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This is a coming-of-age story. The future United States is a theocracy run by religious leaders whose bodies are luminescent, literally glow in the dark, and so are considered to be holy. As the protagonist, who is luminescent, grows up, it becomes clear to him that not everyone who glows acts in a moral way. Eventually he is led away by rebels who inform him that the glow is due to luminescent bacteria. The bacteria are killed and the glow stops, which shocks him into the realization that the rebels are right about other things too. The rebels also prove to be able to give ordinary people the bacterial culture to make them glow, which upsets the social order.

I probably read this in an English-language anthology during the 1960s or 70s. My impression is that this may be by a well-known author.

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Well, I've found it, and I've also found why it was so hard to find despite the bounty that b_jonas generously offered. (Thank you! I just wish that someone had been able to win that bounty.)

The story is With Flaming Swords, by Cleve Cartmill -- not a well-known author. The story was originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1942, but I almost certainly read it in A Treasury of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin (1948). I recall other stories from this anthology, and though I did read and reread it in the 1960s, it must already have been on a library shelf for quite some time. The anthology was reprinted in 1951 and 1980, and the story was reprinted in collections of Cartmill's work in 2003 and 2011, but it was probably never well-known. Cartmill is best known today for Deadline, a 1944 story in which he described the atomic bomb in some detail, to the alarm of the FBI.

The way I found With Flaming Swords again after so many years was by a brute-force method. I had already posted a list of books that I've read on Goodreads, and tagged them in several ways. One of the tags is "anthology", so I began looking through them, and then checked the ISFDB for the titles of short stories contained in each one, and searched on Google for reviews of the stories with those titles. I figured that I would rediscover enough short stories to make this worth my while, and that strategy was working nicely when, son of a gun, there it was in one of the first few anthologies that I looked at, out of more than 200.

Jamie Todd Rubin reviewed With Flaming Swords among several other stories on September 17, 2012:

With Flaming Swords by Cleve Cartmill

Blurb: The accident that a new weapon killed some and mutated others produced–the Saints, the self-appointed, selfish, self-adulating Saints, who rules the world with decidedly unsaintly violence and -- with flaming swords.

I wasn't sure about the identification from this, but Jacques d'Emal (1994, Anticipating the Atom, p. 44) provided a description that clinched it with the theocracy ruled by leaders having a glowing aura:

"With Flaming Swords." Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1942, 109-130. A major war ends when a single L-ray shot from an electron cannon causes terrible destruction over a large area. People nearby have their germ plasm mutated and bear sons with a glowing aura. In the anarchy following the war, the mutant children found the Religion of the Saints, establish a theocracy, and rule benevolently for centuries using advanced science to reinforce their divine authority and enforce their will. One Saint scientist discovers the truth of their origin and reveals it to the world.

Thanks to b_jonas for impelling me to take the effort to rediscover this obscure story, which stayed in my memory for over fifty years.

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  • That almost sounds like that'd be a good SF film! – MissouriSpartan Nov 4 '19 at 18:28

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