Clark's Review of "A Secular Faith"

"A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State" by D.G. Hart -- a Review by R. Scott Clark

Evangelical involvement in politics has perhaps never been more intense. The Bush administration speaks of integrating faith and politics and has an office of faith-based initiatives. The national media cover the scandals of evangelical leaders because those evangelicals have political clout. Indeed, most Christians on the right and left seem to agree that there is such a thing as distinctly Christian politics. Into this super-heated environment comes a book by Darryl Hart challenging the assumptions that fuel the social programs of both conservative and liberal Christians.

Hart's argument with both groups is that "Christianity in its classic formulations, especially the Protestant traditions of Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican, has very little to say about politics or the ordering of society" (10). "Christian-inspired policy arguments" or candidates are inappropriate "on Christian grounds" because "using Christianity for political ends fundamentally misconstrues the Christian religion" (253).

Through nine chapters, Hart interacts with a substantial body of literature attempting to account for the relations between Christ and Caesar. He argues that, when pressed into the service of Caesar, Christianity is always denatured and cheapened, because, the "trick of successfully employing any faith for public ends is to have access to the socially useful parts of religion while leaving behind its dogmatic and sectarian baggage" (13). For Hart, there is no such thing as "Christian" politics. For readers familiar with Hart's earlier work, this view should come as no surprise as it is part of his broader advocacy of the renewal and reapplication of the Reformation theory of the two kingdoms, that is, the notion that Christ is sovereign over all things but he administers his sovereignty in two distinct kingdoms: civil and ecclesiastical. Thus, nonecclesiastical vocations are common to believers and unbelievers and much of this common work must be conducted according to creational categories (nature) and existing cultural norms rather than redemptive categories (grace). In other words, there is no distinctly Christian way to drive a bus or set monetary policy. Bus drivers, historians, and politicians do common work according to nature. Hart, with a few other writers (such as David VanDrunen and Michael Horton), seeks to employ the two kingdoms theory in the late modern world as a bulwark against evangelical and liberal theocratic tendencies. According to Hart, both the evangelical right and the mainline left are theocratic. Walter Rauschenbusch's "social gospel" has become the playbook for ostensibly conservative evangelicals (105-123). Both the Christian left and right routinely misappropriate and misapply passages from the Old Testament-passages intended to speak to the Israelite theocracy and to the church-as if they were intended to serve as a blueprint for post-canonical social policy.

How are Christians to negotiate their civic lives? Hart's answer is that we must embrace an "awkward neutrality" (229-230), that we must be prepared to live "hyphenated lives." With "legal secularists," Hart argues that for Christian secularists, "the work of government lacks any overtly religious or spiritual purpose" (15). Its work is common to believer and unbeliever. In an age when the "integration" of faith and life is the standing order, it is bracing, even shocking to see one arguing that Christians should "bracket" their faith (175-177, 253, 257) from their civic lives.

He takes issue with the notion on which much Christian political involvement has been premised, , American exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is a "shining city on a hill" (19-45). Only the visible church could be that city in this world. Thus, he criticizes the colonial Puritans, mainline Christians, and evangelicals for consistently applying theocratic categories to the civil rather than to the ecclesiastical kingdom.

Following George Marsden's account of the influence of the "Whig cultural ideal" (54), Hart observes that Christians have regularly confused democratic republicanism with Christianity and vice versa, conflating Christian liberty with political liberty (66). He argues that the legal secularism of Isaac Kranmick and R. Laurence Moore is closer to the intent of the Westminster Divines than is modern Christian republicanism (69-71). He chronicles the consequences of this ideology for American Christianity by surveying the rise of the "common" (public) school. In order for such an institution to foster a generic civic religion, the common schools that arose in the 19th century had to promulgate a sub-Christian faith (89).

Drawing upon Nathan Hatch's analysis of the democratization of American Christianity, Hart also contends that much of what is done in the name of advancing the "kingdom of God" is really the product of Jacksonian, egalitarianism (124-152), and attempts to preserve the Protestant hegemony, on the flawed assumption that the Protestant churches are the seminary of democracy (145, 150-152).

One of the most interesting chapters is his survey of the changes in religious identity in America from Al Smith's defeat to today. John Kennedy had to assure evangelicals that he would not allow his Romanism to influence his policies and today evangelicals seem to insist that Roman politicians obey the Pope in their civil lives. In this chapter, Hart engages in his most detailed biblically based argument (170-174) for the two-kingdoms reading of Scripture.

Rejecting the dominant two-party reading of American religious history, that is, that there are two kinds of Christians ("conservative" and "liberal"), Hart argues that the conservatives of the National Association of Evangelicals are not really different from liberals of the National Council of Churches (chapter 7). Rather, genuine religious faith is bound not to produce a religious unity, as the Christian-republicans (right and left) imagine, but division. True religious conviction is inherently confessional and sectarian (206).

Like everything that Hart writes, this work is provocative in the best sense. As a Reformed confessionalist, I find his argument theologically compelling. The Israelite theocracy was unique and fulfilled by Christ. Christ and his apostles established an institution with only spiritual authority and commanded Christians to live peaceably and patiently in a hostile culture. Implicitly or explicitly, however, under the influence of pre- or post-millenarian eschatology (anticipating some earthly golden age) Christians have spent much of modernity trying to resuscitate Christendom by employing implicitly or explicitly theocratic arguments. Even if one disagrees with Hart's theology, anyone willing to reconsider the prevailing theology of cultural engagement will find a vigorous discussion partner here.

My agreement notwithstanding, Hart's rhetoric and historical analysis raise questions for further discussion. According to Hart, the adjective "public" refers to civic activities and the adjective "private" refers to sectarian ecclesiastical religious activities. [Certainly he is entitled to his definitions, and used to mean "not civic," Christian practice must be described as private. Yet some will wonder whether "private" is the best adjective to describe Christian theology and practice.] It's true that certain acts of piety are to be private (176) in the sense of "hidden from view" (Matt. 6:4), but the empty tomb was available for everyone to see, as was Christ's resurrected body and as is Christian worship.

Historians may balk at a few characterizations of seventeenth-century British politics and the political intentions of the Westminster Assembly (e.g., 64, 70). For example, though Hart concedes that the two kingdoms doctrine emerged under Christendom (i.e., a state-church, the civil enforcement of the first table of the Decalogue), his account of Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 20 makes no mention of the original version of Article 23, which calls for the magistrate to keep "unity and peace" in the church and to keep pure "the Truth of God" and to suppress "all blasphemies and heresies" (23.3).

Similarly, his claim that the Reformation marginalized the institutional church (244) is partly true, but a little misleading. He refers in passing to the consequence of desacralization of the world by the Reformation. Where the medieval church had grace "perfecting" nature, the Reformation restored nature and grace to their rightful places. For Protestants, grace renews nature. Did that make the church less or more important in the lives of believers?

One might also be puzzled by the relative absence of Calvin's theory of the two kingdoms in a book by a confessional Presbyterian. He spends several pages on Augustine's two cities and on Luther's theory of the two kingdoms but little on Calvin's theory of the two kingdoms, giving perhaps unintentionally the impression that his view is more Augustinian and Lutheran than Calvinist.

Finally, Hart's argument makes one eager for further elaboration of a positive basis on which Christians can make civil decisions. After all, through the ballot initiative and referendum process now commonplace, the average citizen is engaged in making policy on a level that pre-Enlightenment Christians could hardly imagine. Discussion of the historic Protestant doctrine of natural law will be most welcome. This is a valuable book deserving of careful attention from readers across the religious and theological continuum.
Modern Reformation magazine, March/April Vol. 16 No. 2 2007 Pages 49-51

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