Professor Damon Linker fuses religion and politics

In his new book, Damon Linker urges readers to question their leaders' beliefs

The Daily Pennsylvanian
September 28, 2010

Damon Linker
Damon Linker

When Critical Writing professor Damon Linker is not teaching students about religion or politics, he is most likely writing about it. Linker's second book, The Religious Test, was released Monday to echo and expand upon Linker's writings as senior editor of The New Republic.

The Religious Test challenges readers to examine different religions in a political context and to explore the areas in which doctrine clashes with democracy. With modern controversies over gay marriage and plans to construct a mosque near Ground Zero, this subject is particularly relevant today.

"I wanted to push back the claim that you usually hear from the right these days, which is that religion and politics merge nicely, even perfectly; that politicians should place their faith at the core of their identities and political campaigns," Linker said. "This strikes me as wrong."

While the constitution declares "no religious test" can keep a candidate from office, Linker urges Americans to question the beliefs of their leaders and to ensure that democratic ideals are prioritized over religious ones.

Penn Press Editor-in-Chief Peter Agree, a friend of Linker's, first came across Linker's writings in The New Republic and Googled Linker after reading his first book, The Theocons.

"I was astonished to discover that he was here at Penn," Agree said. "I thought to myself, 'this is one of Penn's best kept secrets.'"

This fall, Linker is teaching "Styles of Atheism" and "Rhetoric of Presidency" for the Critical Writing Program.

"I'm thinking about what I might write as I teach and thinking about what I might teach as I write," Linker said.

Linker's students appreciated the overlap. College and Wharton sophomore Namita Desai took "Styles of Atheism" last spring and called it "one of my favorite classes I've had at Penn so far."

Desai enjoyed the intersection of religion and politics that Linker brought to class. "Despite the fact that politically we tend to associate people of certain religions with certain political viewpoints, that distinction isn't as clear as people and the media tend to think it is," Desai said.

College junior Steven Green took Linker's class in the spring and spoke for Linker's talents as a teacher and as a writer.

"He is someone who would sit down and really work with us to improve our writing," Green said. "He's passionate, he's extremely intelligent, he's probably one of the best writing teachers I've ever had."

As for the book, Agree urged students to read it. "[Linker] really knows how to get to the point. He writes very directly and, even though he has very important things to say, he writes very accessibly," Agree said.

He added that some students may end up having to read The Religious Test. "I could easily imagine this book being an undergraduate textbook," he said. "And I say that as someone with a background in the publishing business."