Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

How should we think about the renaming debates?

On Tuesday night, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to remove the names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and other prominent figures from 44 public schools over concerns that the figures had “direct or broad ties to slavery, oppression, racism or the ‘subjugation’ of human beings.” It’s tempting simply to roll our eyes and dismiss this as San Francisco playing up to its caricature, but these renaming debates will continue to swirl in cities across the country. Is there an intellectually coherent and morally prudent path to follow?
Yes. In the simplest terms, the renaming debate should explore whether a school's name causes reasonable observers to question the school’s commitment to the core values of its educational mission, not whether the historical figure’s behavior aligned with those values in every single respect. We need to avoid the extreme positions on both sides.
At one extreme, it is a mistake to dismiss these debates categorically as examples of political correctness run amok. Our decisions to honor particular individuals – and to ask families to entrust their children to schools that reflect those decisions – have real impact on well-being. For example, a Native American friend of mine explained that the abuse children of her community experienced in the assimilationist white boarding schools they were forced to attend created a distrust of schools that has extended across generations. As a result, academic success was not celebrated or encouraged when she was growing up.
So imagine being a Native American student asked to attend Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, named after the Minnesota governor who called for the extermination of the Dakota and persecuted the tribe in various ways. What message would you absorb every day walking into a building emblazoned with Ramsey’s name?
While my daughter was a student at Ramsey, the students successfully advocated to change the school’s name to honor Alan Page, the first African-American justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. The students delved into history, evaluated the pros and cons, and persuaded the school board. I fully supported that decision.
At the other extreme, moral purity cannot be the standard for honoring historical figures. One of my personal heroes is Martin Luther King Jr., and he had some pretty significant moral failings; nevertheless, we honor him because the legacy of his public witness was transformational for our nation. Or consider Abraham Lincoln. We are ignoring history if we insist that his primary legacy was his failure to change the U.S. government’s relationship with Indian tribes, rather than courageous action to end slavery and preserve the Union.
Historical analysis requires us to evaluate the entire arc of a person’s life and work. We need to demonstrate empathy – the Ramsey name didn’t bother me until I took time to listen to the experiences of Native Americans in Minnesota – but we also need to exercise reason. If we’re incapable of recognizing that Abraham Lincoln is worthy of honor because of his positive contributions to the American story, we are on a very troubling path. If your feelings about Lincoln are just as valid as the historical facts about Lincoln, we’re not far from the post-truth world of QAnon.
If every interpretation of a contested social symbol is equally valid, there’s really nothing to talk about. History becomes another battlefield in our never-ending culture war. We still have to settle the contest, of course, and we’ll do it through raw power. That’s not a recipe for social cohesion, robust pluralism, or a historically literate citizenry. It’s a recipe for chaos.

January 28, 2021 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Mixed Feelings from a Department of Justice Alum About the Belated Ethical Stand by DOJ Leaders at the Close of the Last Administration

My affectionate professional relationship with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has persevered in one form or another for more than three decades.

After working as a legislative assistant to a U.S. Senator on Capitol Hill and clerking for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, I was fortunate to be chosen through the Honors Program to become an appellate attorney at Main Justice in Washington, D.C. For three years, I represented a wide variety of government officials (from the President and Cabinet secretaries to line government employees) and federal agencies (from the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense to the U.S. Postal Service). I was the attorney on appellate cases in the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court. The subjects ran across the civil litigation spectrum, from constitutional challenges to government programs to simple tort claims against the government.

That wonderful opportunity for a young lawyer proved to be the beginning of my life's work.

As a law professor, I have devoted much of my academic attention to civil litigation involving the federal government. I have authored the hornbook on "Litigation With the Federal Government," published by West Academic Press in 2016 and now on contract for a new edition in 2022. I have also published the only law school casebook on the subject, having now taught the course more than a dozen times. I have written many, many scholarly articles on jurisdiction over government cases, contract and takings disputes with the federal government, attorney's fee recoveries against the federal government, the Federal Tort Claims Act, etc. Most recently, I have been working on federal government accountability for official wrongdoing, with a focus on redressing sexual violence perpetrated by federal employees.

My pro bono appellate practice over the past decade has put me more than once on the other side of the Department of Justice, when I have been court-appointed counsel for those bringing claims against the federal government and when I have written or joined amicus briefs in the Supreme Court. When appearing opposite DOJ attorneys in court, I have continued to appreciate the professionalism and high standards of ethics of federal government attorneys. As any good lawyer will tell you, it is much easier and more satisfying to litigate against good and responsible attorneys, while it is hard and unpleasant to litigate against poor attorneys. And with the DOJ, you interact with the best of the best. Thus, even as a litigation opponent, my affection for the DOJ remains strong.

Because of those sentiments and my hard-earned knowledge of the vital importance of this legal institution, I have been heartbroken to watch the politicization of the Department of Justice over the past four years by the Trump White House. Especially under Attorney General Barr, DOJ has too often been degraded to the personal law firm of Donald Trump. DOJ’s true mission is to serve as the legal counsel for the federal government as a whole, bearing allegiance not to an individual but to the United States. The devolution of DOJ during the Trump Administration has undermined its role as an independent source of legal advice for the government and executive officials, tarnished its reputation before the courts and public, and caused many of its best and brightest to leave Main Justice.

It was with mixed feelings that I learned of former President Trump’s final disgraceful attempt to recruit the DOJ as a legal foot soldier in his misguided army of insurrection against democratic governance.

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January 27, 2021 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Sunday, January 24, 2021

"Giving Our Better Angels a Chance"

Alan Brownstein (UC-Davis) and I have published the above-titled article, subtitled "A Dialogue on Religious Liberty and Equality." You can download it here. I've respected Alan's work--its carefulness, clarity, and honesty--for a long time and am very happy we've been able to do this together. From the abstract:

This essay is a collaborative effort to engage in a dialogue on church-state issues that are often hotly debated in our society. Each of us has strongly held positions on the disputes we plan to discuss. Our purpose here, however, is not to present our own views as forcefully as we can. Instead, our goal is to move away from the bitter polarization and demonization that characterizes so much of the arguments about law and religion today. We are searching for ways to discuss and resolve difficult church-state issues that may reduce acrimony and divisions within our society, foster bridge building among divergent communities, identify common ground and provide opportunities for compromise.

It's forthcoming in The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, a publication provided to every federal and state appellate judge in the nation. The dialogue format--each of us writing specific sections with responses from the other, rather than trying to homogenize our views in a singe text--allows us, we hope, to present disagreements clearly while also suggesting places of common ground and potential solutions.

January 24, 2021 in Berg, Thomas, Current Affairs, Religion | Permalink

Teaching in Person at a Catholic Law School During the Pandemic (Part Three: Fostering Community)

This is the third and final in a series of posts about my experiences teaching in person last semester during the pandemic at a Catholic law school. The first post was about health and safety for teaching in person despite the contagion. The second post was about educational quality given the accommodations necessary to teach in person during a pandemic. This post is about fostering community in challenging times with social distancing.

Community as a Hallmark Value at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

Fostering community among students, faculty, and staff is a hallmark at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. It is one of the visible attributes that draws prospective students and that is frequently emphasized by our current students and alumni. As more than one person has said, community is simply baked into our DNA at St. Thomas. If you ask a typical St. Thomas law student what stands out about the law school experience, he or she is quite likely to speak to a positive atmosphere that nurtures students and draws people together.

Now many law schools tell prospective students that they have a strong community and portray images of community in publicity brochures and alumni magazines. Assertions of a supportive community are easily uttered. For the University of St. Thomas, we fortunately have considerable concrete evidence that our community is genuine and distinctive.

First, in national surveys of law student engagement, law students at the University of St. Thomas consistently report they are happier and feel more supported.  UST law students are much more positive about their law school experience than is generally reported at other law schools.

Second, I take an anonymous survey of students in my Professional Responsibility class each spring when they are more than half-way through their legal education. Substantial majorities of our students report  each year that they are more committed to and even happier about their choice to become lawyers than when they began their legal education. By contrast, across the country, many law students become disenchanted by the end of their first year, and upper-level students often express regret about their decision to go to law school.

Third, in yet another survey, which is publicly available, our students vote regularly in the Princeton Review to include us among the top ten law schools for “Best Quality of Life.”

Now some law deans and professors would openly or quietly disclaim that community should be a signature characteristic of legal education. The purpose of law school, they would say, is to effectively prepare students to pass the bar and competently engage in the practice of law. Others might say that a law school as part of a university should be first and foremost about demanding critical thinking and challenging students with new ideas, rather than seeking to flatten out student experience into an anodyne good feeling. And in public law schools, there are constitutional free expression expectations that restrict efforts to vigorously press a particular theme, which in the legal academy can become ideologically rigid.

I believe that the University of St. Thomas has generated a sense of community that is neither heavy-handed in approach nor indifferent to differences in viewpoints. To be sure, as a private and faith-based law school, we would have the freedom to choose a motivating theme, even if it trespassed on freedom of thought or excluded contrary points of view. But that is not our path. We do not assume that any human institution, including the Catholic Church, has a monopoly on truth. Especially when it comes to law and public policy, the Church encourages prudential judgment and respects the expertise of others in translating values into policy. Moreover, we embrace ideals of academic freedom in our encouragement of intellectual exploration. As I say when describing our Catholic identity to students, we are always Catholic, but we are not only Catholic. We welcome the expression of values and the sharing of insights from all traditions, while not neglecting the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

Rather, at the University of St. Thomas, we seek to foster a community that is diverse in every way, that consists of people who disagree passionately about matters of values and who draw their most deeply-cherished beliefs from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. What is distinctive for us is to celebrate this diversity and see it as an entry point to draw everyone together. As our Vision Statement defines community, “[w]e foster a diverse environment in which each student feels supported in his or her unique journey from law student to lawyer and called to share his or her gifts to enrich the collective learning community.”

The crucial link that brings us together is a very intentional attempt to talk across the political, cultural, and religious divisions that plague our country. Our sense of community is a bridge, a search for common ground. In so doing, we discourage the demonization of different viewpoints or the presumption that those who disagree with us are acting in bad faith. At the same time, we encourage speaking truth to power and shedding light on uncomfortable realities and damaging attitudes that others might wish to avoid. Far more than is true at most other law schools, UST law students who espouse quite conflicting positions on legal and political issues are in conversation with each, attend programs sponsored by groups with a different perspective, and collaborate on ventures to to better understand alternative viewpoints and find a common ground if possible.

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January 24, 2021 in Sisk, Greg | Permalink

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Setting the Record Straight: Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

This guest post was written by Professor David Smolin from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. Smolin is the Harwell G. Davis Professor of Constitutional Law and Director, Center for Children, Law and Ethics.

Setting the Record Straight:
Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

By David Smolin

As an academic who studies adoption, foster care, and children’s rights—and an adoptive parent myself—I am a bit surprised by some of the rhetoric surrounding Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. Understandably, lawyers have to make legal arguments—but often what gets lost are important facts that provide the context necessary to understand and evaluate these legal arguments. This is an important Supreme Court case, but not for the reason that some seem to think. This case will not affect the ability of same-sex couples to foster or adopt anywhere in the Country(same-sex foster care is legal in all 50 states). But it will have an important impact on the number of agencies and foster families available to care for foster children nationwide. Here are the three biggest misconceptions I have seen in how this case is discussed.

#1: Foster care is primarily about the recruitment and certification of foster parents.

Philadelphia has tried to keep the focus on certification, but that’s only one part of a more complex puzzle. Lost in today’s  discussion is the fact that foster agencies provide ongoing support for the families that choose to partner with them—and that many families choose a particular agency because its services and support system are different from that of other agencies. Some agencies hire staff with language and cultural competences to better serve Latino communities. Some agencies participate in training programs and certifications to better serve LGBTQ couples, youth, and families. Some agencies recruit through churches and can provide emotional and spiritual support to foster families who want an agency that understands and affirms their deep religious commitments. Fostering in partnership with a private agencies is not “one and done”—it is an ongoing process. Burnout is high for foster parents; it’s an arduous and emotionally-draining undertaking. But families will stick with it longer if they have the training, support, options for respite care, and help they need. Agencies matter. They are not simply identical widgets churning out foster parents. They each play a unique role in a diverse, healthy child welfare system.

#2: Home studies require mere pro forma box-checking.

At oral argument in Fulton, the Supreme Court asked a few questions suggesting a misunderstanding of a foster care home study (the process by which families become certified to care for a foster child in partnership with a specific agency). For example, one Justice asked whether Catholic Social Services could certify foster parents without evaluating their marriage, while another asked whether Catholic Social Services could perform a same-sex home study but include a disclaimer expressing their disapproval of the relationship. I see several problems with this line of thinking.

First, home studies are far more personal, intimate, and invasive than most imagine. Social workers conducting home studies go far beyond inspecting the physical residence. Home studies focus on the relational aspects of a prospective foster or adoptive family, including the marriage or intimate partnership, relationships with children, extended family, community, friendspotentially even aspects of a couple’s sex life. “Sexual orientation cannot be ignored in the assessment process, because an individual’s sexuality is an aspect of who they are as a total person and will impact on their life as a parent.” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6301781_Assessing_lesbian_and_gay_prospective_foster_and_adoptive_families_A_focus_on_the_home_study_process)

Because foster children typically come from a background of trauma, a foster or adoptive home must be relationally solid enough to absorb the difficult behaviors common with traumatized children An in-depth evaluation is necessary to ensure that agencies are entrusting vulnerable children only to stable, safe, and emotionally healthy foster families. Anything less than a thorough evaluation could endanger foster children, and could put an agency’s license at risk—when a private agency approves a foster parent, it is vouching for that parent’s home, and adverse outcomes call the agency’s abilities and judgment into doubt.

For this same reason, the belief that if the government shuts down a faith-affirming foster agency, all its foster families would simply “transfer” agencies is misguided. There is potential loss and disruption to foster families in losing a trusted partner in their foster care journey and adjusting to a new social worker who doesn’t understand their case or their foster care history. The recognition that their agency has lost its role precisely because it adheres to a faith shared by the foster parents would create a disincentive to continue as a foster parent.

The process of recertification (by which a foster family may, in some cases, partner with a new agency) may also serve as an additional disincentive to continuing, even more so if foster parents fear that the same criteria applied to excluding their former agency will eventually be applied to them as foster parents. Hence, one cannot assume that all existing foster parents would go through this process of transferring and being recertified by a different agency. Losing any qualified foster parents would lead to placement disruptions and would harm the foster children in their care.

Second, asking objecting faith-based agencies to perform home studies for same-sex couples with a disclaimer stating that the agency doesn’t endorse the couple’s relationship is a non-starter.As explained in #1 above, when foster parents partner with a foster agency, this results in an ongoing relationship between the agency and the foster parents. Many agencies will regularly check in with their foster parents. It is crucial that this is a relationship of trust and support. Foster parents must feel comfortable talking frankly with their agency, flagging any potential problems, and asking for help when it is (inevitably) needed.

The idea that a couple would want to engage in a partnership with an agency that cannot affirm their marriage defies logic.Philadelphia even seems to understand this, telling prospective foster parents to find an agency that is the best fit” for them.

#3: Alleged dignitary harms to adults are more important than the best interests of children.

Let me say this first: regardless of the outcome in Fulton, same-sex couples will still be allowed to—and encouraged to—foster and adopt in all 50 states. With that said, an undue focus on dignitary harms for foster parent applicants obscures what is in the best interest of foster children.

Philadelphia and the ACLU argue that the hypothetical referral of a same-sex couple from Catholic Social Services to another nearby foster agency (there are close to 30 private agencies in the City) justifies completely excluding this agency from the foster care system. This means that all foster families whopartner with Catholic Social Services will have to be recertified (see #2) and that Catholic Social Servicesdecades of experience and unique ability to recruit foster families from Philadelphia’s Catholic community will be lost.

I see at least two problems with this argument. First, there are adult dignitary harm on both sides. The dignitary harm a same-sex couple might face from potentially being referred to another agency (remember, no same-sex couple had actually approached Catholic Social Services seeking to foster), or which occurs simply from knowing that Catholic Social Services is allowed to continue its historical role, is countered by the dignitary harm women like plaintiff Sharonell Fulton experienced when the city government told her that it was closing down the foster agency with which she has partnered for over 25 years. Knowing your agency was shut down because it shares your faith is also a dignitary harm.

Second, the government is placing these dignitary harms to adults above what is in the best interest of children—namely, to maximize the number of foster parents available to serve children in need. This misses the point of who a foster care program is meant to serve: children in need, not potential foster parents.

On this last point, I have not seen any convincing evidence that excluding faith-based foster care agencies increases the number of homes available for foster children in need. In fact, some evidence indicates that faith-based agencies can recruit families that others can’t and provide wrap-around support services which help foster parents serve longer. Much of this evidence is outlined in several Supreme Court amicus briefs, including my own.

What is more, result-orientated attempts to argue otherwise miss the mark. For example, two professors purport to find, based on preliminary analysis of data, and interviews with professionals perhaps selected or self-selected for sympathetic viewpoints,that excluding a faith-based agency in Boston did not have any negative effect on the child welfare system. Their eagerness to come to conclusions based on their admittedly “preliminary” analysis suggests that they began with a preferred conclusion and then went looking for data in support.

For example, as evidence they claim that the number of days in care” (i.e. the total number of days a foster children spends in a foster home) “slightly decreases” after the agency was shutdown. Even assuming the numbers are accurate, a decrease in the number of days in care may be either a positive or a negative child welfare outcome. The number of “days in carecould drop because of a shortage of foster care parents to provide such care, because children are being returned inappropriately to abusive and neglectful homes, or because children “aged out” of foster care. It could also result from unrelated changes in the community, particularly because the result is one of “slightly” decreasing. Simply put, a decrease in “days in care” without more doesn’t tell us much of anything about the health of a child welfare system. No wonder this analysis was presented as “preliminary” by the authors. It is incomplete.

Even if one credited the authors conclusions, it is telling that they admit: None of this is to say that things could not turn out differently in another context where a transition is managed less well. This is quite an admission in a context where child welfare systems notoriously are not managed well, with the majority of states having experienced a federal court consent decree due to chronic mismanagement. One cannot count on a seamless and well-organized transition in child welfare systems which have been known to literally lose track of the location of children in care, with one study finding more than 60,000 children listed as missing in America’s child welfare system since 2000.

*  *  *

Looking at Fulton from the perspective of what is best for current and prospective future foster children, it is easy to see why excluding faith-based agencies from the foster care systemsolely because of their religious objections to same-sex marriage is a bad idea. The child welfare systems in the United States arechronically overwhelmed and frequently mismanaged and need all the help available from diverse elements of society, including the religious agencies and persons who have throughout the history of the system provided critically important services and homes for children. In this context of constant crisis for America’s foster care children, valuing the dignitary interests of some (but not all) impacted adults, above the needs of traumatized, abused, abandoned, and vulnerable children, would be a tragically unjust choice.

I would add, as I stated in the Statement of Interest in a Fulton amicus brief, that I support both the inclusion of LGBTQ persons as foster and adoptive parents, and also … the inclusion of religious agencies and religious adoptive and foster parents, including those whose religious beliefs do not accept same-gender marriage.” America’s children really do need all of us, and the adults have to figure out a way to work together toward that end.

January 23, 2021 | Permalink

Friday, January 22, 2021

Big Tech is a problem - Amazon's termination of service to Parler is not

Like many Americans, I'm concerned about the power Big Tech wields over our economy, over the ways we obtain (and are influenced by) information, and over our personal data. That said, Amazon’s termination of Parler from its web-hosting service after the attack on the U.S. Capitol appears to have been sensible and legal. Yesterday a federal district court judge rejected Parler’s request for a preliminary injunction, and it may be helpful to summarize the judge’s decision before the legal merits get spun beyond recognition in the never-ending tumult of our culture wars.

The facts: starting in mid-November, Amazon began notifying Parler of problematic content on its platform. (I won't offer examples of the many posts encouraging violence against specific individuals, but you can see for yourself if you search for Amazon's response brief to Parler.) After the U.S. Capitol attack on January 6, content encouraging violence continued to grow on Parler. The Parler CEO acknowledged a backlog of 26,000 posts that violated its community standards yet remained on its service. On January 9, Amazon announced that it would suspend Parler’s account, and Parler sued.

Note that this case has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which applies only against the government, not against a private company like Amazon. Parler did not even allege a First Amendment violation. So what did Parler claim?

First, Parler alleged that Amazon’s termination of service violated the Sherman Act because it was “designed to reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter.” To prove a violation of the relevant portion of the Sherman Act, Parler needed to show 1) the existence of an agreement; and 2) that the agreement was an unreasonable restraint of trade. Unfortunately for Parler, there was no evidence of an agreement between Amazon and Twitter to harm Parler in order to help Twitter. Contrary to Parler’s allegation, Amazon does not currently provide online hosting services to Twitter. According to the court, Parler has provided “only faint and factually inaccurate speculation.”

Second, Parler alleged that Amazon breached their contract by failing to give Parler 30 days’ notice before terminating services. Parler did not deny that content on its platform violated Amazon’s Acceptable Use Policy, and Parler failed to note that the contract permits Amazon to terminate immediately in the event of a breach.

Third, Parler alleged that Amazon intentionally interfered with its business expectancy, which requires evidence of interference with its business “for an improper purpose or [using] improper means.” The court ruled that Parler raised no “more than the scantest speculation” of improper purpose, and the evidence suggests that Amazon’s action “was in response to Parler’s material breach.”

The court concluded that “the likelihood of Parler prevailing on its claims is not a close call,” as Parler’s allegations “are both inaccurate and unsupported.” Further, the court “rejects any suggestion that the public interest favors requiring [Amazon] to host the incendiary speech that the record shows some of Parler’s users have engaged in.” Parler’s motion for a preliminary injunction was accordingly denied.

We need to sort through difficult issues regarding the power that a few large technology companies have accumulated, and we need to try to do so without reflexively grabbing for the familiar lenses provided by our highly partisan political environment.  Catholic legal theory should have something to say about all this. Amazon's decision to stop hosting Parler is not the proper vehicle for that conversation – based on the evidence offered, the decision appears to have been morally prudent and legally justified.

January 22, 2021 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Open Letter to Pope Francis on Prenatal Justice

A moral theologian urges Pope Francis to bring his forceful defense of prenatal children into a more central place of his pontificate. It is time to stand up firmly and forcefully for their dignity in a culture which increasingly seems them as disposable thing that can be violently discarded.


January 22, 2021 | Permalink

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

"What Joe Biden . . . owe[s] John Courtney Murray."

I don't think this piece, in America, is actually about what is in the title.   I am, to be sure, a fan of John Courtney Murray's work, and I agree with the piece's author, Prof. Massimo Faggioli (Villanova) that:

One of Murray’s most important contributions . . . is the principle of the distinction between state and society, and the conviction that the state is limited in its role toward society. “State is distinct from society,” he asserted, and “government submits itself to judgment by the truth of society; it is not itself a judge of the truth in society.”

Faggioli goes on to say that "[i]n the present moment, Murray’s assumption must be revised: Our societies have become more pluralistic and more secular, while political identities have often become more strongly linked to religious belief." I'm not sure what this means.  That is, it's not clear to me why these observations about our "societies" and "identifies" have any implications for Murray's emphasis on the aforementioned "distinction." 

In any event, the distinction matters.  Faggioli, strangely, seems to think that the threat to this distinction is (again) "the culture wars" or the asserted emphasis by "culture war[riors]" on "non-negotiables."  In fact, though, the most potent challenges to this distinction, and all that it protects and facilitates, are coming (and will increasingly come) from "progressives" who believe that the state should insist on, and use its various tools to bring about, congruence between (a) the egalitarian rules that constrain state action and (b) the practices, norms, and commitments of non-state communities and institutions.  In other words, the "healthy secularity" that Murray supported never meant, for Murray, that the Church should welcome being re-made by licensing and funding conditions.

January 20, 2021 in Garnett, Rick | Permalink

How should Christian faith shape our political engagement?

Whether today’s inauguration causes you to feel more hopeful about our nation’s future or more anxious, I hope Christians can pause for a moment to reflect on the role that our faith plays in our political engagement. If we’re not happy with the voices that loudly proclaim direct knowledge of God’s will for American politics (often arising on the right), and we’re not ready to agree with the voices that insist faith has only a marginal role to play in our political discourse (often arising on the left), what’s the path forward?
My favorite line from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address – delivered near the end of a brutal and bloody war – was his observation that both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” It was a simple recognition of our shared humanity and shared faith, even at a time when we were killing each other in a conflict over the deeply immoral practice of slavery. Lincoln did not accuse those fighting for the Confederacy of not being “real Christians,” he did not claim that God had personally assured him that the Union’s cause was just, and he did not assert that God's plan for civilization hinged on the outcome of the conflict. Instead, he recognized that those on the other side were just as sincere in their faith as he was.
Did that humility weaken his resolve to win the war and end slavery? Not at all. Did his empathy for those supporting the Confederacy lead him to look the other way and ignore their support of a deeply unjust institution? Hardly. Humility and empathy shaped the way he engaged his opponents, not his commitment to the moral claims underlying the conflict.
The answer today is not, as some insist, to exclude commitments grounded in faith from our political discourse. The answer is to articulate the public relevance of our faith commitments in terms that reflect humility and empathy. Three helpful questions emerge from the powerful example provided by Martin Luther King Jr.
First, is faith being invoked as a conversation-stopper? Dr. King’s faith was inseparable from his public witness. Faith was not out of bounds for him, but his faith was not invoked to shut down dissent or signal an us-versus-them worldview. His opposition to segregation was grounded in his belief that “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.” However, he went on to explain that “an unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.” King did not ask his listeners to embrace the religious foundations of his truth-telling (though many did); he asked them to embrace the resulting moral claims, regardless of how one arrived at them. He brought his faith into the public square without a trace of embarrassment, but it was the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.
Second, is faith being invoked as a rationale for self-righteousness? Dr. King’s practice of Christian love did not always make even his own followers comfortable. He challenged his followers to overcome their fears and refused the easy path of telling them what they wanted to hear. Even within the black community of his own city, Dr. King showed that love is not passive – it pushes, it stretches. Dr. King worked to motivate the community to organize and persist in the Montgomery bus boycott, and he encountered significant resistance to his efforts initially. In loving others – friend or foe, black or white – Dr. King did the work that allowed him to see the world through others’ eyes, but he insisted that they expand their view to encompass a truer, less isolated vision of their own well-being.
Third, is faith being invoked in ways that foster hatred of our opponents? Dr. King preached and practiced love for his enemies. Loving the white man, according to King, was in part a response to the white man’s needs, for the white man’s personhood was greatly distorted by segregation, and “his soul greatly scarred.” Dr. King’s advocacy was always a call to restore the relationships that were only possible when black Americans and white Americans stood equal before the law. His invocation of faith made clear that even white segregationists were worthy of the beloved community.
If we seek to build the beloved community over the next four years, how should Christian faith shape our political engagement? If we aspire to follow the examples of Lincoln and Dr. King, we cannot accept the reflexive demonization that increasingly seems to shape Americans’ struggle for justice. Political conflict is inescapable, but authentically Christian engagement must recognize that justice is not ultimately about power – it’s about relationship.

January 20, 2021 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Crown and the Courts