Amidst all the news both terrible and just plain bad, you may have missed a little news item regarding the confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., of a nominee for the a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judgeship.
The nominee’s name is Amy Barrett and she is a self-described practicing Catholic and a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who has commented with some frequency on the role her faith plays within her judicial perspective. One comment is particularly revealing and points to the complexity of the issue at hand: “Judges cannot – nor should they try to – align our legal system with the church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge. They should, however, conform their own behavior to the church’s standard.”
Many years ago, back when America was preparing for a war in Iraq, I watched a press conference of clergy denouncing the administration’s march to war. As a clergyman myself, I felt aligned with the pastors, priests and rabbis who were making their commitments public. I was also chagrined to read the following day a newspaper editorial that gently chastised the group reminding them, “We do understand that it is natural and healthy for many Americans to base their political opinions, to some degree, on religious ethics.”
To some degree? What degree? Five degrees? Twenty? I found it more than a little disconcerting that the editorial staff of the newspaper so misunderstood the role of religion in the lives of the faithful. In Judaism and Christianity, the mandate is quite clear; it comes in a variety of forms but is probably best understood in the first of the 10 commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Some adherents, perhaps many, would suggest one is not to base one’s political opinions “to some degree” on religious ethics but totally and completely, 100 percent.
And therein lies a fundamental dilemma for the faithful living in our democracy. It is the tension between their lives of faith and the complexities of the world. There are some believers who promise the tension is nonexistent. These folk have either removed themselves into religious communes or spend their days knocking on our doors seeking to convince us of the absolute certainty of their certainty.
The rest of us, both believers and nonbelievers, are left struggling with the issue. How and when should religious beliefs impose themselves on political decisions? This is the point where a great many folk will recall the story of Jesus being asked about paying taxes. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
With a self-satisfied smile, some people proclaim a clear division between church, synagogue, temple, mosque and the state. But it isn’t quite as simple as that because Jesus hasn’t made perfectly clear what belongs where. All he has done is deepened the dilemma by implying we must decide what is Caesar’s and what belongs to God. For the past 2000-plus years, many of us still haven’t quite figured it out.
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein queried Barrett as to where her allegiance lay, Feinstein reopened this continuing dilemma. What is God’s and what is Caesar’s? Feinstein was pummeled by conservative commentators for having the audacity to even pose the question and yet it seemed a reasonable one to many others. If a religion professes a dogma, to use Feinstein’s language, that seems diametrically opposed to the mandates of our government, shouldn’t that be made known?
A religion that invokes racist, anti-Semitic or some other offensive doctrine and demands obedience from its adherents seems a clear case of opposition to American ideals but, so what? Don’t these very American ideals allow for diverse, even divisive, stands? Where do we draw the line between controversial religious beliefs and treasonous ones?
When Feinstein asked Barrett her question, was she implying there are certain religious doctrines that preclude participation in the judicial branch of our democratic government? Many believed that’s exactly what she was doing. Some believed it was correct and acceptable, others did not.
Where do you stand? Are you willing to accept that diversity of thought and belief, shaped in part by religious convictions or doctrinal edicts, should be welcomed in the search for justice? Or do you find deep religious beliefs, born not by democratic ideals but by commitments to faith, too problematic to be allowed into our system of jurisprudence?
What gets rendered where?