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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Author Meets Critics: "The Religious Test"

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.