Harriet Miers, First Take
Bill Long, M. Div., Ph. D., J. D. 10/6/05
Evangelical Faith and Justice
It is now getting to be standard that whenever the President nominates a person to the Supreme Court with a known commitment to religious faith, the nominee (or his/her surrogate) must come out very quickly with a statement to the effect that the nominee's religious faith won't affect the way they judge cases. John Roberts said this very clearly in his confirmation hearings. And now it is happening again in the Miers nomination, though the person anointed for the task at this point seems to be a fellow Texan, Justice Nathan Hecht. But, if you take a moment to think about the nature of religious faith for more than one minute, you realize that, in our day, adults who are serious about their faith precisely don't want to leave it at the door when they don the robes. Imprecision with how we talk about the intersection of faith and robes is doing a disservice both to religious faith and the idea of what a judge is or should be. This essay explores religious faith and service on the US Supreme Court.
Setting the Context
USA Today ran a long story today about Harriet Miers and her legal career, from being a student at SMU in the late 1960s to her professional success as President of the Texas Bar Association. Prominent in that story were the words of Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, a close friend of Miers, who is reportedly the one who was instrumental in "bringing her to Christ," as the Evangelicals say. Hecht was quoted in the paper as saying that Miers agreed with the point that once you take an oath to be a judge you don't inject your religious beliefs into your judgments. In the improbable wording under the picture of Hecht and Miers, the paper summarized his point: "Hecht says Miers' faith will keep her from injecting her religious beliefs into judgments." The way the paper phrased it--that faith keeps you from injecting your beliefs is provocative, and almost surely wrong. But this is the way that people increasingly talk about faith today when they want to get through a confirmation process.
Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism and American Culture
There is little question that American Fundamentalists, the heirs of WJ Bryan in his quixotic quest to defend creationist statutes in the 1920s, were quiescent throughout much of the 20th century after the Scopes Trial, even as they were quietly organizing for their day in the sun. Their clarion call to action was the Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973. Yet the Fundamentalists differ from the Evangelicals in their harshness and their deeply anti-intellectual roots. In contrast, the modern Evangelical movement only emerged after WWII when individuals, such as Billy Graham, and student movements, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, to name only two, became influential on college campuses across the nation. When the charismatic renewal movement hit in the 1960s, the Evangelicals, who always had a more positive "take" on American culture than the Fundamentalists, were armed with the intellectual and emotional resources to make a significant cultural impact. In the last 20 years or so we have been witnessing the joint advance of two conservative Protestant movements which really don't fully trust each other but which are joined in the belief that Christian faith and values ought to be reflected in governmental America as well as the cities and towns across America.
Central to the philosophy of these two movements is a philosopher/theologian whom the Fundamentalists have never heard of and the Evangelicals have mostly forgotten: H. Richard Niebuhr. In his classic book Christ and Culture, Niebuhr lays out ways that Christian faith has related to the dominant culture throughout the ages. The theological position of the Reformed tradition, whose heirs are several groups of Evangelical Protestants (as well as mainline Protestants) today, is, in Niebuhr's "shorthand," Christ transforming culture. That is, the central philosophical commitment of those defining themselves as broadly Evangelical today is that Christ, through them, can transform (and redeem) culture.
So, what is a faithful, and thinking Evangelical supposed to do in this culture? Redeem it, pure and simple. How do you do it? By bringing Christ into every area of your life and aspect of your work, pure and simple. You seek a "Christian perspective" on X or Y or Z and seek to implement it. That is the fundamental affirmation of Evangelical groups today in America. The Fundamentalists believe the same thing, but are much more clumsy in their theological articulation.
Back to Harriet Miers
Therefore, the only way that Harriet Miers could understand her role as an Evangelical Christian, if she thinks about it clearly, is to see herself as a "transformer" of culture. This means more than the fact that you bring your Bible to work or that you pray before lunch. It means that you seek a way to bring the judgment and "mind of Christ," as the Evangelicals call it, to bear on every decision you face at work. Only in this way are you being faithful to the Gospel.
Thus, to have judges paving the way for other judges by saying that religous faith won't affect the way s/he judges or to have nominees for whom religious faith is very important say the same thing is both disingenuous and untrue. If it is true, they aren't good Evangelical Chrsitians. If it isn't true, they are being disingenuous. It is time we acknowledged this simple observation.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long