It's Christmas in August. The usual peak for the church-state debate is about two weeks before Christmas when some defiant locality puts a cromes apoplectic, and everyone rushes into the fray to declaim on whether religion in the public square fulfills or denies the purpose of the American experiment. This year, at the behest of Secretary of Education William Bennett, we will do our Christmas sniping early.

Bennett recently made a deliberately provocative speech in which he called for a national debate on the role of religion in public life. Bennett will not play umpire. He staked his position quite unequivocally. He argued that American democracy is more than "entangled with" the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is born from and nurtured by it. That is why he objects to the "beguiled judges" who declare that the First Amendment mandates neutrality not only between religions, but between religion and irreligion. Religion is a positive value in public life, says Bennett, and government should not be neutral about it.

As Bennett frames it, the issue is two-sided. It is between religionists-in- general and radical secularists. The secularists want to empty public life of the last trace of religion; the religionists want only to overcome, as Bennett put it, "a new aversion to religion." One side -- Bennett, the president, the angels -- believes that religion has a place in public life. The other -- the ACLU, Norman Lear, the grinches -- believes that it does not.

Now, between grinches and angels the choice is easy. Bennett has more than God on his side. He has two centuries of American history. It is impossible to read America's founding documents without feeling the religious sensiility that the Founders took as given. And some took as necessary. Washington's Farewell Address, for example, is very emphatic that "national morality" is impossible without a foundation in "religious principle." Self-government depends on virtue, which the Founders counted on religion (among other things, of course) to foster.

Consequently, they established, and subsequent American history has elaborated, a highly sophisticated "civil religion" that endows much of our communal, national life with religious meaning. Consider Thanksgiving Day, which celebrates the relation between Providence and American Destiny. Or the Inaugural addresses, every one of which (with the exception of Washington's two-paragraph Second) makes reference to a Supreme Being. Not even the Supreme Court is beyond the reach of the civil religion: every session begins with the invocation "God save the United States and this Honorable Court."

The real problem with Bennett's religionist position is not his argment but his allies. Most on his side of the line believe not that public life needs religion-in-general, but that it needs a particular brand of religion, namely evangelical Christianity. For them the American "civil religion" -- big-tented and tolerant -- is eyewash. "This is a Christian nation," said Rep. Marjorie Holt on the floor of the House. (Which earned this immortal rejoinder from Rep. Barney Frank, who was chairing the middle-of-the-night session: "If this is a Christian nation, how come some poor Jew has to get up at 5:30 in the morning to preside over the House of Representatives?")

Bennett is a religionist, but his allies are sectarians. Sectarians are not interested in reviving a vague and abstract spirituality, or the civil religion, or the "Judeo-Christian tradition" that Bennett keeps insisting on. There are perhaps six people in the country passionately devoted to the cause of religion-in-general. Behind them stand 6 million Moral Majoritarians passionately devoted to a far narrower vision -- and a far broader agenda encompassing everything from abortion to evolution. Wittingly or not, Bennett is their means to bigger and sterner ends.

Bennett is right to insist that American pluralism should include religion -- in public life, and not just banished to the multiple privacies of personal faith. But that battle is all but won. The story of the '80s is not the rise of Bennett's nemesis, the "secular elites," but of the sectarian elites of religious fundamentalism. It is not Norman Lear who is contemplating a run for the presidency but Pat Robertson and his Christan Broadcast Network conglomerate. The Supreme Court's recent secularist opinions have been decided narrowly. The infamous Felton case was decided 5-4. A single Reagan appointment to the court and the tide will have turned.

The first thing wrong with this year's version of the church-state debate is that it is unseasonal. The second is that it is deceptively incomplete. The debate that Bennett called for has not two but three sides. And the third side has yet to show itself. The battle between the religionists and the secularists -- Bennett's battle -- will be won soon enough. Who will then protect us from the sectarians?

Who will see to it that prayer in the schools is kept silent and not state- mandated? That the science curriculum is spared the absurdities of creationism? That the tolerant civil religion is defended from the newly empowered sectarian elites?

Will Bennett?