Thursday, December 10, 2009

Religion and Justice?

I just read an interesting Slate post about the religious composition of the US Supreme Court (mostly Catholic, partly Jewish, just a smidge of Protestant), and it reminded me of recent conversations I have had about the oral exam I had back in grad school for my second field (comparative politics), as part of my comprehensive exams.

I was asked in grad school whether any particular divide (race, religion, clan, religion, etc.) was particularly problematic for democratic politics.  And I choked (or panicked, I forget which).  I passed anyway but realized shortly afterwards that my answer would have been religion.  The other identities do not inherently imply different attitudes about policy and what is the role of the state in the society.  Religion does. 

So, should we be concerned that the majority of Americans do not have their religions represented on the Supreme Court?  No.  Of course, I say that as one of the un-represented (non-believers) but ethnically related to the over-represented Jewish types.  Still, I am not bothererd--but my reasoning is perhaps different than the judges and others offended by this question. 

Nope, I worry more about tyranny of the majority, and the Court is, I think (I am not a judicial or con law expert, nor do I play one on TV), part of the structures that prevents majorities from oppressing minorities.  Sure, it can fail spectacularly, only getting right in the 1950s and beyond the treatment of African-Americans, for instance.  But I don't mind Protestants being under-represented there when they are so over-represented in key positions in the House, Senate and White House. 

It is laughable for someone like Pat Buchanan (whose definition of justice is something like "just us") to suggest that Protestants, even or especially Evangelical Christians are under-represented in the US political system. 

The article does end on a note with which I am sympathetic:
Besides—and perhaps this is the real problem—for most of us, the Supreme Court itself is still America's church. The Constitution is its sacred text. And so the possibility that any one man's personal faith could override the law is more than just frightening. It's its own kind of heresy.
 Just like the Bible, the Constitution can be read a variety of ways, with people focusing on different parts.  The good news is that the Constitution can be corrected (equal protection, for instance) to make up for the short-sightedness or political compromises of the past.  Also, we tend not to stone the heretics.

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