The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Roman Catholic, to the Supreme Court has focused attention on how people of faith conduct themselves in public office, particularly when there are specific issues of moral consequence. How do Christians navigate the debate today over the appointment of Supreme Court Justices? Let me suggest how Christians might navigate that issue:
I assume that people will live by some kind of imperative or a constellation of imperatives, be they religious or not. Some do that by deliberation and choice, some do not.
But I believe that Augustine was right. There is a god-shaped vacuum inside of all of us and that will be filled. I hope – for the well being of all of us – that people opt for the former. And as a Christian, it is undoubtedly clear what I believe is and has been a life-giving answer to that question.
As an American: I also believe that the Constitution protects the right of each American to make that same choice and to choose differently. That is, by the way, congruent with my understanding of the Triune God of Christianity, who invites, but does not coerce. (Sidebar: That does not mean that bad choices are without consequences. See the Law of Moses, the prophets, Jesus, pretty much the entire Bible.)
So, if I were in a position to question candidates for the Supreme Court, there are questions that I believe are inappropriate. Specifically, questions that treat those god-shaped choices as peculiar to a person and questions that treat those choices as – by definition-disqualifying for public office. After all, were those questions appropriate, that would mean that only an agnostic was really qualified for public office. And it would also mean that someone had accomplished something I really don’t believe anyone is capable of doing: i.e., function as a mature adult without having embraced some kind of inner imperative. Candidly: Anyone who claims otherwise is in denial, lacking in self-awareness, or – worst of all – dishonest.
What I would ask and what I think Christians should ask about is this: what they believe the task of a justice is; what they believe are the principles that control the judgments that they make; the obligations that they believe that the role imposes upon them; what the role or place of precedent plays; and what they believe is the purpose of the Supreme Court.
I also believe those questions go to the problems we are now having. Over the decades the emergence of an Executive who exercises far too much power and a Legislative branch that no longer does its job has created an environment in which far too many people on either end of the spectrum seek to legislate through the judiciary (or hope to do so). And that, of course, has created an environment in which the Court has assumed far too important a role. The work of a Supreme Court Justice should actually be far more arcane and mundane than it now is.
My original discipline is biblical studies and I believe that – no matter how difficult – the purpose of our courts (like the role of an exegete) is the interpretation of our laws and their intended application. That is not an easy task and mistakes can be made, but that is the purpose of the Supreme Court and, for that matter, any court. In the absence of that effort, in fact, there is little or no purpose for the judiciary, and no one who finds themselves before a judge would want it any other way.
Set aside the troublesome issue of precedent and a handful of hot-button issues and ask yourself this question: If I went before a judge and I hoped to show that I was innocent of an violation of the law – or if I went before a judge hoping to show that someone had violated the law and caused me injury – would I want the judge to make that decision based upon the intended meaning of the law and the precedents already set OR would I want the judge to make decisions based upon unacknowledged preferences? Clearly, the former is preferrable, unless the case is without merit.
That said, if – as a Christian and a citizen of the United States – I believed that the intended purpose of those laws and the precedents set served purposes that were morally repugnant, then I would work to change those laws and vote accordingly. And, given the inherently pluralistic nature of our society, I would make the case for changing those law on the basis of arguments that were designed to win widespread assent. In other words, I would assume that not everyone would share the imperatives that shape my life.
The challenge for the Christian, who is also a judge, is navigating potential conflicts between their faith and the law on which they are required to render a decision. Navigating that conflict may well require someone in that position to accept that there are very real limitations on their ability to resolve every conflict in a fashion that is completely congruent with his or her faith.
Such is the life of the dual citizen, whose final allegiance always and everywhere resides elsewhere, no matter how much we love our country.