Monday, October 17, 2005

Can the Person Who Puts Jesus First Rule Fairly on Constitutional Questions?

In the comments section of this post, James asks:
I'm curious as to your feelings on the idea of placing an avowed evangelical Christian on the Supreme Court bench. If such a person has made a personal promise to hold God above state (as you mention in your post), wouldn't this pose an inherent conflict for that person in a role in which the Constitution is supposed to be the ultimate authority?

I don't ask this to be inflammatory but rather to try and understand the opinions of Christians on the matter (as I don't count myself among the devoted).
It's a very important question.

In response, the first thing I would say is that I agree with conservative Christian blogger Rick Moore that a person who is an evangelical Christian (or, I would add, any kind of Christian) isn't necessarily more qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court or to hold any position of governmental responsibility.

While I believe that Harriet Miers is qualified to sit on the Court, it has nothing to do with whether she's a Christian or not. I find it downright embarrassing, as it strives to placate the Religious Right, that the White House acts as though a churchgoer is better qualified for the Supreme Court than others. It just isn't so.

But I also don't believe Miers' Christianity automatically eliminates her from consideration for membership on the Court.

Whether devotedly or not, for example, virtually every President in the history of the Republic has been a Christian, believers in the God Who calls His followers to put Him first in their lives.

This is not so different from any adherent to other theistic beliefs and were we to disqualify all who believe in God in some way from government service, the pool of available talent would be negligible. That's because only about 3% of the adult American population identifies itself as atheist.

Nor for the Christian is there an inherent conflict between following the God we know in Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and holding government office, on the other. This is probably most famously conveyed by Jesus in an encounter He once had with some religious folks who wanted to force Him into saying something that would incite the anger of the Roman occupiers of their Judean homeland:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. [Matthew 22:15-22]
Jesus wasn't here putting God and government on an equal footing. But He was saying that citizens of nations can do their duty to the nations without violating their call to be citizens of heaven first and foremost! This applies whether the duty in question is paying taxes, serving in office, sitting on a jury, voting, obeying speeding laws, or being a member of the military.

In fact, Christians have almost always held that believers have a moral obligation to be good citizens who support their governments unless those governments ask them to do unconscionable things.

I was taught that Christians need to keep two great passages that appear in the New Testament book of Romans in tension.

The first is Romans 13:1-7:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. [Romans 13:1-7]
Written to Christians who lived in the very undemocratic Roman Empire and in that empire's capital city, the first century preacher and evangelist Paul is saying that God and Christians have an interest in the maintenance of governments.

Reformer Martin Luther explained this in his famous essay on the two kingdoms. In a nutshell, Luther said that God ruled humanity through two kingdoms. The kingdom of the right, as he called it, is where those who voluntarily submit to the authority of Jesus Christ over their lives reside. Here, people volunteer to accept God's direction not out of fear that God will destroy them, but out of gratitude for His "amazing grace": the unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and new life that God grants to all who allow Jesus to be at the center of their lives.

The kingdom of the left, on the other hand, is the coercive manner God must use with the rebellious. This is the kingdom of laws and governments, whereby God forces societies to do the right things whether they're disposed to doing them or not. God institutes governments in order to create order and justice. Without the kingdom of the left, Luther says, Christians would readily be destroyed, like lambs among ravenous wolves.

Christians therefore, have a stake in seeing to it that governments function and are respected. Just and functioning governments create peace for believers and non-believers alike. From the Christian perspective, they roll chaos back enough to allow them to freely share Christ with others.

But what if governments are unjust or even evil? Should Christians mindlessly support them anyway?

Sadly, this is precisely what many in my Lutheran tradition thought that Christians should do when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. These "quietists," as they can be called, kept quiet while one group after another were pronounced enemies of the Third Reich, persecuted, and killed. Theologian Martin Niemoller wrote repentantly of the quiestist's unconscionable acquiescence to the sins of Nazism:
When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church -- and there was nobody left to be concerned.
This brings us to the second great passage to be held in tension in this question of the Christian and the government:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2]
Christians are called to be gentle and cooperative subversives, if you will. We're to support governments, even participate in them. When governments become unjust, this may lead us to fight against them or it may cause us to seek to serve within those governments, bringing positive changes that uphold justice. The highest calling of Christians is to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Nothing about this two-pronged call precludes government service.

One implied question in your query, James, is with the God we know through Jesus as our highest allegiance, if we Christians won't necessarily be inclined or even obligated to impose our faith and our beliefs on others? Or will we denigrate things like the Constitution and replace them with the Bible?

Remember what I said about the kingdom of the right? It is inherently non-coercive. While we can certainly point to people who identify themselves as Christians simply because their parents did so or because they might be members of a church, the fact is that every person who is genuinely a Christian is someone who has consciously and voluntarily surrendered themselves to Christ.

This cannot come about by coercion. Governments may decree that all people must be Christians. But even if people give their outward acquiescence to such decrees, it won't change a thing about their internal relationship with Christ.

The Bible says that it is the kindness of God that leads people to repentance (and thereby, we see, to new relationships with God). No authentic Christian person who holds an office in government would think of forcing others to make outward submission to Jesus Christ!

That means that if Harriet Miers is confirmed as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, her responsibility as both a judge and a Christian is to decide all matters before her on their legal merits alone. She will be called as both a jurist and a believer to rule on the bases of what the Constitution says. Christians voluntarily acquiesce to the instruments of government authority because it's what's best for all, because it allows God to rule through the kingdom of the left, and because such cooperative participation in government honors God and wins friends for Jesus Christ. (I'd add parenthetically, that in Old Testament times, people like Joseph and later, Daniel, served foreign kings who worshiped other gods, maintaining the integrity of their faith while not imposing it on others.)

One of the best ways Christians who serve in public office can incite others to consider surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ is for them to conduct their business with fairness and impartiality, willingly submitting to the laws that bind us all, Christians and others alike.

I hope that this answers the big question you posed, James. Thanks for being so earnest!


Jeremy Pierce said...

I agree with your main point, but I have trouble with one thing you say. I don't think you're being fair to those who are excited about the fact that she's an evangelical Christian. Your response to them amounts to saying that being an evangelical is not a qualification for the Supreme Court, which assumes that anyone thought it was. Evangelicals who are glad about that are glad that the nominee for this position identifies with them in some of their fundamental values. It makes it fairly likely that she has similar views to them about the nature of truth and how truth can be communicated, not to mention having similar ethical views. That all together means she's going to have at least something pulling her back from any tendency to let liberal ethical views pull her toward doing the sorts of things the moderate-to-liberal majority on the Supreme Court has been doing of late. So it is relevant that she's a fairly conservative evangelical Christian, and it isn't fair to those who have been pointing this about about her to assume that they're treating it as a qualification.

James said...

Absolutely and a fascinating analysis at that, my thanks. The Biblical quotes were especially intriguing as the philosophy laid out in them is quite sensible from a pragmatic, day-to-day governance perspective.

Whether devotedly or not, for example, virtually every President in the history of the Republic has been a Christian, believers in the God Who calls His followers to put Him first in their lives.

I think this is the key differentiator to me: any position held responsible at regular intervals to democratic challenge is resistant to extremism of any stripe.

SCOTUS, of course, is uniquely free of this particular constraint and so would seem to be the only potential avenue for abuse of trust (again, in any direction; the danger of placing a left-leaning ideologue on the bench is just as serious).

You say it yourself in describing the 'kingdom of the left':

whereby God forces societies to do the right things whether they're disposed to doing them or not.

If you were Harriet Miers and found yourself in the swing vote in overturning Roe, might you not consider yourself the instrument of God's efforts to force humans to do the right thing i.e. that you would vote to overturn for religious rather than legal reasons?

Personally I think Roe is a bad example and, even though I'm quite liberal, would love to see abortion decided democratically rather than by judicial fiat but the 'instrument of God's will' concept frightens me when it comes to judicial rulings.

I'd add parenthetically, that in Old Testament times, people like Joseph and later, Daniel, served foreign kings who worshiped other gods, maintaining the integrity of their faith while not imposing it on others.

But I think this is my issue: it will be Miers job not to serve any sitting government but to serve only a document whose very nature is transitory when viewed by each generation's particular social lens. It is possible for her to act by way of her faith but explain her actions by way of law.

In all, your post definitely assuages some of my fear but I'm still left with exceedingly 'committed' Christians having a particular burden to bear in the judiciary that a less committed or a-religious person wouldn't suffer.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response to this post. I'm glad that it at least met some of your concerns.

Whether Harriet Miers has the same perspective on these matters as I do, I can't say. But I honestly feel that from a Biblical perspective, a committed Christian should be able to serve in public office, even on the Supreme Court, and do their duty under the Constitution without feeling conflicted.

Thanks and drop by the blog again at your convenience!