Editor’s Note: In this latest edition of the “V&V Q&A,” the executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, Dr. Paul Kengor, interviews Joe Loconte, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and one of America’s most respected and thoughtful observers on matters of religious faith and the public square, particularly relating to the American Founding. On September 11, Loconte will speak at Grove City College’s Harbison Chapel at 9:30 AM and then again at Sticht Hall at 7:00 PM. In between, at noon, Loconte will kick off the second season of the Center for Vision & Values’ American Founders Lecture Series with a lecture titled, “James Madison and the Temptation of Terror,” which will be held at the Rivers Club in downtown Pittsburgh.
V&V: Joe Loconte, first off, before getting to the substance of your work and your talks on September 11, I’d like to express my appreciation at your ability to penetrate the secular world with your insights on the importance of faith in public life. The secular world often willfully ignores the work of many astute Christians who write in this field, and certainly don’t offer them a platform. Yet, you frequently contribute to op-ed pages like the Washington Post, to magazines like The New Republic, and, most remarkably, do a regular commentary for National Public Radio. This began when you were at the Heritage Foundation, where you were William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society. How have you come to earn the trust and respectability of these sources?
Joe Loconte: Well, many thanks for those kind words, Paul. Every opportunity that has come to me has arrived, in large part, because of others—editors, colleagues, and friends—who were willing to lend a helping hand in some way. On top of that, there’s no substitute for hard, honest intellectual work: the discipline of having to write thoughtfully about a topic, rather than just emoting about it.
V&V: So, is there a lesson here for Christian scholars? Clearly, you’ve figured out something about style, communication, rhetoric, about being engaged in “the world” without being conformed to it. How can we improve our ability to preach beyond the choir?
Loconte: It’s not easy. We have to take the time to understand how secular-minded people actually think and what they care about—what they find both attractive and offensive. Only then can we translate our Biblical ideals into arguments that can be persuasive. Martin Luther’s approach to translating the Bible seems relevant here: “We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” Thus, it’s crucial that we try to understand and empathize with those whose viewpoints we disagree with, or even find offensive. This has to be more than a pose.
So, for example, we should never excuse or rationalize the public failings and sins of religious people. We must be willing to critique Christian conservatives, respectfully and without rancor, when their actions or arguments are flawed. Only then, I think, will we be seen as honest brokers, instead of as hacks and apologists for a partisan agenda.
At the same time, we need to do a better job of appealing to the conscience and common sense of ordinary people. There’s much we can learn in this regard from C.S. Lewis: We need to blend argument and story—to appeal to the head and the heart—as we seek to persuade people outside the Christian tradition.
V&V: And now you seem to be duplicating your success in Britain, a nation even more aggressively secular than much of America. Tell us why you’re there and what you’re doing there, including (again) in major secular outlets.
Loconte: I’ve begun Ph.D. studies in history at King’s College at the University of London. My dissertation work will explore the influence of Christianity on the development of the political doctrine of religious freedom. One of the reasons I chose to study in London was to remain near the center of the big debates on religion and public life. So I launched a weekly column about the BBC for a political website called ConservativeHome.com and have hosted a weekly political program for a new television/internet venture called 18 Doughty Street.
V&V: Are there other websites where we can catch your work?
V&V: You are interested in many issues relating to religion. Chief among them, you have long studied the American Founding, and you are particularly interested in James Madison. Why?
Loconte: I’m drawn to Madison because of his lifelong commitment to religious liberty. Whatever his personal beliefs, Madison used his political skills and insights to ensure that every person could pursue the truth about God without the fear of a government crackdown. That’s hugely important: There are great lessons to be learned here as we promote a stronger role for religion in American public life. And I think Madison’s faith-based argument for freedom of conscience can help us “win hearts and minds” in the Islamic world as well.
V&V: Speaking of which, at the luncheon lecture on September 11, you will talk about Madison and the “temptation of terror.” What do you mean by that?
Loconte: The terrorist temptation is alive and well whenever people can use the bullying power of government to impose their religious doctrines on everybody else. That’s because theocracies guarantee large numbers of aggrieved religious minorities: They either will be violently oppressed, or will turn to violence themselves to seek justice. Madison studied European history, meaning he studied the West’s record of religious persecution. He knew the only hope of overcoming the terrorist temptation was to enshrine religious liberty as a natural right and a binding political obligation, for all people, regardless of creed.
V&V: Joe Loconte, thanks for talking to us. We look forward to hearing you on September 11.
Loconte: Thank you.