The American Conservative
January 19, 2011
The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders ,
Damon Linker, Norton, 251 pages
The United States is a very religious country: far more Americans belong to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques than do their counterparts in the other industrial democracies. It is also a very secular country: Congress and the state governments never try to square legislation with church teachings, and people who want nothing to do with religion are protected by organizations that keep the wall of separation strong and high. All are free to be as religious or as unreligious as they want.
Damon Linker fears two groups that might threaten this highly desirable situation: Christian conservatives and militant atheists. He believes we should be alarmed when members of either side aspire to lead us, and we should try to stop them. Yet despite his striving for symmetry, Linker can’t really make the case that America’s tiny handful of militant atheists aspire to be leaders. In fact, he can only name about six of them, and two of those—Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins—are Brits. The others are far too marginal and far too irritable ever to attract voters’ favorable notice.
So this is really a book about the alleged danger posed by Christian conservatives. There are more of them, some do want to be leaders, and it’s possible to imagine a few awkward moments in public life if they were to rise to the top. Even so, readers need not fear that the republic is in danger.
Despite his overstatement of the threat, Linker is clearly right on the main point. Religion makes imperious demands on those who take it seriously, demands that might well be incompatible with leadership of a liberal society. For example, he describes Amish and Hasidic community life in such a way as to convince the rest of us that we don’t want Amish or Hasidic leaders. Then he argues that we don’t want Mormon leaders either, which may be more pertinent in light of Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations.
The problem with the Mormons, he says, is that they remain open to new revelations, so we can’t even be certain what they’ll believe next. In the 19th century they scandalized the rest of America by believing in polygamy. Then in 1890 God disclosed to the Prophet Wilford Woodruff that the era of polygamy should end. This revelation opened the way for Utah to become a state of the Union. In the 20th century Mormons scandalized the rest of America by not believing in racial equality. In 1978 God changed his mind on that point too, which had the effect of desegregating the upper circles of heaven and, here on earth, giving colleges in Utah access to federal funds.
What’s next? Linker doesn’t want us to have Mormon leaders who might suddenly find themselves responding to a new divine imperative while in office.
Then there are Catholics, who did indeed have a long history of intolerance, and who gave the Protestant majority fits for more than two centuries. In the run-up to the 1960 presidential election, a wide variety of Protestant and agnostic groups feared that if John F. Kennedy won, American policy-making would come under Vatican control. Linker insists that this was a reasonable fear. He gives high praise to Kennedy for a speech to evangelical leaders, made in Houston just before the election. Kennedy was anything but a devout Catholic and reassured his audience that in politics his loyalties would be strictly American and this-worldly. So it proved.
When the Supreme Court banned prayer and Bible-reading in schools, JFK declined to condemn the rulings, and he refused to support constitutional amendments to undo them.
Linker doesn’t come right out and say it, but what he’s getting at is that religion is fine among leaders as long as they don’t take it too seriously. His ideal would perhaps be President Eisenhower, a decorous churchgoer who once declared that America’s institutions made no sense without “a deeply held religious faith—and I don’t care what it is!” Linker argues that we live in a “centerless society,” one that does not see itself as endowed with a sacred mission. Different people have different ideas about the meaning of life, and our leaders’ job is to preside over conditions in which each group can pursue its own ideas without interfering with the others. If religious zealots were to lead us, he believes, they would soon resort to repression and persecution.
Are Christian militiamen roaming the streets, burning the Constitution, stuffing ballot boxes, attacking agnostics, and holding anti-Jewish mass rallies? If so, there is indeed a crisis of the kind Linker fears. Or is that contingency something you don’t have to worry about in your neighborhood? Christian conservatives have been active in various political campaigns over the last 40 years, and they have been just as law-abiding as everyone else. They have conformed to the etiquette of secular politics. After 9/11 the vast majority endorsed President George W. Bush in distinguishing between Islamic radicals on the one hand and the preponderance of peace-loving Muslims in America on the other. If Christian conservatives had really been a menacing force, the event might have provoked a rounding up of Muslims comparable to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Instead, when Christian activists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson linked the tragedy to what they saw as the nation’s falling away from its religious obligations, they suffered stern rebukes and were forced to recant.
The reality could hardly be more different from Linker’s nightmare. One sad and comical spectacle over the last few decades has been creationists’ efforts to get their ideas about human origins included in biology textbooks. Thwarted by the courts at every turn, they have had to act, during recurrent lawsuits, as though their sole interest were a scientific one, carefully omitting that they feel strongly about the issue because of their faith. In other words, they have to act as though they are secularists even while advancing a religious position. The most they have achieved is the inclusion of mild little stickers on textbook covers, reminding students that evolution is just a theory. This whole charade demonstrates the strength of the status quo and the weakness of the Christian conservative challenge.
What about the Christian Reconstructionists, a group Linker regards as particularly threatening, and whose graduates, from minuscule Patrick Henry College, aspire to be “an elite core of spiritual shock troops”? Reconstructionists seek to invigorate every aspect of life with the spirit of the gospel, as you might expect from a group of earnest Christians. Dismayed by the secular character of public education, they pioneered the religious home schooling movement. Linker admits that professional educators’ early fears that home schooling would create a generation of socially stunted children proved groundless, but he argues that such children are “civically stunted.”
Possibly—but surely no more stunted than the Amish and the Hasidic Jews, whose right to live unmolested in closed communities is one of the triumphs of American pluralism. Besides, even locating Reconstructionists requires a microscope. There just aren’t very many of them, and they certainly don’t stand in the ranks of the nation’s leaders.
On the other hand, there are millions of less systematic evangelicals. What Linker dislikes about them is their emotional excess, which he says was bad enough in the age of the Great Awakening and got much worse with the rise of Pentecostalism. He describes their anti-intellectual style of worship and deplores the fact that their brand of Christianity treats “holy foolishness and childlike innocence as positive goods.” He cites the distinguished evangelical scholar Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind , which laments the meager scholarly achievements of evangelicals. He then links evangelicalism to the widespread appeal of populism. That is indeed a powerful force in American politics, but there’s no simple correlation between evangelical faith and right-wing populism. Don’t forget that the Abolitionists in the 19th century and the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 20th were among the most impassioned evangelical Christians in American history.
Moreover, there is a long tradition in America of religious groups themselves carefully policing the church-state boundary. Baptists were among the most ardent advocates of separation in the first place and have long prided themselves on keeping church and state apart. Christians in public life, meanwhile, understand very well that if they argue for laws relating to abortion, gender roles, or same-sex marriage, they must make their case in language that will persuade citizens who do not share their faith. Most of them honor the principle of separation, but even if they don’t there’s a pragmatic consideration. Politicians are always thinking about re-election. They know their careers depend on not advancing explicitly religious legislation. To do so would bring down a firestorm of criticism on their heads and rob them of all credibility.
We are left with the fact that a pluralistic liberal society like ours needs to be wary of absolutist challengers, and our leaders understand the point perfectly well. Any reader who reaches page 100 of The Religious Test and wonders what all the fuss is about will be tempted to ask what’s going on in the author’s life. The answer is that Linker used to work for Richard John Neuhaus at First Things , a journal for religious policy intellectuals. In a controversial 1996 symposium on “The End of Democracy,” several First Things contributors tiptoed to the brink of declaring the U.S. government illegitimate because of what they described as the Supreme Court’s “judicial tyranny.” They doubted in print whether it was any longer possible to remain loyal.
Here was one genuine case of religious people arguing that rebellion against the secular state could be justified. Linker thrived at the journal, eventually rising to the position of editor, but he apparently began to disagree with his colleagues’ positions on this and other matters—including the Catholic sex scandal and the Iraq War—some time between 2001 and 2005. He then left First Things and wrote a scorching denunciation of the journal and the movement it represented, entitled The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege . His new book continues the saga of this imaginary siege, and continues Linker’s repudiation of his former identity. Despite a wealth of interesting historical details, it is not going to convince any but the most jittery reader that fanatical Christians are about to take over leadership of the United States.
Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University.