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.
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.
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.
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
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."