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The 'Social Agenda'

IT'S possible to agree with a set of goals but disagree on the way to reach them. A case in point: the ''social agenda'' put forward by the religious right.

That agenda emphasizes strengthening the family and making room for moral values in American civic and cultural life -- admirable goals.

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But the attainment of those goals, as sketched out by many religious conservatives, includes such steps as cutting off funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, ''defederalization'' of education, and the defeat of the nomination of Henry Foster for surgeon general.

The endowments have had their failings; some grantees have been outside the realms of artistic significance and acceptable taste. But they have also funded projects, such as television documentaries on American history, that have enriched individuals and families.

Federal standards and guidelines on education can be useful, if limited, tools. They don't constitute a takeover of local schools, which remain in the control of communities and states.

And Dr. Foster? Abortion, a central item on the ''agenda,'' drives opposition to him. Yet relatively few Americans share the perception that abortion is an overriding issue, and most are likely to view Foster as a decent man who could serve the country well.

Religious views should find expression in the public realm. At the least, they should provide a context for discussion, tempering personal attack and informing policy development.

But the Christian Coalition, which this week is publicizing its ''Contract with the American Family,'' advocates a ''religious liberty'' or ''religious equality'' amendment to the Constitution to protect the public expression of religious beliefs. The First Amendment already protects such expression and guards against state entanglement with religious doctrine in the public classroom -- where individuals can and do pray, but where no one should be forced to join a religious observance.

The concerns of the religious right will be heard in the coming presidential primary races. Candidates should respond to those concerns by deepening the public dialogue about morality and family life, rather than tying themselves to particular planks of the ''social agenda.''

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