Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. Eight days later, Judge Amy Coney Barrett was nominated by President Trump to fill her seat.
The former was known as a liberal icon; the latter is known for her conservative judicial philosophy and personal worldview. But what we learned about Justice Ginsburg from her death shows us that she and Judge Barrett had more in common than most Americans might think.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was Jewish, a fact made especially poignant by her death on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. She was the first person in American Jewish history to receive a traditional Jewish funeral in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. A rabbi presided alongside Chief Justice John Roberts; the service included the typical components of a Jewish funeral.
Her remains were placed in a wooden casket which remained firmly shut, both in keeping with Jewish custom. There was no public viewing of her body and, apparently, no embalming—also consistent with Jewish tradition. Jews do not seek to preserve the body, remembering from Ecclesiastes 12:7 that “the dust returns to the earth as it was.”
However, Justice Ginsburg was not buried promptly after her death as is required by Jewish custom. Nor did Jewish tradition prevail with regard to her burial: custom dictates that the casket be lowered into the ground by family members who then shovel a spadeful of dirt atop it. Arlington National Cemetery, the location of her burial, forbids these practices.
In short, Justice Ginsburg’s death demonstrated her commitment to balancing her Jewish faith and heritage with the demands of her role in American secular culture.
The judge nominated to replace her has given evidence of a similar commitment to such balance. While Amy Coney Barrett is a very committed Catholic Christian, she has stated that a judge should decide cases on the basis of the law as it stands rather than according to the judge’s personal beliefs.
In a recent podcast conversation, she observed: “I don’t think that faith should influence the way a judge decides cases at all. As I said, I don’t think that a judge should twist the law to bring it into line or to help it match in any way the judge’s own convictions. And that’s true, whether they derive from faith or, everyone has convictions, everyone has beliefs. That’s not unique to people who have faith.”
She added: “I think that one of the most important responsibilities of a judge is to put their personal preferences and their personal beliefs aside because our responsibility is to adhere to the rule of law.”
With regard to her personal life and convictions, she is guided by her Christian worldview. With regard to her decisions as a judge and potentially a Supreme Court justice, she is guided by the law.
We find here an important principle for all Christians as we seek to balance our commitment to Christ and our engagement with our secular culture.
As Justice Antonin Scalia, Amy Coney Barrett’s mentor, once noted, there is no “Catholic way to cook a hamburger,” just as there is no “Catholic way” to judge. Some matters of practice are axiologically and religiously neutral, meaning they possess no inherent moral or religious dimensions. The keyboard on which I am typing these words is not a Baptist, Catholic, or atheistic keyboard. Nor are the words I am employing inherently religious or secular.
Generally accepted accounting procedures transcend ideology with regard to accounting practices. Surgical best practices are followed by surgeons of all faiths and none. In many ways, we are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21a).
However, with regard to our personal beliefs and their appropriate public expression, we are to render “to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21b). We are to be salt and light wherever we are (Matthew 5:13–16), seeking to glorify God with all we think, say, and do (1 Corinthians 10:31).
In Justice Ginsburg’s death and Judge Barrett’s life, we see the importance of loving both our Lord and our neighbor, remembering that serving one requires serving the other. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
What is your purpose today?
Jim Denison, PhD, is the founder of Denison Forum with a reach of 1.9 million. He also serves as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health.