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President Clinton shocked many Christians last year when he started quoting from and recommending Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter's Culture of Disbelief. Carter's much-discussed book protests how secular academics, journalists, activists, and arts people are biased against anyone who takes a public position based on religious convictions, seeing them as "dangerous fanatics" who threaten the wall of separation between church and state.

Whether or not the President's comments will make it easier for Christians to express religious convictions in the public square, some Christians have been bravely doing just that for some time. But when they try to reflect on this experience and construct a "public theology" (that is, a systematic understanding of how to relate faith to public issues), they run into a problem. The history of American evangelicalism is littered with many theories of private morality but very few plans for public action explicitly and systematically grounded in Christian principles.

As historian Mark Noll has pointed out, American evangelicals have tended to act first and think later. It is no wonder that most of those doing public theology are outside evangelical circles. Yet one forebear of the evangelical tradition thought long and hard about the world outside the church, and his thinking on this subject is a rich resource for those trying to relate their faith to today's public issues.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) is widely recognized as the greatest theologian this continent has ever produced. As a key figure in the religious life of colonial America, Edwards was a multifaceted thinker whose total catalog of ideas is still being discovered.

Many evangelicals think of Edwards as a stern Puritan preacher ...

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July 2001

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