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In this fascinating, well-documented historical exploration of religious expression in American life, Hart (The University Gets Religion) argues that while religion has long had a voice in the public square, its current influence is extraordinary. Hart moves smoothly back and forth through American history as he traces the substance of debates over America's providential role, religion and public education, what it means to be a nation "under God" and the dream of a unified national faith. His discussion of the 19th-century rise of anti-Catholicism and the evolution of Roman Catholic attitudes toward involvement in American political life (as exemplified in the campaigns of Al Smith and JFK) is particularly engaging, as is his critique of the current enthusiasm for "compassionate conservatism." Evangelicals have not only lost the idea that churches had a singular spiritual role, but have also surrendered the notion, argues Hart, "that the churches' task is ultimately more important than the state's." One only wishes that he could have made a stronger argument for his central premise-that the claims and character of Christianity mean that believers living in a democratic state must balance, not confuse and conjoin, their dual sets of duties, both as pilgrims and citizens.
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"My argument is that the basic teachings of Christianity are virtually useless for resolving America's political disputes," says religious historian Hart, and he demonstrates how nine familiar American concepts anent church-state relations confound Protestant doctrine, in particular. As a conservative Protestant, he declines to speak for Catholicism, but at least one major common doctrine proves vital throughout. That is Augustine's distinction of the holy city of God from the secular city of man. Christians are perforce citizens of both, but their only specifically Christian obligation concerning secular citizenship is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices. Hart cites Jesus even more frequently than Augustine to distinguish constitutional freedom of religion from specifically Christian freedom, to show why nineteenth-century Catholic bishops correctly objected to Bible reading in the public schools, to discriminate the individualism basic to democracy from the corporate identity required by the church, and to expose "compassionate conservative" policies, such as Bush II's faith-based initiative, as non-Christian. Although demanding to read, Hart's argument is blazingly enlightening. Ray Olson
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