It has been reported that, should she become a Supreme Court justice, Amy Barrett’s apparent adherence to a particular Roman Catholic dogma would determine how she interprets the Constitution. It raises an interesting question for those of us who are committed to a religious faith. How much should one’s religious faith influence one’s politics? Most of us are not in line to assume high public office where decisions affect the entire country, so how our religious faith, or lack of it, affects our politics is not often a matter for public debate.
Her faith has entered the public debate because she’s part of a small subset of Roman Catholics who submit themselves to obedience to a spiritual director, accept certain teachings about male superiority, and seek charismatic experiences such as speaking in tongues and being slain by the Spirit. I think it would be safe to call it a fringe group within Catholicism. Curiously, it’s standard fare for a wide swath of conservative evangelicalism whose members have enthusiastically elected agreeable candidates for every conceivable office without much ado. So what makes this different?
For one thing, she’s an extremely intelligent and well educated woman who seems to have turned her back on all things remotely linked to feminism. If she had been a man, someone like Scalia for instance, it would have raised a ruckus, but women would not have felt betrayed by one of their own. For another, she’s been quite open about approaching the law from her religious convictions. Others may do the same, but it’s not talked about, just assumed. Then, few who are active in public life take vows of obedience that appear to preempt all other authority. Finally, in our increasingly secular society there’s suspicion that openly religious people are a little whacky, not to be trusted with important matters. It’s OK if they run their own colleges, give rousing revival speeches, and periodically predict the end of the world, but don’t let them be Supreme Court Judges.
As Country Parson I write a lot about politics. Any regular reader knows how deeply my faith influences my understanding of what the Constitution means, and how legislation should be enacted and enforced. In my working life I’ve written speeches for politicians, helped organize grass roots voices, and reported on public policy in ways intended to influence their outcome. Sometimes overtly, but more often subconsciously, everything was shaped by my religious faith that was itself always in transition. In recent conversations I’ve been exposed to hard core conservatives and liberals proclaiming that Christian faith demands this or that response to political issues. “How dare you call yourself a priest,” said one person who was appalled at my criticism of Trump. One way or another, religious faith and attitudes about religious faith play an enormous role in American politics.
Speaking for myself, Christ’s commandments to love God, love neighbor, and love others as he loves us have greater authority for me than any law, including the Constitution. Yet I revere the Constitution, and the rule of law that cascades from it. A law abiding citizenry is essential to the stability of any nation, and all the more so in our form of democracy where each of us can have a part in debating what the laws should be. It creates a certain amount of tension when my understanding of Christ’s commandments come into conflict with secular law. The tension is exacerbated when other Christians see it differently, other religions speak with other voices, and non religious persons have something else to say.
There have been attempts to resolve the conflict by asserting that private morality (religion) is only tangentially related to the law. A half century ago I took a constitutional law course from Harold Chase who lectured that the Supreme Court had no business being concerned with whether a matter was just or unjust, moral or immoral, but only whether it was legal or illegal. It was the legislature’s responsibility to take up questions of justice and morality, not the courts. If that’s what he really said (fifty year old memories are not that reliable), it hasn’t worked out that way.
Judgeships are different from other high offices. They alone determine what the law means, and how it is to be applied to individuals. Trials by jury, case law and precedent, together with complicated appeals processes, put some limits on their authority for the good of us all, but the Supreme Court of nine justices not only decides the final and indisputable meaning of the Constitution, in so doing it creates additional elements of it. Their decisions form a collective statement about what American justice and morality has been, now is, and is becoming. It’s a statement far beyond mere legality or illegality.
Legislators, mayors, governors, and presidents are in a different league. They have to negotiate with one another. None has exclusive right to say what the law means, even as they write bills and sign them into law. Issues of justice and morality have to be addressed within the context of what is workable, can it pass, how will it be paid for? Presidents and governors are participants in that process, and our current president is furious at discovering he’s not the ruler of the country. He can do the Rumpelstiltskin stomp all he wants, but it won’t give him the power he desires.
Amy Barrett’s name on a list of potential nominees has created such an outcry not because she’s a Christian, but because her commitment to a particular form of Christianity is seen to undermine what other Christians believe are Jesus’ core teachings and commandments. Secularists are fearful of having her brand of religion forced on them, liberals are concerned that she will beat a path back to 19th century political morality, and feminists feel betrayed. If Harold Chase were alive today, he would be livid at the prospect of her nomination: leave religion out of it, the only questions are legal or illegal.