A Religious Test for Public Office? A Conversation with Damon Linker

Damon Linker

Thinking in Public

November 15, 2010

(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

We can trace the issue back to 1960.  Senator John F. Kennedy was running for the office of president of the United States.  He insisted that he was not a Catholic candidate but rather a candidate who happened to be Catholic.  He assured Americans in a very strategic speech given in 1960 that if he were elected president as he was his Catholicism would have no determinative impact on his decision making, his understanding of policy, foreign and domestic, and his outlook on the world.  Now many people have seen that as a great secular advance for the country.  But others have to step back and wonder how is it that any individual can separate his own thinking such that a faith if sincerely held can have so little impact in public life.  That’s today’s issue for Thinking In Public.

Damon Linker is a contributing editor of The New Republic and senior writing fellow of the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.  He’s the author of books including The Theocons:  Secular America Under Siege and his new book The Religious Test:  Why We Must Question the Beliefs of our Leaders.  Damon Linker welcome to Thinking in Public.

Linker: Thank you for having me.

Mohler: Yeah, well it’s going to be a fun conversation because when I read your book and actually knew about the material coming out in anticipation of the book, I knew this was a conversation I wanted to have.  We will agree on at least one thing.  And both of us are in print writing about this and that is that the approach taken by former President John F. Kennedy when he was a candidate in 1960 when he spoke to the issue of his own religious beliefs and his role as president, as he was anticipating that role, he presented a speech in which he said that the secret to his approach was going to be that the fact that he was Catholic basically was going to make no difference in the way that he governed.  Now you’re arguing in your book The Religious Test that what happened there, or at least, what happened in terms of the cultural understanding of that speech is that people had come to the conclusion that a person’s religious beliefs really are off topic when it comes to their political role.

Linker: Yeah, that’s right.  In that speech he, Kennedy, actually did two things that are kind of at odds with each other.  On the one hand he responded to criticism of his Catholic beliefs by saying in affect that it was illegitimate to raise questions about those beliefs, that it was un-American, that religious freedom, that the Constitution’s ban and on there being religious tests for high office meant that it was illegitimate to raise these questions.  But at the same time, he answered the questions that people were raising in the way that you state it where he said in affect his Catholic beliefs would not have any influence on his thinking or actions as president.  And in my book what I’m trying to do is to push back against the first of those claims that basically says that it’s illegitimate to raise questions about religious beliefs in our public life because well first of all I think it’s right and I’ll explain why a bit later I’m sure.  And it really is amazing how much influence Kennedy had on especially journalistic culture.  Journalists pretty much agreed with him after that speech and stopped posing those kinds of questions about theology and religious convictions of candidates.

Mohler: Well, you know putting it in its historical perspective back in the 1960 campaign, I guess it would make sense that Kennedy would make this kind of argument.  As a conservative evangelical though I look at it and have to come to the conclusion that these beliefs cannot be very deeply held if indeed they are not a part of the decision making and worldview and even the intuitions of an individual who would identify with that faith.  You’re coming from a different direction but you’re really arguing that what is needed now is some kind of new religious test thus the title of your book.

Linker: Yes, I am.  And I want to make clear to your listeners that I don’t mean that to be saying that I oppose Article 6 of the Constitution which as Kennedy said does prohibit any kind of legal test, so it is against the Constitution and it is un-American to say that a member of a certain church shouldn’t be allowed to hold high office.  And also it would be against the Constitution and un-American to say that one must belong to a certain church in order to hold high office.  My religious test that I advocate in the book is in the informal test that we as citizens and journalists, as those who get in closest proximity to candidates to ask questions, it’s a test that these groups would bring to our politics.  And really push difficult challenging questions about religious beliefs of politicians.  But only, and this is important, only where it deals with the matter that could have a kind of public implication.  So I’m not saying you know take the member of a religious group that isn’t in the majority, kind of more obscure sect, and say they were going to ridicule the person’s beliefs.  That’s not at all what I have in mind.  It’s simply to think through areas where the political implications of religious convictions might be troubling or problematic and put it on the table for public discussion.

Mohler: Well, clearly there’s something in the contemporary American context that led you to believe that this book and this argument is now necessary.  So without putting words in your mouth let me just ask you, why this book right now?  What’s going on in our political culture that led you to believe that this kind of argument is necessary right now?

Linker: Well, I think that the rise of religious conservatives in our politics is actually poses an interesting and I think somewhat troubling questions for politics.  It’s not, the problem isn’t in my view that there are religious conservatives, you could describe yourself as a conservative evangelical, the fact that people believe those things isn’t a problem at all.  Our political system is suppose to provide for in some ways by privatizing religion and lead it to thrive and spread in the private sphere of our lives and that’s all good.  The problem arises in my view when religious conservatives seek to encourage candidates for office to put their religious faith at the core of their identity and at the center of their policy program.  And that would be fine if the whole country or almost the entire country were members of that politician’s particular religion.  But the fact is that we’re a very diverse pluralistic society.  We have many differences about these things.  I would say, and I argue in the book, that our political system was built on the assumption that human beings will disagree about the highest aims of life, that I think is what Jefferson had in mind when he talked about having a country dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, note that the content of happiness is not specified it’s up to individuals and groups to decide for themselves.  And so when a politician comes in and says my religious faith is the core of what I stand for and it is going to determine what I advocate and what I do in high office, that inevitably ends up being I would say the part of a highly complicated diverse society trying to impose its view on society as a whole.  And so it’s best when our politics is conducted from a position I would say of theological neutrality.  Not against religion but not actively in favor of any particular religion.

Mohler: Well, one of the things that intrigues me about your argument is you’re reading of evangelicals in terms of political ambition and in terms of what I guess might be styled a political theory of engagement here.  You’re bold to say that you think the evangelical approach is dangerous.

Linker: In some areas.  I think that you know I’m following the lead in one of my chapters very closely of Mark Knoll the well know evangelical historian who wrote a book about anti-intellectualism among evangelicals.  And when it comes to that I do believe that you, again speaking abstractly, this is certainly not true of say Knoll himself and of many individual evangelicals that I’ve met and know I’m sure it’s not true of you, but it is the case that evangelical culture does tend to lean in the direction of a more emotional response to faith.  And to be very suspicious of curiosity, skepticism, intellectual endeavor for its own sake.  And that I think can be troublesome in a modern society where our problems are very complicated and require some expert knowledge in order to solve.  And it can lead to a kind of, again, kind of anti-intellectual style of engagement with public problems that I don’t think is very healthy for the country.  That’s the primary problem and I also talk in another chapter about evangelical homeschoolers and they too I kind of, I’m critical of those evangelical homeschoolers not who just seek to raise their children as they wish, but who see that as kind of a prelude to kind of taking the country back in the name of their faith and that is by no means, that is not all evangelical homeschoolers.  But it is a kind of loud faction that gets a lot of press.

Mohler: In reading your first book, or the book that preceded this Theocons then moving to The Religious Test I see continuity, I also see some discontinuities but you’re really talking here about evangelicals and as you’re speaking to a largely evangelical audience, you spoke to how you think that is dangerous.  So without me construing this, allowing you just to say what you want to say, what exactly would you have evangelicals to do?

Linker: Well I mean it depends on levels as well so at one level if you’re just an evangelical citizen and you don’t hold the office I would simply encourage you like I would encourage all Americans citizens to have respect for science and allow science its rightful place in unlocking the secrets of the natural world.  It’s hard to do, you know Catholics kind of pride themselves on being able to do it.  But really what I’m talking about is kind of allowing one’s faith in the Bible to be combined with again a kind of allowance for human curiosity to try to understand the way the natural world works.  And how exactly one puts those two things together is very, very tricky and it’s hard and it means to be a modern believer is to live in a state of constant challenge to ones convictions.  And again it’s hard but I believe that it could be an honest open minded believer is to realize that there is no other solution in the modern period for that.  So that’s a lot of it,  When you rise up to higher levels of office, say you’re running for president, if you’re Mike Huckabee for example, whose a pastor in a Southern Baptist church, I mean I think that in that kind of a case then we might also raise the question about beliefs about the end times, the rapture, whether there-to what extent a candidate believes in God’s providential guidance of America and how specific it is.  Not a general sense that yes God is watching out for us and will protect us that’s almost universal in American history in America today.  But I mean a more specific thing about how well the return of Christ is imminent in the Middle East and whether Hezbollah hypothetically takes over Lebanon tomorrow and attacks northern Israel is that a sign that Jesus is going to return a week from Tuesday or is there a little bit more kind of willingness to accept that we can’t really know.  That maybe Christ won’t be returning for hundreds and hundreds of years and this is all just a kind of little side show to human history because we just don’t know because we’re in the middle of it.  So I’m a big fan of Reinholdt Neihbur, and I quote him a lot in a chapter of the book on providence.  So I would want some kind of assurance on the part of an evangelical candidate for president that they have a kind of, you could say, a bit of hesitation toward drawing too strong of a conclusion about what we can know about providence.

Mohler: Yeah to push back just a little on this, you seem to have a very clear understanding in the book of the importance of religious convictions.  And I appreciate that because unlike many writing from the secular left you understand that these are very formative beliefs that are deeply and passionately held and that will work their way out.  And in fact even where you see as dangerous is precisely because they will work their way out in the lifestyle, into worldview choices, and for that matter, into policy decisions.  Let me just ask you, when you talk about religious conviction in that way, do you accept the fact that every single person has some worldview with some kind of commitments even the most ardent secularist is operating out of a worldview.  And that worldview is going to matter.

Linker: Of course, of course.  And I actually conclude the main part of the book with a chapter that’s very critical of the new atheists.  For in affect being anti-religions or counter religions that have many of the same defects and dangers as many of the more fundamentalist religious views that they’re so critical of . I’m very critical of people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris…you know Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion has a chapter that begins where he comes right out and says that to raise a child within a faith tradition is child abuse.  And yet he’s not honest enough to then let the other shoe drop and admit that well you know we arrest people for child abuse.  We take children away from parents who are being abused.  So does he really intend that the state should be going in and taking the children of religious believers away from them?  Of course not.  He wouldn’t say that explicitly but he’s playing with fire there because the implication of his argument is precisely that that should happen.  So that’s at least as offensive and illiberal as some of the religious views that I examine in the other chapters.

Mohler: Damon Linker is a fascinating writer.  I knew this book was coming out and I wanted to read it.  I looked forward to it with anticipation because I knew already that he was going to confront the secular argument with its obvious pitfalls.  That indeed you cannot separate religious conviction and public life so neatly as the secularists believe that it can be done.  Indeed insist that it can be done.  At the same time I also knew that Damon Linker was going to be arguing from a position that would suggest that at least some religious convictions have to be seen as awkward even downright dangerous in the public square.  I had a pretty good idea where he was going.  And as the conversation we just had makes very clear he believes that the evangelical influence in the larger public square is perhaps dangerous because, well, evangelicals now expect that people, indeed those who are running for public office, will let us know what their religious beliefs are and how it’s going to matter.  Well, if the how it matters that Mr. Linker makes clear, is his concern.  Let’s talk about how it matters when it comes to the most controversial issues.  Indeed, right now the moral issues over an issue such as homosexuality and same sex marriage.

Mohler: In his book The Religious Test:  Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, Damon Linker argues that when it comes to the regulation of sexual morality by law there needs to be a shift from a morality of ends to a morality of rights.  And in what I think is a very honest assessment of the situation he has a certain way of reading how we arrived at this particular moment.  Mr. Linker let me ask you this, you speak here about the fact that insofar as a traditionalist morality is really uncontested by the larger culture, it’s simply accepted.  But we’re now in a situation where that traditional sexual morality, the regulation of sexual morality is not so much accepted by the larger culture and thus, we are in a real battle over this.

Linker: Yes that’s right.  And I want to be clear that when I say that we have to replace morality of ends by a morality of rights I don’t mean I’m a part of individuals and groups.  I don’t mean to say that individual believers or individual citizens of any kind can’t believe that there are human ends that are fixed.  And that we should live our lives in order to realize those ends that’s perfectly legitimate, and I expect almost everybody does that.  What I’m talking about is the rule for how we live together as a society when we disagree about those ends.  And I referenced earlier Thomas Jefferson’s line about the pursuit of happiness and the fact that the Declaration of Independence doesn’t specify what the end is, what the happiness consists in, and that’s a very good expression of the point.  And I really do think that as I describe it in the book that our form of government was created to help us to get along and live together in peace despite our differences about ends.  And as you noted my discussion of the so called culture war and social conservatism turns on this point because as I see it what has happened over the last fifty years in America is that what use to be an almost universal consensus about our ends as human beings so that all forms of sodomy, all those litany of things, certain activities whether it be between people of the same sex, different gender, whether their married or not, pretty much everyone believes that traditional sexual morality was the right way to go.  The problem is that, and I should add, that when that was the case, when that consensus held the law backed people up on that.  So most of these activities were illegal and would be prosecuted if they were found out by the state.  The fact is that since around the mid 1960′s this consensus has broken down to the point that most polls show that something like thirty maybe thirty-five percent of Americans uphold traditional sexual morality and the rest of the country doesn’t.  They think that there’s not enough, they just don’t affirm that these views are true and so when that happens in a liberal free society like ours the state tends to get very skittish about enforcing universal rules and steps back.  And says hey, we can’t use the law to enforce the views of a part on the whole.  And that is in affect what I think religious traditionalists and the religious right is trying to do.  They have a kind of nostalgia for a consensus about these things that no longer exist and frankly isn’t going to come back.  And so my view is that it’s perfectly legitimate to be a traditionalist.  I would say what you should be doing is knocking on doors and proselytizing and trying to convert people back to sexual traditionalism.  If that were to happen then we could have the old scriptures back but I don’t think it’s very likely.  And it shouldn’t be sought through politics.

Mohler: Well I’ve often argued as a conservative that the culture determines the politics rather than the politics determining the culture if we’re going to look at it in that sense.

Linker: Yeah that’s pretty much the same point.

Mohler: I also appreciate your honesty where you say here that a traditionalist morality of ends with regard to sex is once assumed by nearly all Americans that’s something that many people on the left simply will not even accept or admit unless they just put in kind of a progressivist understanding of history that we have an evolutionary morality.  But it seems to me there’s one part of your argument that just can’t be pressed to its ultimate end-no pun intended.  So let me ask you this when you have a morality of rights, if indeed we were to take your advice and we surrender our morality of ends which is to put it in another language a morality that is based upon clear understandings of the purposes for which human sexuality  were given and the right and appropriate means whereby it should be regulated, if we forfeit that entirely and we enter into a cultural negotiation based upon this morality of rights is there any limit whatsoever to where that goes?  We’re told that that’s an illegitimate question but it’s an unavoidable question it seems to me.

Linker: Well, I don’t flinch from the question and I admit that it leads to potentially troubling directions.  I guess I would say you know choose your outlandish thing.  Which would be hypothetically so even say something that isn’t as outlandish as some other things, so say, polygamy alright I mean that’s often what people say when talking about the slippery slope.  So if we allow same sex marriage next thing you know we’ll have legal polygamy.  In my scheme in the book I would say, I mean following through on it, I would have to admit that if significant numbers of Americans began to clamor for the right to polygamy then that would have to be permitted.  My inclination is that that isn’t going to happen because I just don’t, unlike, again we can debate this too but unlike homosexuality I don’t believe anyone is born by nature being polygamist in orientation.  That’s not analogous in that way.  And frankly, I don’t think polygamy would be very popular.  Then we get to polyamory, and then you know if you’re Rick Santorum  next thing you talk about bestiality do we really think that there’s going to be a significant faction of Americans who are going to clamor to marry their dog?  I would agree that if we’re talking about a morality of rights as I talk about it there is no absolute way to preclude that because we’re talking about a democracy.  We’re talking about a free society and if it so happened that America evolved in a direction where there was a large number of people saying yes we want inter-species marriage then it’s not clear exactly how we as a society would be able to say no to that.  My gut, if you will, tells me that that’s not going to happen because there is again, I don’t think anyone is born wanting that, needing that, and I don’t think it would be very popular, ever.

Mohler: Yeah, well you know I think as a conservative I would also accept the fact that cultural change is unpredictable.  And as a Christian I have to say that I think there is still some convicting power to this traditional biblical sexual morality that has some break upon the culture.  But I think just taking the logical structure of this morality of rights I think it’s important to recognize this is basically just a communitarian ethic.  Wherever the community goes that’s where the ethic goes and I appreciate your honesty in affirming that.

Linker: Yeah, to an extent.  Yeah I do have again a kind of faith that in addition to kind of holdover of biblical morality as you described that there is something like human nature out there that gives us some kind of orientation that would keep us from developing too far down that horrific slippery slope that we’re talking about.  But I might be wrong.

Mohler: I’m also just trying to understand when you publish a book and you put it forth for public argument.  Public argument is what you should have and so I’m enjoying the conversation.  When I look at one of the arguments you make on the other side of this argument once a society has adopted your plan, you accept there’s going to be some continuing issues and one of them is going to be how you protect the rights of religious traditionalists or religious conservatives.  And so, to give you credit, you say to read from your book, they must go further taking concrete legal steps to guarantee that the religious freedoms of traditionalists we recognize and protect in a society that also recognizes and protects the political rights of homosexuals.  You say this is the right thing to do but not only because liberalism stands or falls on its willingness to defend freedom, even the freedom of those who devote themselves to morality and ultimate ends that conflict with liberal ideals and aspirations it’s the right thing to do because traditionalists beliefs really will be subjected increasing unprecedented legal pressure as homosexuals move from homosexuality moves deeper and deeper into the mainstream of American life.  Now, you know, I‘m absolutely convinced that what you’re arguing there is correct and I think we already see some of the ways this is headed.  You know, I’ll just tell you right up front, I don’t think there is any adequate legal protection.  And in a recent symposium that was held on the issue ChaiFeldblum arguing from the other side said I can see where etiquette might insinuate that we should try to put these protections into place but constitutionally I don’t see we can pull that off.

Linker: Well, we’ll see.  I know when for instance Connecticut passed its same sex marriage law in the bill were certain provisions designed to, that explicitly state that this should not be construed to imply that traditionalist believers must affirm this and attempting to kind of erect a wall around them.  In addition to the first amendment which one would think would be good enough.  And what it really depends on I mean we just don’t know yet.  I mean clearly there are some on the left who basically would like to use the state to stamp out sexual traditionalism because they see it as morally equivalent to belief in slavery and racism and so forth.  And my view, as I state in the book, is very much this is wrong, this is a very strong misreading, racism and slavery are by no means anywhere near as essential to biblical teaching as sexual morals is.  And so to try to wipe that out is to be pretty flagrantly anti-religious, and we do have a first amendment in this country that is suppose to protect religious practice-free exercise.  And I’m not quite as pessimistic as some on the right I know Rod Dreher is a writer who I have debated about this.  I was at a debate the other day with Ross Douthat who is a conservative columnist for the New York Times he’s nervous about this.  Many on the right are very nervous and I understand why because there are people on the other side who want to have this kind of imperialistic, comprehensive, ideological crusade on behalf of liberalism stamp out anything but secularism.  But that is itself I would say a form of i-liberalism and must be resisted.  So when it comes to that I’m then with the conservatives.

Mohler: Well, let me ask you to adjudicate this then because this is where the water hits the wheel because if you’re talking about the right of a church for instance to have the right not to perform a same sex marriage I’m pretty confident that the courts and the legislatures will be required if anything else by the constitution to acknowledge that.   But what about a case like the catholic charities in Massachusetts that for decades then had been involved in the adoption process and helped to place literally thousands of children in homes.  But because it would not accept the reality of same sex marriage it basically had to get out of business.  It had to forfeit its historic adoption ministry.  That’s where I have to say the liberal side just absolutely took a take no prisoners approach and that’s not hypothetical-that’s actual.

Linker: I know it is, and I kind of wish the Catholic charities had fought it further up all the way to the Supreme Court because what they did in affect was kind of preemptively give up and assume they would lose.  I assume other organizations will fight longer and let it go all the way to the top because I do think this has to be adjudicated we have to decide that, I mean I’m not in favor of that.  I think the Catholic charities should be allowed to do what it’s been doing.  It’s a private organization the core of whose mission is to follow through on its social vision of human life.  And it should be permitted to facilitate adoption according to those standards.  Again, it’s a private organization and it’s a religious one and in our society, in our legal system, religious private organizations are supposed to have extra special protection.  And what I’m advocating in the book is even more on top of that namely any time a law in favor of same sex marriage is passed it should be accompanied by amendments or clauses within the law that explicitly state this is not designed to imply that conservative, traditional, organizations have to conform to the moral vision of the law.  But again whether you know Rod Dreher, I don’t know if we actually in public have, I don’t know if we’ve ever made it an official bet but we have a kind of informal bet that he bets that my position is just going to lose.  That I’m being unrealistic, utopian in believing that the liberal state can be neutral on this.  You know, again, I hope I’m right and I hope he’s wrong.

Mohler: Well in that sense I hope you’re right but I think I’m with Rod thinking that it doesn’t look likely.  Now we are all minds in motion in ways that we recognize in ways that we do not recognize.  I first came across your name because I’m one of the original subscribers to First Things an intellectual journal that I received  continuously since its first publication.  Can you trace for me just a moment kind of your mind in motion?  How did you get from point A to point B say over the last decade or so?

Linker: Yeah, well it’s a complicated story I mean I guess there’s a simple story, the simple version is that I simply believe, I’m very much a kind of, I’m not in favor of intensifying America’s tendency to think of itself in theological terms I guess you can say.  And I was troubled by what I saw going on in the United States and the year’s following 9/11.  And the build-up of the Iraq war and the aftermath of the Iraq war which sent me on a path of conflict with my boss Richard John Neuhaus the editor of the magazine.  There were other issues of dispute between us but the real flashpoint was the Bush administration and its form of policy and especially the Iraq war.  Whereas I would’ve preferred the magazine to adopt a kind of again negorian position of  kind of realism about foreign policy, skepticism about American and its role in the world.  Not negative about America’s role in the war but kind of cautious, very cautious about overreacting.  Us thinking a little bit too unthinkingly well of ourselves. I would have liked to publish pieces like that to basically try to poll the Bush administration a little bit back from its aggressive response a little bit, temper it a little bit.  Father Neuhaus didn’t agree at all, and we ran a serious of articles by George Weigel and other people who very much were in favor of ever more American boosterism which I thought was in considerable conflict with a genuine Christian response to what was going on.

Mohler: Just to press this just a little bit further.  On the big moral issues which are so much a part of this book, on those issues do you perceive a major shift in your own thinking over this time?

Linker: Well, not a major shift but a bit.  I mean I, what ended up happening as a result of the reform policy dispute is that I re-evaluated a bunch of things.  Among them was the entire kind of First Things Richard John Neuhaus project of trying to bring religious morality into public on all of, a series of issues.  So, you know, personally if there’s any issue that is associated with First Things and Neuhaus it’s abortion, being pro-life.  And I have, in my own view of this, I am personally opposed to abortion.  I think it’s a moral crime, a pretty significant one, but I’m far more skittish about whether it’s wise to seek a kind of ban on abortion in a society where it simply is not, again, it’s not a matter, it’s a matter of people in good faith and upstanding morals can disagree about the moral status of the fetus.  I don’t believe that we can disagree whether the fetus is a human being, that I think is, so you know, when people on the other side say, oh this is just kind of a weird kind of traditionalist logic chopping, it’s all about when the fetus becomes alive.  The fetus is alive from the moment of conception pretty much.  And that’s just a fact.  But the moral status of this fetus I there are all kinds of moral intuitions that many people have that tell them that well it’s something in between and given that it’s a life inside another person then this is a complicated area where you know absolute strictures probably aren’t the wisest thing.  So I guess I’ve moved a bit in the left direction on that and related issues.

Mohler: We are indeed minds in motions that’s why we need to have conversations such as these in order not only to hear another speak but to listen to ourselves speak to come to terms with our mind.  When it comes to the argument made by Damon Linker I think many evangelicals are going to recognize here is what we’re actually going to be facing.  Here in this argument made in this book is something that we’re going to have to deal with for decades to come.  That’s what makes this conversation I think so strategic and so important.

Mohler: Christians had better understand that we cannot separate our minds into secular and religious spheres.  There’s no way that we as Christians can say well my Christian conviction has an impact on this part of my life but in no other.  So we need to come with honesty to say to ourselves and to others that worldviews really do matter.  That every single individual operates out of a worldview.  Certain plausibility structures, certain convictions of thought that shape everything he or she is and every thought that he or she has and every decision that we make.  Now that being said the question comes back in the context of an orderly democratic process.  How do we adjudicate where we have differences of worldview?  Not just differences of policy, not just differences of political choice and differences of legislation and judicial outcome, but where we have differences at a far more basic level.  Now one of the achievements of Damon Linker’s book and his approach is that he actually dignifies that question.  He does acknowledge that worldview matters.  IN his own language and in his own way he recognizes that there is no way we can follow the kind of advice and model that was given to us by then Senator Kennedy, when he suggested, well a political candidate can simply check his or her religious convictions at the door.  If so they are not deeply and passionately held if not there ought to be an honest examination of exactly how these convictions would inform public life, political leadership, and the responsibilities of office.  Now Mr. Linker was bold to tell us that he thinks that we are downright dangerous.  That is evangelical Christians who over the last several decades have become newly energized and active in the public square.  He sees this because, as he understands it, conservative Christians are operating out of a certain kind of absolutist worldview that is simply not accepted.  Indeed isn’t considered acceptable by the larger culture.  We can all do the math looking at surveys and polls, there is no question that in terms of a clear policy worldview, philosophical understanding on the questions of the most current issues of the day, the most controversial issues of the day, evangelicals tend to come at these questions with a very different framework than do others.  Now one of the things we insist upon as we enter into the public square is that those frameworks actually matter and one of my frustrations as shared by many others is that when we’re in conversation with people on the more secularist side they often think that it is we who have a worldview and they do not have one.  Well, I want to appreciate the fact that Damon Linker recognizes that we all come to this political equation, we call come to the public square with a certain worldview, but you know, I understand why he sees evangelicals as dangerous.  It’s for virtually the same reason that I see the secularists as dangerous.  And it comes down to where he arrives at I think the most interesting part of his book and that has to do with the regulation of sexual behavior.  Because that is where the law and our personal and private lives come into an absolutely unavoidable collision and intersection.  How are we going to regulate these things?  There will be some law related to marriage.  There will be some social regulation or legal regulation when it comes to sexual behavior.  And we’ve arrived at this point in the 21st century in the American experiment that that is where the sparks most hotly fly. And we can understand why.  That intersection is a very dangerous intersection.  Now what would Mr. Linker have us to do?  He would have us to recognize that there has been a worldview evolution on the part of the American people.  In honesty he accepts that there once was a time when virtually everybody held to a traditionalist understanding of sexual morality.  We would call that an objective understanding of sexual morality.  An understanding that there is a given sexual morality we understand it as a God given sexual morality to which we are all obligated.  Now Mr. Linker says that the reality is that the culture at large has moved far beyond that.  We’re simply not where we once were.  That sexual morality is given way to a communitarian sensual morality that is based on rights.  He says it’s an exchange of a morality of ends that is the end for which a thing was given or created and now the embrace of morality of rights in which rights come the basic dynamic of decision making and we adjudicate matters, discuss and debate matters, on the parts of how we respect each other’s rights.

Now the most interesting part of the conversation at least to me was where we press the conversation in discussing the limitations of a morality of rights.  And I thought with breathtaking honesty Mr. Linker accepted and acknowledged that in a morality of rights there are absolutely no absolutes.  So what Mr. Linker said is that he has tremendous confidence or he said at least some confidence that we are not evolving and moving morally in the direction of the embrace of virtually everything what one Supreme Court justice called the parade of the horribles.  But rather we are evolving more slowly with a certain respect.  A certain respect for human nature that would limit certain issues.  Now he also spoke of a morality that was based upon certain understandings of for instance how homosexuality happens.  But without entering into that debate on its own terms, in reality we really do see the stark alternatives that are before us and of course when it comes to religious liberty.  Again, a good deal of honesty on the part of Mr. Linker I do think he is far too optimistic.  He’s bold to call for an adequate legislative and judicial understanding of the necessity of protecting the liberty rights of those who are traditionalist Christians.  And who hold to other traditionalist positions in terms of belief of the morality of marriage and the immorality of homosexuality.  But as I mentioned to him in throwing out the case of the Massachusetts Catholic charities that had to give up the entire business of adoption simply because they can no longer do so.  Their rights are no longer respected.  Well that’s where I think the public space is going to close up very fast.  I think what we’re going to see with the normalization of same sex marriage is that there will be no adequate way to recognize what should be the respected rights of Christian churches, of Christian individuals as citizens, and of Christian institutions.  I think we’re going to find ourselves along with other religious groups who would hold to a traditionalist sexual morality ostracized in the larger culture, marginalized legally and I think we’re going to see a virtual complete revolution.  We’re going to see a moral revolution such that what was once considered immoral is now considered normal.  And what was once accepted as morally normative is now marginalized.

Damon Linker’s book The Religious Test is one of those books that is likely to spark a good deal of conversation and for good reason.  I think it’s going to be equally interesting and controversial on the left as on the right.  What we have here is a very honest argument that was put forth for public debate and I certainly hope that that public debate happens.  The great achievement of his book is the honesty of the fact that we cannot separate religious conviction and public life.  I think his target in terms of conservative evangelicals is understandable because you have to ask the question in terms of the democratic experiment, if you’re coming from a secular perspective, if you’re coming from the viewpoint that any understanding of objective morality that is to be legislated is something to be avoided, then you’re going to see the energy and the assumptions of evangelical Christians in the public square as something that you need to marginalize or attenuate.

Well it will be interesting to see where this goes.  But I do know this.  What you will see in this book is a sign of things to come.

Thanks for listening to Thinking in Public.  For more information go to my website at  For information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to  For information about Boyce College go to  You’ll also want to know about my daily podcast Monday through Friday of The Briefing.  It’s available at i-tunes and also through  Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.