Author Meets Critics: "The Religious Test"

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Damon Linker
Author of The Religious Test and
Contributing Editor of The New Republic

Patrick Deneen,
 Georgetown University
Mark Silk, Trinity College

Date: November 11, 2010

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In a provocative new book entitled The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, Damon Linker argues that certain elements of religious belief—including radical atheism—may very well be incompatible with high office, and sometimes even active citizenship, in a democracy. Two expert commentators will critique Linker's argument from different perspectives.

Speaker Bios

Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a Contributing Editor of The New Republic and a Senior Writing Fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He also blogs about religion, culture, and politics for The New Republic. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Policy Review, The Public Interest, The Review of Politics, The Review of Metaphysics, and the American Behavioral Scientist. From May 2001 to February 2005, he worked at First Things—first as associate editor of the journal, then as its editor. Prior to joining the magazine, he taught political philosophy at Brigham Young University and served as a speechwriter for New York’s Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Linker studied history, philosophy, and writing at Ithaca College, graduating with a BA in 1991. He went on to earn an MA in European history from New York University and a Ph.D. in political science from Michigan State University. Born in New York City, Linker currently lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two children.

Patrick J. Deneen

Patrick J. Deneen is Associate Professor of Government and holds the Markos and Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair in Hellenic Studies at Georgetown University. His interests include ancient political thought, American political thought, democratic theory, religion and politics, and literature and politics. He is the author of The Odyssey of Political Theory (2000) and Democratic Faith (2005), as well as co-editor of a book entitled Democracy's Literature (2005). He has also published a number of articles and reviews in such journals as Political Theory, Social Research, Polity, Polis, First Things, The Weekly Standard, Perspectives on Political Science, Society, The Hedgehog Review, and Commonweal. He is currently working on a book examining the concept of the division of labor in Western political thought. Deneen was the recipient of the A.P.S.A.'s Leo Strauss Award for Best Dissertation in Political Philosophy in 1995. Prior to joining the faculty at Georgetown he taught from 1997-2005 at Princeton University, where he held the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preceptorship. From 1995-1997 he was Special Assistant and principal Speechwriter for Joseph Duffey, Director of the United States Information Agency. He has presented work and lectured widely, including at such institutions as University of Maryland, University of Virginia, Berry College, University of Chicago, Colby College, Harvard University, Indiana University, Rutgers University, University of Tulsa, Valparaiso University, and Yale University. In 2006 Deneen became the Founding Director of "The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy," an initiative that seeks to preserve and extend understanding of America's founding principles and their roots in the Western philosophical and religious

Mark Silk

Mark Silk received his A.B. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. After teaching at Harvard in the Department of History and Literature, he became editor of the Boston Review. In 1987 he joined the staff of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he worked variously as a reporter, editorial writer and columnist. In 1996 he became the founding director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and in 1998 founding editor of Religion in the News, a magazine published by the Center that examines how the news media handle religious subject matter. In 2005, he was named director of the Trinity College Program on Public Values, comprising both the Greenberg Center and a new Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. In 2007, he became Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. Professor Silk is the author of Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II and Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America. He is co-editor of Religion by Region, an eight-volume series on religion and public life in the United States, and co-author of The American Establishment and One Nation Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics. He blogs at "Spiritual Politics" and on

Event Photos

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Patrick Deneen, Mark Silk, and author, Damon Linker, with Assistant Director Erik Owens.

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Mark Silk, Patrick Deneen, Damon Linker, and Erik Owens

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Erik Owens

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Mark Silk and Patrick Deneen

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Mark Silk

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Damon Linker

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Mark Silk, Patrick Deneen, Damon Linker and Erik Owens

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Photos by Kerry Burke, MTS Photography

Event Recap

Our saints will not be statesmen,” began Damon Linker, “And our statesmen will not be saints.” This provocative and perhaps dispiriting claim underlay Linker’s remarks at our November 11 “Author Meets Critics” panel as well as his new book, entitled The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders (W.W. Norton, 2010). Linker is a contributing editor (and frequent blogger on religion, culture and politics) at The New Republic and a senior writing fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He was joined by two critical readers of his book, Patrick Deneen from Georgetown University and Mark Silk of Trinity College in Connecticut. Erik Owens moderated the conversation.

Linker’s book title refers to the phrase in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In his opening remarks, Linker embraced the constitutional ban on formal religious tests, which he said means that no citizen must belong to any particular religious group or hold any particular religious beliefs in order to be eligible for office and also that no person can be excluded from higher office for the same reasons. The constitutional ban, he said, “is a lynchpin, along with the First Amendment, of religious freedom in our country.”

Still, Linker argued, the religious beliefs of our political leaders are important to voters because they impact the leaders’ decisions and decision-making processes. As a result, an informal religious test properly exists in politics, and Linker’s goal is to shape its contours by explaining how and why religious beliefs matter in a pluralistic democracy. His book offers six “political commandments” about religion and politics that he believes responsible elected officials should uphold (and responsible voters should seek in their candidates). They include admonitions to embrace religious freedom for all, put the Constitution above other authorities, honor scientific knowledge, be humble about knowing God’s will, disclaim consensus on sexual issues, and reject intolerance couched in radical atheism.

Critic Patrick Deneen, associate professor of government and the Markos and Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor of Hellenic Studies at Georgetown, welcomed the call to take the religious beliefs of our leaders seriously. But he argued that Linker’s political commandments would necessarily apply to all citizens, not just candidates or elected leaders, and would therefore reduce the religious freedom he claimed to seek. Focusing his remarks on Linker’s conception of liberal society, Deneen bemoaned the exclusion of religious conservatives from the center of politics at a time when their values of community, fidelity and faith are needed to counteract the widespread moral indifference of political liberals.

Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life and director of the Greenberg Center for Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, also supported the premise that voters should question candidates’ religious beliefs. He worried, though, how the political commandments would be employed in practice and whether the exercise would be fruitful for political discourse.

Linker responded to both critics by clarifying his earlier portrait of liberal society and describing in more depth the contexts in which his own religious test should be employed. Audience members leavened the discussion with a number of excellent questions before time drew the lively discussion to a close.

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Further Reading

Damon Linker, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders (W.W. Norton 2010)

In this provocative, hard-hitting manifesto, Damon Linker exhorts both believers and atheists to behave better in the public sphere, and offers a carefully charted roadmap for doing so.   

    Click here to read the Introduction.

Op-Ed "A religious test all our political candidates should take." The Washington Post, September 19, 2010.

In this Op-Ed, Linker argues that, since the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s, citizens have become more inclined to question of the political implications of presidential candidates' religious beliefs.  

"Religion in a Centerless Society." The New Republic, September 30, 2010.

Here Linker discusses the tension between religion and politics and his theory that, "as long as the United States remains a liberal nation with a centerless society, traditionalist religion at its peak will fail to harmonize with politics at its peak."

"The Impossibility of Sexual Consensus." The Utopian, September 20, 2010.

In this article, Linker traces the evolution of American sexual morality in order to highlight the difficulties of attaining consensus in today's political society.

"Six questions for Damon Linker." The Economist, October 13, 2010.

In this interview, Democracy in America poses six questions to Damon Linker regarding "religion's virtue, the "theocons", atheists and social conservatives."

"Campaigning against same sex marriage," by Mark Silk, beliefnet, October 11, 2010.

In his blog entitled, Religion and Public Life, Mark Silk discusses the recent denouncements of same-sex marriage by political candidates, including GOP candidate for governor of New York, Carl Paladino, and religious leaders, who cite religious justifications for their objections.

"On Damon Linker's "Religious Test," by Patrick Deneen, What I Saw in America, November 11, 2010.

This post from Patrick Deneen's blog entitled, What I Saw in America, summarizes his comments from the Author Meets Critics: "The Religious Test" event held by the Boisi Center on November 11, 2010. 

"Author Meets Critics: The Religious Test," by Chris Canniff, The Observer, November 16, 2010.

This article provides a nice summary of the panel discussion of Damon Linker's new book, The Religious Test, hosted by the Boisi Center at Boston College on November 11, 2010.

"Getting Linker's "Religious Test" Wrong: Unorthodoxy," by Patrick J. Deneen, The Washington Post, Nov. 15th, 2010.

In this article, Deneen critiques Linker's argument that religious conservatives have contributed to the "skirmish" between religion and politics.  Instead, Deneen posits that "modern economic conservatism and modern identity liberalism have combined in the support of titanic inequalities in our society" and that America must return to the religious roots and values upon which our Republic was founded.

Blogs by the Panel Participants

Patrick Deneen's Blog "What I Saw in America: The Political Theory of Daily Life." See especially the November 8th entry "In Beantown!" Deneen also writes for the Front Porch Republic

Mark Silk's Blog, "Spiritual Politics: A Blog on Religion and American Political Culture"

Damon Linker's Blog for The New Republic. He also maintains a website of events, articles and more.

Videos by the Panel Participants

At an event hosted by Mark Crispin Miller, Damon Linker and Jeff Sharlet discuss the role of religion in politics and Linker's new book, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders

In the News

"Religion in a Centerless Society"

by Damon Linker 9.30.10
The New Republic

In this recent article Linker writes, "as long as the United States remains a liberal nation with a centerless society, traditionalist religion at its peak will fail to harmonize with politics at its peak."