Much of his book recounts aspects of American history. In considering his own country’s history, Hart is puzzled that American Protestants “came to regard the Ten Commandments” as “the assumed source of virtue and morality for decent Americans” (p. 90). Apparently he sees the Ten Commandments as only applicable to the church. He just can’t understand why any Christians would think otherwise: “That American Protestants thought their exclusive faith could provide the moral standard for a republic conceived in religious neutrality is one of the more surprising twists in the history of biblical religion” (p. 93). Actually, it’s not surprising at all. The vast majority of citizens in the new republic were Protestants, and it would have been unthinkable that public moral standards would be anything other than Christian standards. Historically, most Protestants did not believe that Christianity should be divorced from political affairs, as Hart advocates.
Hart believes that Protestant theology in the United States went wrong right from the start. The Puritan founders of America and their theological descendants “repeated the errors of Christendom” (p. 38) by thinking that Christian ethical norms applied to government and society, rather than just the church.
These “errors” were then perpetuated down through the country’s history. American Protestant theology was fundamentally flawed because it saw an active role for Christians as Christians in the social and political affairs of the nation. In contrast to that “flawed” view, Hart warmly describes the perspective of a nineteenth century Presbyterian minister named Stuart Robinson. For Robinson, “The kingdom was narrowly religious, located ordinarily within the affairs and ministry of the church, the place where it was appropriate for citizens of the divine kingdom to confess that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’ The civil realm, as such, was not a site of Christian activity and should not be” (p. 118). In this respect, Robinson offered a corrective to the dominant view that Christianity was relevant to all of life, including public affairs.
The “reduced character of Christ’s sovereignty”
Hart points out that many Christians believe that Christ is Lord of all, and therefore He is also the Lord of government and politics. He brushes that argument aside: “The all-or-nothing logic inherent in appeals to the Lordship of Christ,” Hart writes, “fails to do justice to the reduced character of Christ’s sovereignty in the Christian era” (p. 230). In the Old Testament, Israel had a political as well as a spiritual component. In the New Testament, the church had an exclusively spiritual focus. Christ no longer carried any political authority. “The Lordship of Christ, then, was in the Christian era to be seen and employed within the institutional church. The state’s affairs were to be rendered to the state” (pp. 230-231). Or, in other words, Christ rules the church but not the state; He is not the Lord of the state.
This may seem to diminish our view of Christianity, but Hart says just the opposite is true. The really important things are the specifically spiritual things such as the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. This is what Christianity is really all about, and as a result, political activism detracts from the key message of Christianity. As he puts it, “the argument of this book is that using the Christian faith as the basis for culture or politics, by seemingly making it so important, actually trivializes Christianity” (pp. 251-252).
So in his view he is actually defending Biblical Christianity against a warped version of the faith, namely, a version of Christianity that sees it as applying to all areas of life, rather than just the specifically spiritual matters that are most important: “The question pursued in this book has been whether Christian-inspired policy, arguments, or candidates are appropriate on Christian grounds. My conclusion is that such involvement is inappropriate, because using Christianity for political ends fundamentally misconstrues the Christian religion” (p. 253).
Failure of the secular position
Hart is right about the priority of spiritual matters, of course. It is true that our individual relationship with God is much more important than political affairs. But his main point that Christianity is basically irrelevant to government and politics is simply wrong.
Consider just one Scripture passage, Romans 13:1-7. In this passage the civil ruler is said to be “God's servant for your good.” He is also “an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” Hart would, of course, agree with this, i.e., that the civil government is established by God. But here’s the rub: the civil ruler must distinguish between good and evil in order to carry out his duties. How will he know what is good and what is evil? As “God’s servant,” he will need to look to the Word of God. Where else does God indicate what is good and what is evil? Therefore, if the civil ruler must look to the Bible to fulfill his God-assigned task, Christianity is immediately relevant (essential, in fact) to government and politics. Hart’s effort to divorce Christianity from government and politics comes crashing down.
Another problem is Hart’s support for “religious neutrality” in the public arena. Religious neutrality suggests that Christianity must play no role in politics and government. What does this mean for pressing issues like same-sex marriage and abortion? What is the “neutral” position on same-sex marriage? There’s no such thing. Is allowing babies to be killed “neutral”? Or is forbidding them from being killed “neutral”? The idea of a position on abortion being neutral is absurd. Obviously, neutrality is impossible.
In a book of over 250 pages on the role of Christianity in politics, Hart does not even discuss the issues of homosexual rights and abortion. My fear is that he avoids those issues because the so-called “neutral” view looks a lot like the secular humanist view. In fact, Hart’s whole argument that Christianity is a private affair that should be kept out of the public arena dovetails extremely well with the secular humanist position. But if the Christian worldview is kept out of politics and government, the result will not be neutrality, it will be a non-Christian (or even anti-Christian) worldview carrying the day.