Hey Time: Does Justice Kennedy’s faith matter?

After years and years of being a Time magazine subscriber, I chunked the last, last, last renewal notice into my office trash can this week.

Why? I had several reasons for making this sad decision. Time used to be one of the nation’s most important venues for religion news, but that simply isn’t the case anymore. Time has evolved, of course, into an openly liberal journal of opinion and, occasionally, news. The magazine’s managers have every right to do that. It’s their choice. However, it would be nice if they stated this decision openly. Also, as I have said before, if you take The New Republic, why do you need the new Time?

These were not, however, the straws that broke the camel’s back. (Yes, plural, rather than singular, straws. I am a very patient reader.)

The big problem for me is that the Time empire’s firewall policies have made it impossible for your GetReligionistas to blog about articles in the magazine in a responsible manner. We think it’s crucial to be able to link to the full texts of articles so that readers can read things for themselves and decide if our criticisms or praises are justified.

I understand why these firewalls exist, of course. I have read stacks of books and articles about the business-model issues faced by publishers in this day and age. I feel their pain. At the same time, it’s frustrating not to be able to comment on the contents of magazines that are important, or that once were important, in the nation’s public discourse.

Time cover stories used to be very, very important.

Am I wrong, or did Time have a policy there for awhile in which the cover stories were behind the firewall for a week or two and then went public — with a permalink to the basic texts. Was that ever the case, or is my mind playing tricks on me?

Anyway, I have waited for several weeks to comment on the recent Time cover piece about Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the one that ran under the banner that proclaimed “The Decider.” Ignore, please, the fact that Kennedy turned out not to be the “decider” on the pending Obamacare decision. It’s hard to blame the Time team for that miss. Raise your hand if YOU saw Kennedy headed to the right and the chief justice heading (sort of) to the left?

No, everyone knows that, for a decade or two, Americans have essentially been living in Justice Kennedy’s America. This has, for the most part, been good news if you’re a country-club Republican who is a fan of the economic establishment. It has, rather consistently, been bad news for Democrats and Republicans who are moral and cultural conservatives. You know, we’re talking about pro-Vatican Catholics and people of that ilk.

Thus, I waded through this long Time cover story looking for signs that the magazine’s editors wrestled with the role that Kennedy’s Catholic background has played in his life and career. After all, this is the man who has cast the deciding votes in pivotal cases linked to marriage, family, gay rights, religious liberty, abortion and, well, the “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Of course, all I can link to at the Time site is this:

At 6 a.m. in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, when some Pentagon brass and White House aides are just rolling out of bed, Justice Anthony Kennedy is dressed in a well-cut suit and rolling down the driveway of his modest home. He is cautious at the wheel. Even when the streets and highways are empty, Kennedy obeys traffic laws. “He would never cross the street against a red light,” says a former colleague. He arrives 30 minutes later at the imposing marble temple across the street from the Capitol. Designed to appear as ancient as democracy itself even though it …

That’s the online version. Well, at least this tells us that Kennedy doesn’t go to Mass every morning. That’s important.

The story does mention that, as a child, Kennedy regularly attended Mass at Holy Spirit Parish near his Sacramento, Calif., home and that he retains many good friends from that flock. Good to know.

Later on, one of those friends is quoted about the future justice’s temperament:

He could be judgmental in church. “Growing up, he was really super Catholic. … He and I were altar boys together, and I can’t count how many times I would say something, or I was going to do something, and he would say, ‘That’s a sin.’ “

And that’s that. That’s all we need to know on that front.

One might assume that, when writing about the justice who has done the most to shape American life on crucial moral issue after crucial moral issue, it would be nice to know the degree to which his Catholic faith has or has not shaped his intellect and character. It would even be nice to know whether he remains active in the church today and in which parish he is active — because so many of his decisions are linked to religious liberty and freedom of conscience. If Kennedy has left the church, or moved into the “cultural Catholic” camp, if would be nice to know when this took place.

It would be nice to know that and, as a long-time reader, I can say that am sure that Time would have pursued that angle a decade or two ago.

For today’s Time, it seems that the Catholic faith of the child was important, but not the Catholic or formerly Catholic mind of America’s most powerful justice. Maybe GetReligion readers don’t need access to this cover story after all.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bill

    Tmatt, you’re right about spending unnecessary time on remembrances of ancient childhood friends. As altar boys, a friend and I swiped swigs of altar wine in the sacristy. He once even ate a bug on a double-dog dare. We don’t do that anymore. (Well, at least I don’t.)

    I would hope that any adult would have a more developed sense of Catholicism (or Methodism, or any ism) than that manifested in childhood. What is important is what Justice Kennedy believes now, why, and how it influences his thinking on matters before the court.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I should have mentioned this point in the post: It’s clear that TIME talked do many former Kennedy acolytes/clerks. It would have been easy to have asked the question about Catholic influence in his work.

  • http://beverlycatholic.tumblr.com Patrick Krisak

    “Am I wrong, or did Time have a policy there for awhile in which the cover stories were behind the firewall for a week or two and then went public — with a permalink to the basic texts. Was that ever the case, or is my mind playing tricks on me?”

    I think I remember this policy coming out a year or two ago over the summer, perhaps a bit later than this time of the summer. I haven’t been reading Time as regularly to have noticed whether or not it lasted or how it works now.

  • sari

    Seems like you have two different complaints, tmatt. First, that the reporter (or editor, perhaps) ignored Justice Kennedy’s religion (or lack thereof) as a possible influence. Having read the article in full, you have a legitimate gripe. Kennedy may not broadcast his religion like some other of the justices, notably Justices Scalia and Thomas, but it’s reasonable to ask how his beliefs, whatever they are, inform his actions.

    Your second complaint is more problematic. Should any entity be expected to give away its services? My subscription to the NYT allows me full and complete access; non-subscribers have limited access. This seems only fair, since I pay for a service and they do not. Likewise, how can we complain about outsourcing or unemployment rates when we refuse to pay our fair share or to abide by copyright laws, e.g., pirating software, copying music, pretending that accessing material on the Internet negates protections that would be afforded other, more tangible media. Many reporters face unemployment in large part because of the perception that the news should be free. Maybe news organizations should apply for non-profit status; until then, we should expect to pay, even if doing so inconveniences us.

  • http://rujutax.blogspot.in/ Ruj

    I guess they just see Catholicism as a moral law to teach kids about good and bad and later forget the religion that thought you…

  • Papabile

    re: “Well, at least this tells us that Kennedy doesn’t go to Mass every morning. That’s important.”

    This has the potential for detraction. I have personally seen Justice Kennedy at both he 8 AM and 12:10 mass at St. Joseph’s on the Hill.

    Now I don’t make it every day. I have no idea if he does. But getting to the Supreme Court at that time indicates exactly zilch.

  • Bill

    Good point, Sari. The model for getting paid has changed and outlets are trying to figure out new ways of recompense. Advertising paid much of the freight before, but I wonder exactly how much business web ads generate for those that buy them.

    Another problem you mention is that people have come to expect lots of freebies. Why buy the chicken when the eggs are free? Your observations about piracy are exactly right. I was stunned a few years ago by the widespread justification for Napster, which was essentially a thieves’ market where pirates fenced their booty.

    I’ve been thinking about Tmatt’s post about blogs from a few days ago. Journalism is changing shape, as it has always done: from Norse sagas and wandering minstrels, to pamphleteers and papers, to radio and TV. Media change, but there is always the need to know and the need to tell. Even now, there are are formerly ink-stained wretches up to their elbows in zeroes and ones trying to make things work. An old mule like me might not like the noise of the tractor, but that’s how the field will be plowed.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Thanks for the info. I was, in that sentence, poking fun at the time TIME online offering and not being totally serious.

  • Patt

    TIME magazine has always been an advocate of the Democratic Party, with its liberal bias. I would never look to it as an authority or journalistic source. When a relative gives me her copy- I do not bother to even scan Times yellow press “reporting’. It goes straight to the trash where it belongs.

  • tmatt


    You use of the word ALWAYS in that comment is totally inaccurate, as any longtime TIME subscriber knows. Try not to simply bash away at straw men.

  • Salvelinus

    One word, three numbers. CANON 915. Kennedy is no longer Catholic