniststudies.org/sweetreason.html )

August E Brunsman

The folks who poured millions upon millions of dollars into the recent electoral fray and didn't get the result they wanted must be a bit pissed off. All those donors might want to spend some serious money on education over the next four years so they don't have to blow another half–billion on substanceless 30–second TV spots in 2008 just to lose again.

August E Brunsman is the Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance

Warren Allen Smith

The crushing electoral victory by George W Bush has resulted in understandable despair as well as a sense of fearful anger for gay Yanks. It's as if 80 million voters went on record as sincerely, really, absolutely hating us. It is frightening how Christian fundamentalism was so successful in its campaign against the secular civic rationalism and Enlightenment ideals of our Deistic Founding Fathers.

Our Republic is in bad shape right now. Our two–party system has broken down — in Massachusetts, the two parties had divided their fiefdoms so successfully that there was not even a contest in 40 races. Our 535 elected Congress members shamefully receive money from corporations and advice from their lobbyists. Corporations control our media to the extent that many of us depend almost entirely upon Canadian sources, or the BBC or The Economist.

Some look longingly at populist stands taken in Canada and Europe, but it is not likely that gays will emigrate there. The more likely scenario is that gays will work to shake up the minority party, the Democratic Party, the leaders of which are entirely to blame for losing the election. Unless the citizenry 'rumbles' and demands radical changes, Bush will steamroller ahead, inspired by the morning prayer meetings with his Cabinet.

It will take from two to four decades to right the wrongs of the recent past.

Warren Allen Smith is a veteran of Omaha Beach (1944) and the Stonewall Riots (1969), author of Who's Who in Hell, and a columnist for GALHA magazine

Paul Kurtz

The re–election of George W Bush to the presidency is a horrific shock to American secularists and humanists, all the more so because of the large plurality of his victory and the solidifying of the conservative Republican majorities in the Congress.

Interestingly, public enemy number one for Bush's evangelical base of support has been secular humanists, and I have been personally demonised by them, although we now have to share the spotlight with the Muslim terrorists.

Many secularists and rationalists have thought about leaving America to escape George the Second, much the same as many colonialists after the American Revolution escaped an earlier, English George. I say we need to stay and fight back, and we need to try to persuade the American public that all is not lost in this historic land of opportunity, freedom, and equality, and that the current inanity of those who voted for Bush can be turned back.

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo