The lesson for the religious right should be obvious. The effort to bring religious values to bear on public life is similar to what Protestant modernists did seventy years ago when they advocated prayer and Bible reading in public schools, Prohibition, and a rating system for Hollywood’s movies. And like the Protestant establishment during the middle decades of the twentieth century, today’s advocates of public religion could presumably add greater dignity and decency to American society. But at what cost? What will happen to the non-evangelical citizens of the United States if they do not comply with evangelicalism’s moral code? Even more important, what will happen to faith once delivered to the saints that evangelicals are so eager to share? As difficult as it may be to find a common ethical platform for public life without the foundation of revealed religion, the difficulties on the other side are just as great, if not greater. To be sure, the desire to make Christianity relevant for public life does not automatically force someone to deny the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ. Neither is it immediately obvious, however, what these articles of belief have to do with limited government, free markets, or family values. And so, a comprehensive biblical program for American society and politics turns out to be little more than the second table of the Ten Commandments, the ones having to do with love of neighbor. Loving neighbors is a good thing. But historic Christianity involves much more. The irony is that by reducing Christianity to its ethical teaching the religious right and its defenders could be making one of the greatest concessions to modern secular life imaginable. For that reason it may be better to scrap altogether the project of public or civil religion. In the case of Anglo-American Protestantism, such efforts have not worked out well either for the republic or for the churches.
D. G. Hart, “Mainstream Protestantism, ‘Conservative’ Religion, and Civil Society,” The Journal of Policy History (2001)
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