After President Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, Sweet Briar College's Barbara Perry told The New York Times, "This would add a whole new meaning to the Catholic rite of confirmation." She was joking about the likelihood of a Catholic majority on the Court.
That majority would be notable, considering Samuel Alito would be only the 12th Catholic in the Court's 110-justice history. But "the most remarkable thing about it is that it's unremarkable," Catholic University's Dennis Coyle told The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. "That says something about how mainstream Catholicism has become in intellectual and legal circles."
"The religion factor no longer matters," Perry says. But for some it still does. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, complained that a Catholic majority would "underrepresent other religions, not to mention nonbelievers."
Such comments are thankfully rare. Most pundits and politicians are wary of the Constitution's ban on a "religious test for office."
It's not as if the Catholic majority "is going to put any papal encyclicals into American law," says an editorial in the Sharon (Mass.) Advocate. "But if such fears exist, the Roman Catholic Church is doing nothing to calm them." Bishops who threaten to withhold Communion from pro-choice lawmakers are only instituting their own "religious test" for office, the paper said.
If the bishops do not similarly warn Catholic judges, Amy Sullivan wrote for Beliefnet, they "reveal their policy for dealing with Catholic public officials for what it isa political, partisan tactic."
But if a judge "were to act in a way that he would reach decisions on the basis of Catholic teaching, that in itself would be a violation of Catholic teaching." Richard John Neuhaus told The Denver Post. He later explained further, "A judge is solemnly pledged to uphold the Constitution. With very few exceptions, this comes down to determining whether a specific law is constitutional. Legislators are free to bring any consideration they wishphilosophical, theological, ideological, whateverto bear on their decisions. Judges are not."
Evangelicals and Catholics Together
Anti-Catholicism is a farce, William Saletan wrote in Slate. "This is the GOP's new victim shtick: Nominate pro-lifers to the courts, brag that they're simply upholding abortion laws favored by a majority of voters, and when liberals complain, accuse them of attacking a religious minority."
That's why you're most likely to hear cries of anti-Catholicism coming from evangelical Protestant groupswhich not too long ago might have been the ones decrying a Catholic majority on the Court, wrote Saletan.
Welcome to "the reality of social conservatism: Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft," Franklin Foer wrote in The New Republic. "Evangelicals didn't just need Catholic bodies; they needed Catholic minds to supply them with rhetoric that relied more heavily on morality than biblical quotation."
"At one level, Mr. Foer's argument is a repeat of the notorious Washington Post claim of several years ago that evangelicals are poor, uneducated, and easily led. And, of course, we crafty Catholics are doing the leading," Neuhaus responded on the First Things website. Evangelicals, he said, still have "formidable minds" and the legacy of politician/preacher Abraham Kuyper.
The evangelical legacy also includes minister John Witherspoon, founder of Princeton and mentor to James Madison. Modern evangelical Protestantism doesn't lack qualified candidates for the Supreme Court. But it is true that the movement is only recently getting serious about recapturing the legacies of Kuyper and Witherspoon, and of ending "the scandal of the evangelical mind."
When it comes to government, evangelical energies seem drawn to positions where Christian beliefs are part of decision-making. It's easy to list conservative Protestants in the legislative and executive branches. But judges? Roy Moore gets rallies for erecting a Ten Commandments monument while Michael McConnell's work goes unread. Is that because evangelicals don't want to do intellectual heavy lifting? Or is it because we disagree with Justice Antonin Scalia's argument that "a judge bears no moral guilt for the laws society has failed to enact"? Does moral duty always trump job description?
Activism is usually mentioned as one core distinctive of being an evangelical, but we oppose it on the bench. Is this why there are so few top-level evangelical judges? If so, thank God for conservative Catholics.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christianity Today coverage of Samuel Alito and the Supreme Court vacancy is available in our full coverage area.
This column appeared in the magazine's January 2006 print issue as the tenth entry of "Weblog in Print," CT's effort to duplicate on paper our popular online Weblog feature. Earlier entries include:
The Katrina Quandary | America questions the role of Christian charity. (Oct. 20, 2005)
Abolishing Abstinence | Telling underage kids not to have sex is surprisingly controversial (Aug. 24, 2005)
Dirty Qur'ans, Dusty Bibles | If Leviticus or Jude suddenly disappeared from Scripture, would we notice? (June 20, 2005)
Who's Driving This Thing? | Everyone is asking who leads the evangelical movement. (Feb. 21, 2005)
Bad Believers, Non-Believers | Do religious labels really mean anything? (Oct. 19, 2004)
Pro-Abortion Madness | The abortion lobby has abandoned its rationales amid pro-life gains. (Aug. 17, 2004)
Grave Images | The photos from Abu Ghraib have reopened debate on the power of pictures.
Misfires in the Tolerance Wars | Separating church and state now means separating belief and action (Feb. 24, 2004)
A Theoblogical Revolution | Billy Graham's vision goes from print to online, then back again. (Jan. 16, 2004; Weblog update: "New Kids on the Blog," Feb. 13, 2004)
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