Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Pentecost Sunday: Different Christian Groups Emphasize Different Aspects

Today is Pentecost Sunday in the Western version of the ancient liturgical calendar in Christianity. (In Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecost is NEXT Sunday.) The Believers’ Church/Free Church tradition which includes my own Baptist heritage is not big on liturgical calendars, but I find that if Christians do not shape themselves by theological events as we move through time and space, then we will shape ourselves by secular ones (e.g., churches which celebrate nationalist or military-related holidays in their home countries–which have the effect of reducing the God of All Nations to a tribal deity).

When the Day of Pentecost came, they [i.e., the followers of Jesus] were all together in one place.  Suddenly, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 

Now, there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment because each one heard them speaking in their own language.  Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?  Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?  Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia [probably meaning the Roman province called Asia–roughly today’s Asia Minor], Phrygia, and Pamphilia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism) ; Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  Amazed and perplexed, they asked each other, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them, saying, “They have had too much wine!”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd, “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem! Let me explain this to you–listen carefully to what I say.  These men are not drunk as you suppose!  It’s only nine in the morning!  No, this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams;

Even on my bond-slaves, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.

I will show wonders in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood

before the coming of the great and glorious Day of the Lord.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Men of Israel, listen to this:  Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.  This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowlege; and you, with the help of wicked men, did put him to death by nailing him to a cross.  But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.  . . . [Skipping the rest of Peter’s Semon]

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  And Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–all whom the Lord our God will call.” [Acts 2: 1-39 NIV]

Differing groups of Christians put the emphasis of this day (and Acts 2) in differing places–all with good basis in the text:

  • Evangelists and missionaries stress the global mission of Christianity that began at Pentecost.  From the approximately 3000 who were saved that day to the numbers added daily that followed.
  • Some emphasize Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church,” i.e., when the broken followers of Jesus of Nazareth became a distinct entity called the church–even though not yet called “Christians.”
  • Those who stress the rootedness of Christianity in Judaism point out that this came on Pentecost (the 50th day after Jesus’ resurrection) during the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot (“Festival of Weeks”) which celebrates the giving of the Torah from God to Moses and is commemorated 50 days after the Exodus.  (This is why Jews from throughout the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem.)
  • Those who put extra emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., “Pentecostals and Charismatics”) focus on the speaking in tongues.
  • Eastern Orthodox and Holiness groups focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit as empowering to new lives of faithful discipleship.
  • Liberation theologians focus on the breakdown of barriers between various racial and ethnic groups and classes (bond and free) and even the healing of ageism and generation gaps.
  • Feminist theologians focus on the “sons and daughters” and “both men and women” –the equality in Spirit-guided service to God predicted by Joel and proclaimed by Peter as happening with this outpouring of the Spirit.
  • Trinitarians focus on the way the Spirit is given by God the Father and bears witness to the salvific work of Christ the Son.
  • Those who concentrate on small group formation for discipleship note that the empowerment of the Spirit came when the disciples were gathered all together and the continuing empowerment took place in continued daily breaking of bread together, prayer, and attention to the apostle’s teaching (today, Bible Study).

There are doubtless other emphases.  All that I have mentioned are legitimately rooted in this day.  I think any one emphasis without the others is unbalanced.

Happy Pentecost Sunday.  And, to Jewish friends, Happy Shavuot!

May 31, 2009 Posted by | Christian calendar, church, Holy Spirit, Jesus, liturgy, theology | 1 Comment

Why the Attacks on Empathy?

A president comes to the microphone and introduces his nominee to the Supreme Court to the world.  The president says, “I have followed this [nominee’s] career for some time, and he has excelled in everything that he has attempted. He is a delightful and warm, intelligent person who has great empathy and a wonderful sense of humor. He’s also a fiercely independent thinker with an excellent legal mind, who believes passionately in equal opportunity for all Americans. He will approach the cases that come before the Court with a commitment to deciding them fairly, as the facts and the law require.”  Obviously this was said by Pres. Barack H. Obama this past week about Judge Sonia Sotomayor and I’ve just changed the gender of the pronouns, right? Wrong.  The year was 1991.  The president was George H. W. Bush (R) and the nominee was (now) Justice Clarence Thomas!

About Thomas, Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), emphasized his compassion and understanding of the impact of the Supreme Court on the lives of ordinary Americans in arguing for his confirmation.

Similar remarks by conservatives can be found with regard to other Supreme Court nominees (and sitting justices) they admire, including Justices Scalia, and Alito.  So, why the attack on empathy now?

The lack of empathy in a person is a defining characteristic of sociopathy–the mental illness where a person “has no conscience” because is unable to look at the world except from the view of “what’s in it for me.”  Unlike other psychoses and neuroses, sociopathy has no outward signs of odd behavior.  That’s why sociopathic mass murderers can live next door to people without them ever suspecting the “quiet young man” of the capacity for incredible evil.  Judges are not “brains in glass jars,” nor are they robots–and we don’t want them to be.  Show me a judge without empathy and I’ll show you a monster who should be in a padded room, not in robes on a bench.

Empathy is not being ruled by emotion without regard to the letter of the law.  Nor is it weak pity or sympathy.  Rather, empathy is the ability to transcend one’s own viewpoint to see the perspective of others.  It is the mental ability to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins” as the ancient Native American saying puts it.  It is at the root of morality.

Recall our discussion on moral discernment.  There is a role, along with reasoning, for the passions, and the virtues. In his wonderful book, Virtuous Passions, my friend, Father Simon Harak, S.J. (a Palestinian Christian, Jesuit priest, pacifist, theologian, peace activist, and so much more) argues against the pop-psychology view that our emotions are neither good nor bad, only our actions are moral or immoral.  While there is some truth in the idea that if I do not act on my bad emotions, I am better than otherwise, that is not the whole story.  After all, if you recited to me the testimony of a child being abused and the emotion I felt was joy, or delight, you would (rightly) think that something is wrong with me morally–even if I never came CLOSE to harming a child.  (This is why modern folk should not be so quick to dismiss old-fashioned advice about watching the material we read or watch.  We need not take a Victorian prudish attitude toward all things erotic to be concerned about pornography, for instance, or the “torture porn” of many horror movies and TV shows like 24, and The Unit.)

Morality is more than emotion or passion. It includes learning how to reason morally, it includes attention to one’s loyalties and interests, one’s deepest convictions, and one’s perception of the situation, too.  But the passions, especially empathy, are the root of morality.

What does that have to do with judges?  Well, as I have said before,  legal reasoning has  much in common with moral reasoning.  [Aside:  I hate it when well meaning liberals and progressives cite the old chestnut that “you can’t legislate morality.”  Of course you can.  In fact, MOST laws uphold some view of morality.  A law against murder or torture or rape or robbery is “legislated morality.”  To say one cannot legislate morality is sheer idiocy.  And it isn’t even original with liberals or progressives.  The saying was first touted by conservative racists against efforts to end segregation–which they called “legislating morality.”  Now, it is true, that morality has more than legal dimensions and that it is neither wise nor practical to try to turn every moral principle into a law.  That way lies totalitarianism.  Clashes over what should or should not be legislated,  are either clashes between different moral conclusions (e.g., the abortion debate) or are clashes about the wisdom of outlawing some morally problematic behaviors (e.g., clashes over gambling statutes, debates over which drugs should be banned, etc.).  Even debates over the  amount and type of taxation are debates with MORAL dimensions.]  In The Audacity of Hope, then Senator Barack Obama specifically named empathy as the center of his own moral system and makes the claim that it is at the center of any democratic form of government–certainly of the American experiment.  One cannot understand the struggle of the Abolitionists against slavery, for instance, without seeing that it was their empathy–their ability to put themselves into the situation of others–that drove them.  The same is true for the struggle of the suffragists and other women’s rights movements, the struggle against child labor, and for unions and for worker safety, the struggle against segregation, etc.  Our great failures as a society (e.g., imprisoning Japanese Americans during WWII “on reason of race”), including our legal justifications for those failings (e.g., The Korematsu decision or Plessy v. Ferguson) are failures of empathy as much as they are failures of reasoning.  As a presidential candidate, Obama cited a lack of empathy as one of the reasons he voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts, saying that 95% of the time the law is clear and the case is clear–and conservatives, liberals, centrists, etc. all reach the same conclusion.  But in that 5%, judges need to be able to get beyond the words on the page to their impact on people’s lives. (Whether Obama is correct in his assessment of Chief Justice Roberts is a separate question from his point about empathy.)

I am not arguing that Judge Sotomayor should not be questioned deeply.  I don’t know, for instance, that the claim that she is emathetic is true.  For instance, I have not seen much evidence that George H.W. Bush was right in claiming that Clarence Thomas was a man of great empathy. I don’t think his judicial record reflects that at all.  But that’s different than claiming that empathy is something BAD in judges.  It is something good that we should WANT in judges.  I have no desire to replace human judges with Artificial Intelligence computers just programmed with exhaustive knowledge of the law.

An editorial in the conservative National Review claims that “empathy” is just a “liberal code word” for “judicial activism.”  (They said this even before they knew whom Obama planned to pick.) Well, first of all, there is evidence that conservative judges are more likely to be activists who “legislate from the bench” than liberal or centrist judges do.  But this also misses the number of times that conservatives have praised empathy and related virtues like compassion.  A good judge, especially an appellate judge or Supreme Court justice, needs MORE than empathy, but not less.

Nor does empathy mean agreement with the other whose perspective one seeks to understand.  If the kind of terrorism that is spawned by warped versions of Islam is ever to be stopped (apart from debates on what tools should be used to stop it), we in the West MUST seek to understand the motives that drive our foes.  Nor should we be satisfied with quick and shallow summaries such as “they hate our freedoms,” or “they are religious fanatics,” etc.  We have to strive to see the world as they see it, to see Western (especially U.S.) actions from their perspective–even if we NEVER share that perspective.  Similarly, a judge may be very empathetic with a convicted criminal and still think that justice and the public safety demand a very harsh sentence.  A judge may be empathetic with an overworked public defender and still demand that she be ready for trial at 9 a.m. the next day or very empathetic with a prosecutor whose case just went south not because of police misconduct and still demand that the accused be set free–even if she suspects the accused is actually guilty–because that’s the law.  Empathy is not automatic agreement.

When I was a teen, my Sunday School teacher was a crusty old man who happened to be judge in the Duval County Florida Circuit (i.e, felony) court.  He and I often disagreed since he was a Republican and I was, even then, a liberal Democrat in my sympathies.  He was known as a tough trial judge and I can attest to that since I later worked in his court as a bailiff while trying to discern whether my own path should be toward theology or law.  His reputation did NOT include showing much mercy or compassion from the bench, but this part of his reputation I would dispute. I saw this judge show compassion and mercy for all sides from the bench–while running a very strict courtroom.  While trying to discern my future path I asked him what quality a judge most needed. He didn’t hesitate:  “The same thing a minister most needs, Michael, empathy–a feel for the human condition both in the large picture and in individual cases.  The most brilliant legal mind without empathy would be a horror.” 

In fact, we know from history that this is the case.  For the Nazi judges who were tried after WWII at Nuremberg were precisely that:  brilliant legal minds who lacked sufficient empathy to understand the horror of what they were doing to Jews, Gypsies (Rom), communists, gays–and all dissenters from the “orthodoxy” of the Third Reich.   

Judge Sonia Sotomayor must be questioned deeply about all sorts of matters in her confirmation hearings–and I could wish that the public had more input.  I am not defending her nor trying to preclude vigorous hearings–that’s a constitutional DUTY of the U. S. Senate.  But put me down in praise of empathy as a REQUIREMENT for all judges.

And today, I will lift a prayer for the cultivation of empathy by EVERYONE in our society–even by empathy’s current critics.

May 31, 2009 Posted by | courts, judges, judicial philosophy, moral discernment, passions, virtues | 16 Comments

Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) Does the Right Thing

Since I am critical of the Republican Party on most issues, and of the conservative base of the GOP even more, I have made it a policy on this blog to note and praise every time I see something done by a Republican politician of which I approve. I have been accused of “knee jerk GOP hatred” which is not true. 

Today, Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) signed legislation increasing FL’s tobacco taxes by $1 per package of cigarettes.  Excellent!  It will help curb teen smoking and addiction and it will add $900 million per year to FL state revenues–which will offset the state’s Medicare costs and will help fund research into cancer cures!  Well done, Gov. Crist!

I especially highlight Crist’s actions here because they take some political courage (a virtue always in short supply in either major party).  You see,  Gov. Crist is running for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and this action is bound to be used against him–not by his Democratic opponent in the general election (which increasingly looks to be Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D-FL) ), but by his Republican primary challenger, Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is more conservative than Crist.  The rightwing of the GOP hates any and all taxes.  Crist is very popular in FL and will probably win the primary, but he is not all that popular with the conservative GOP base.  Rubio has been endorsed by national conservative Republican Mike Huckabee (formerly Gov. of Arkansas and former presidential candidate who is now a Fox News pundit) and by Jeb Bush, Jr., son of the former FL Gov. and nephew of George W. Bush.  There is no doubt that the GOP right will use today’s signing to brand Crist as a terrible tax hiker!  He had to know it, too.

So, here’s my hat tip to Gov. Crist for doing the right thing REGARDLESS of the risk.  Politicians of all parties take notice: This is what a spine looks like!

Update:  Of course, Crist had to follow this good deed with a kick in the teeth to injured workers!  Nice, Governor Suntan. I sure hope that your Democratic opponent for the U.S. Senate (probably Rep. Kendrick Meeks) highlights this nastiness in the general election!

May 29, 2009 Posted by | ethics, politics, taxes | 6 Comments

U.S. General: Prisoners Were Raped at Abu Ghraib

I’ve said all along that the torture the U.S. committed was more than so-called “waterboarding,” which used to be called “water torture.” Atrocities happen in every war and should always be prosecuted.  This is the first time in U.S. history, to my knowledge, that committing atrocities was POLICY! 

Now, a U.S. General, Maj. General Antonio Taguba, has said that the classified Abu-Ghraib photos show far worse abuse than we knew, including at least one picture of a U.S. soldier raping a female prisoner!!  Another shows a male translator (military or contractor?) raping a male prisoner!!  Other photos show such graphic abuse as sexual assaults on prisoners with objects, such as phosphorescent bulbs, truncheons, and a wire!!!!!

Years back, when Bush called the Abu Ghraib incidents the work of a “few bad apples,” Pvt. Linsay Graham Lynndie England  (shown in photos taunting nude male prisoners) claimed she was being punished for others’ crimes.  She spent 6 years in jail, but so far the rapists are free.  And now de-classified documents show that, far from being the work of a “few bad apples,” the Abu  Ghraib prisoner abuse in Iraq was the result of the “interrogation” program designed by Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, with the collusion of the Dept. of Justice under Ashcroft and the White House legal counsel with Gonzalez and Yoo, and first worked out at the prison in Guantanemo Bay.

THESE ARE WAR CRIMES.  They are war crimes designed at the highest levels  of the Bush government, possibly with the collusion of some high ranking Democrats.

DEMAND that Attorney General Holder appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute ALL who are responsible for these crimes!! 

Currently, in my state (Kentucky), a U.S. soldier has just received life imprisonment for rape and murder in Iraq.  I am glad to see justice done here. But this was a random atrocity of the type that so often happens in war (another argument for pacifism, in my view). It was not policy and not systematic.  The torture program WAS policy and not only the lower levels should pay the price.  Here is where I agree with Dick Cheney. He says he wants to spare the grunts “just following orders.” Fine. So, let’s indict the ones who gave the orders, INCLUDING CHENEY.

May 29, 2009 Posted by | torture | 6 Comments

Refuting Conservative Talking Points on Sotomayor

There may be REAL concerns for both conservatives and liberals about the nomination of Judge Sotomayor for SCOTUS.  I have questions and I’d be surprised if there was anyone who didn’t.  That’s why we have confirmation hearings.  But the rightwing noise machine (otherwise known as 2/3 of the mainstream media) is already throwing up numerous stupid talking points against her. Conservatives as well as liberals should quickly want to shut these up–because they will prevent discussion of real issues and could lead to such a backlash against opposition to Sotomayor that no real discussion of real issues happens.

  • Sotomayor is “not intelligent.”  This has been said by numerous talking heads, but the funniest version is by Karl Rove, the Bush campaign manager.  First, Rove never graduated from ANY college–something even AK Gov. Sarah Palin managed after transferring repeatedly.  Look it up. Rove has a high school education.  By contrast, Judge Sotomayor, who grew up in poverty in the Bronx, graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School as valedictorian in 1972.  She was on the school forensics (debate) team and school government.  She won an academic scholarship to Princeton University (one of the finest U.S. universities) where she graduated summa cum laude (with highest honors) and Phi Beta Kappa. She graduated Princeton SECOND in her entire class.  She then went to Yale University Law School (consistently rated the top law school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report) where she edited the Yale Law Review, again, something that only the top academic achievers get.  Rove says, “I know many stupid people who went to Ivy League schools.”  Well, he knows George W. Bush who got into Yale and then Harvard Business School (MBA) because of who his father was and then partied and made “Cs.” That doesn’t compare AT ALL to Sotomayor.  Attacking her intelligence is, frankly, stupid.
  • “The food she likes  (traditional Puerto Rican) could influence her judgments.”  Seriously? Her FOOD?
  • “She’s a reverse racist!”  This takes a speech out of context where she describes the way her ethnicityand gender naturally color her outlook.  But the full quote  shows that she CAUTIONS AGAINST being unduly influenced by her life story.  Life story and diverse perspective were cited as POSITIVES by Republicans when speaking about Justice Clarence Thomas’ blackness and childhood poverty and about Justice Alito’s childhood poverty and remembrance of the descrimination his ancestors faced as immigrants and Catholic.  When Alberto Gonzalez was up for Atty. General (and turned out to be one of the worst ever), conservatives specifically labelled any questioning of his qualifications or views as anti-Latino racism.  So this “reverse racist” label they are trying to hang on Sotomayor is going to backfire badly. (Update:  Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), the racist and xenophobic former candidate for president whose anti-immigrant rhetoric helped move Colorado out of Republican hands, is claiming that Judge Sotomayor is racist because she belongs to  La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization which Tancredo compares to the KKK!  In fact, La Raza, the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, is more like the NAACP.  Ask any Latino–La Raza is FAR from radical. It’s tame and only xenophobes like Tancredo who project their own racism on others would think otherwise.  How far is La Raza NOT a “Latino KKK?” Both Bush and Rove spoke to it before–back when the GOP was trying to win Latinos rather than alienate them.  Of course, John McCain was keynote speaker for ACORN one year before trying to make them public enemy number one during last year’s presidential campaign, so consistency is rare in politics!) 
  • “She’s hot tempered and a bully on the court.”  This rumor came from anonymous sources that Jeff Rosen of The New Republic claimed were from colleagues, clerks, etc.  It has been widely debunked and Rosen has backtracked. (Update: I had pushed “publish” instead of draft. I meant to include K. Gray’s claim that “negative assessments of her demeanor” are also entered in an official registry of judges, but I hadn’t had a chance to look that up. It still strikes me as a stupid talking points for the reasons that follow.) But let’s suppose it is true.  It is well known that Justice Scalia is a hot-tempered bully and no one claims that disqualifies him as a SCOTUS justice.  This is sexist stereotyping.  A man stands up for himself or argues forcefully for a viewpoint and is called “assertive.” A woman does the same thing and is called “aggressive,” “a pushy broad,” etc.  We are not deciding a personality contest here.
  • “She’s been reversed by the Supreme Court 60% of the time!” Umm, actually, as the SCOTUS justices themselves say, that’s an excellent record.  When Justice Alito was an appellate court judge, he was reversed by the SCOTUS 100% of the time! Judge Sotomayor has been the primary author of 380 decisions as a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals judge. 6 of them were appealed further to the SCOTUS.  2 of those decisions were reversed in full and a 3rd in part.  The average reversal rate is 75%, so Judge Sotomayor is ahead of the curve.
  • “She said that appellate judges make policy!” At a Dule Law School conference, Judge Sotomayor did say that,whether they want to or not, judges make policy where the law is not clear.  She was telling law students that the reason advocacy groups look for lawyers who have clerked with appeals court judges is because the appellate courts deal with broader issues of the law and, by their nature, make policy.  Is this controversial?  Maybe, but most would say that judges have made policy ever since in Marbury v. Madison the Supreme Court of the U.S. claimed the power of judicial review.  In fact, the two most conservative justices on the current SCOTUS, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito have made similar statements. Read them here.  Judge Sotomayor is clearly no judicial activist. Her most controversial ruling (about whether CT white firefighters were victims of reverse racism) actually shows an unwillingness to second guess CT’s legislators.  Nor is she some far left liberal.  A close examination of her record finds her to be VERY SIMILAR to Justice Souter whom she is replacing.
  • “Her name is too hard to pronounce!” This has been said by Mark Kirkorian!! Seriously, you want to go after Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s NAME??  (Similarly, Mike Huckabee (R-AR), the former AR Gov. turned Fox News host, called her “MARIA Sotomayor.” Right–because the only Puerto Ricans he knows are in West Side Story, right?)

C’mon, folks! Let’s quit this bozo stuff.  We should be asking REAL questions of Judge Sotomayor.  The following are a few:

  • On abortion (Yes, I brought it up):  Both pro-choice and pro-life groups seem to assume that Judge Sotomayor is pro-choice, but is this assumption justified?  She has only ruled on two abortion-related cases, but in both ruled in ways that pro-lifers should like better than pro-choicers.  In one case, she ruled that the Bush administration’s ban on federal money to international aid groups that fund abortions was constitutional, saying that the government had just as much right to favor pro-life positions as to favor pro-choice positions.  In the other case, she ruled against using racketeering laws to prevent anti-abortion groups from protesting outside abortion clinics.  Now, I think that both those rulings are reasonable, no matter what one’s view of abortion is.  But I think it would be fair for both pro-life and pro-choice folks to ask Judge Sotomayor to clarify her views.
  • On criminal law:  Judge Sotomayor has been a tough prosecutor and a tough trial judge. Her rulings as first a federal district judge and then a circuit appellate judge show a toughmindedness on crime.  In light of the way that the rights of defendants have been narrowed by the courts in recent decades, I’d like to know that Judge Sotomayor is strong on the rights of defendants.
  • On corporations versus individuals and the environment: Judge Sotomayor has been a litigator for international corporations working in the U.S.  Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne (in a column largely supportive of Sotomayor) thinks some of her rulings “will make Chambers of Commerce very happy.”  So, I’d like to know her views on labor law, on the liabilities of corporations, on corporate responsibility to communities and the environment, etc.
  • Church and state:  I want to know if Judge Sotomayor believes in the recent high court view that separation is not strict (no Lemon test) but must accomodate religion dominating the public square or (my view and the traditional Baptist one) must separation be strict?  On free exercise, does she support the older (better, in my view) that  the burden of proof must be on any law that would restrict religious free exercise? Or, does she go with the newfangled (bad) view that any law which is “facially neutral” to religion can still have the effect of restricting free exercise (usually of minority religions) and be legal?  Justice Souter was a great friend of religious liberty and church-state separation and I’d hope his successor will be at least as strong.
  • Executive power:  The Bush administration made far reaching claims of executive power that seemed to diminish the authority of the other two branches of government.  This has not fully snapped back into balance under Obama.  I’d hope Judge Sotomayor would want to restore our checks and balances between 3 separate and equal branches of government.
  • I want to ask whether judge Sotomayor believes indefinite detention without trial is legal.  What her view of “waterboarding” is and whether those who commit war crimes should be prosecuted–no matter what position they held in government.

There are many other real issues.  They’re quickly getting lost in these stupid attacks.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Law & Theology Degrees

In our complex world where religion, philosophy, law, and public policy all often overlap, there is a need for ministerss with legal training and lawyers with training in religious studies or theology.  For instance, my friend, J. Brent Walker, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, is both a lawyer and a minister. (I met Brent when we were both M.Div. students at the once great Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pre-fundamentalist takeover.  Brent managed to earn both a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Florida (Gainesville) without having his brains turned to mush–something almost incomprehensible to a Florida State University (Tallahassee) alumnus like me. 🙂 Then he earned his law degree (J.D.) at Stetson University School of Law before earning his M.Div. at SBTS. )

So, at least here in the U.S., some institutions have begun to offer joint religion/law or theology/law degrees.  Here are a few of the better ones for those interested.  I have not ranked them in any particular order.

Wake Forest University has two programs involving joint degrees from the WFU Law School and WFU Divinity School.  One is a joint J.D./M.A. (Religious Studies) degree and the other is a joint J.D./M.Div. degree.

Emory University Law School has three joint degrees in its “Law and Religion” Program, all involving the juris doctor law degree.  Two of these joint degrees, the J.D./M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies), and the J.D./M.Div. (Master of Divinity–the basic seminary degree for ordination in most denominations in the U.S., equivalent to the B.D. in Commonwealth nations), are run jointly with the Law School and Emory’s Candler School of Theology.  The third joint degree, the J.D./Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in Religion) is conducted jointly with Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion in its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Duke University Law School offers a J.D./M.A. joint degree in numerous studies, including religion, through the Graduate School.  It also offers the J.D./Ph.D. in either philosophy or political science.

The University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law offers a joint J.D./Ph.D. program in Religion and Social Ethics that is VERY strong.

If anyone knows of other joint law and theology programs, please let me know.

Update:  From the comments:

Vanderbilt University Law School also offers both joint J.D/M.Div and J.D./M.T.S. degrees in conjunction with Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

A Master of Divinity and Law degree is jointly offered by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law (named after the famed Supreme Court justice Louis B. Brandeis).

Baylor University offers a unique program through its J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies which I hesitated to include because they do not include a law degree, but the interdisciplinary degrees offered at both the M.A. and Ph.D. levels involve work with theologians, jurists and legal scholars, sociologists, historians, and political scientists.  It is truly unique.  (The Dawson Institute also  publishes the great Journal of Church and State which, long ago, published my first academic writing–an article on Bonhoeffer and Human Rights.  It has since published two  other of my articles and hasn’t seemed to suffer too much in circulation as a result. 🙂 ) Although named after the great Baptist J.M. Dawson, a very strict church-state separationist, the institute’s scholars include those of a more “accomadationist” outlook and publish and encourage debate between widely differing views of church-state relations (since it is an educational institution and not an advocacy group).  It includes the Center for Constitutional Studies and the Islam and Democracy Project and it works closely with Baylor’s Center for Jewish Studies (which used to be called the Center for Jewish and American  Studies).  (Yes, a Baptist university in deep Texas is the first explicitly Christian university in North America to have a Center for Jewish Studies–run by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis.  Ellis is not a Jewish Christian, but an orthodox Jew–but he is nevertheless controversial because in his strong push for Middle East peace he has been far more critical of the State of Israel than is common among Jewish theologians.  He has also said that some version of “Holocaust theology” have ended up justifying the occupation  and oppression of Jewish people.  Obviously, Baylor did not appoint Ellis in an attempt to stave off controversy!)

I have not listed them here, since I am mostly fascinated by the  intersection of religion/theology, law, and politics, but many law schools list other kinds of dual degrees, including dual degrees in law and business, law and social work, law and political science, law and public health, and law and medicine.  (The brains it would take to earn a joint J.D./M.D. degree floors me!)

May 28, 2009 Posted by | education, law, theological education, theology | 8 Comments

A Brief Note on Abortion Discussions

I am tired of every subject on this blog being compared to abortion.  Seamless Garment folks believe that all life issues should be judged the same.  I respect this view and once held it, but have already noted why I think that the differences between abortion, war, the death penalty, euthanasia, etc. are at least as important as the similarities.  My core conviction is not “life” but human personhood.  You may disagree with that.

But I am tired of every subject, from war to torture, etc. being used by some commenters to try to turn things back to a discussion of abortion.  Quit it. If it keeps up, I will start banning those engaging in this tactic. 

I may be wrong in my reluctantly and narrowly pro-choice position.  But you will not convince me by trying to bring it up at every opportunity.  Instead, all you will do is make me unwilling to engage you on ANY subject.  That’s what “one-note-charlie” folks don’t seem to understand.  You lose more people than you gain by such tactics. 

Even when I considered myself a seamless garment person, I did not consider abortion to be THE issue that overrides all others.  I did not and do not agree with picking judges and SCOTUS justices based on the likelihood that they will or will not overturn <i>Roe v. Wade</i> because of my experience that most judges who oppose <i>Roe</i> also have far right views on numerous other legal matters–and they are rightwing judicial activists who attempt to turn back the legal clock on numerous matters.  So, when I did oppose <i>Roe</i>, I believed that it should be overturned not by stacking the SCOTUS with far-right ideologues like the late Chief Justice Renquist (a racist who believed that <i>Brown v. Board of Education</i> had been wrongly decided), and justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts (who clearly lied in his senate testimony), but by amending the Constitution.  That would ban abortion while not radically disturbing 50+ years of legal precedent.

I also am increasingly of the opinion that the Republican ESTABLISHMENT (as opposed to the GOP grassroots) is not really interested in banning abortion.  They just want to raise money on the issue and use the issue as a wedge in campaigns.  From 2001 to 2006, the GOP controlled all 3 branches of the U.S. government, but made ZERO efforts to overturn <i>Roe v. Wade</i>.

Just as Democrats knew that  any justice nominated by Pres. Bush would be conservative and pro-life and could only work to try to get the best nominee possible  within such a framework, so Republicans HAD to know that Obama would appoint a pro-choice justice for SCOTUS.  It was a foregone conclusion.   It also does not change the dynamics of the court on this issue.  You still  have four (4) strong justices against abortion (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito) and four (4) strong  justices for upholding <i>Roe v. Wade</i> (Ginsburg, Breyer, Stevens, and Sotomayor) and one swing vote (Kennedy) who is more conservative than liberal.  With a good case, anti-abortion choice folks could now, just as for the last 9 years, overturn <i>Roe v. Wade</i> on a 5-4 ruling.  So, why aren’t they trying?  Sotomayor’s nomination changes nothing in this regard.  (Nor is any Obama nomination in this 4 year term likely to do so since the other justices who might retire this term, Stevens & Ginsburg, are already on the liberal side.  Only if one of the conservative justices retire–and they are relatively young and most in good health–is any Obama pick going to make ANY difference on <i>Roe v. Wade</i>.  That would NOT have been the case if John McCain had won last November, however.   My guess is that no conservative justice will retire until 2012 at the earliest and then it is likely to be either Kennedy, the eldest of the conservatives, or Thomas, who simply does not look in good health and who does not seem to like the work anymore.  )

P.S.  Regarding Judge Sotomayor, it is probably pro-choicers who should ask more questions at her hearing.  She has ruled on only 1 case regarding abortion (Center for Reproductive Policy v. Bush 2002)  and, in it, she UPHELD the Bush-era “Mexico City Rule” that refused government funding to international relief and aid groups that funded abortions.  Judge Sotomayor ruled that this policy did not violate the constitution’s equal protection clause because “the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position and can do so with public funds.”  This is hardly a ruling that would thrill members of the National Abortion Rights Action League or the ACLU’s section on reproductive choice.  One ruling does not show an overall attitude toward abortion, but it shows that anti-abortion groups have more reason to be cautiously optimistic about this nominee than do pro-choice groups.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | abortion | 11 Comments

Obama Nominates Judge Sonia Sotomayor to SCOTUS

SotommayorWell, I was wrong.  The conventional wisdom said that Obama would pick a Latina, adding another woman and the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court of the U.S. in one fell swoop–and the only person fitting such a description that also had the legal qualifications and experience was Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.  So, she was widely rumored as a frontrunner and the right actually began a whisper campaign against her the moment that Justice David Souter announced his retirement at the end of this term of the Supreme Court–before anyone was nominated.


But I was convinced that Judge Sotomayor was too obvious a choice.  Obama has picked surprising people to fill his cabinet posts (people are STILL surprised that he picked his arch-rival Hillary Clinton to become Secretary of State!) and, althought he has sought major diversity, has never picked just to have an affirmative action choice.  I thought he certainly wanted someone who was NOT an appellate judge, but a working politician.  So, I thought Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) of Michigan had  the inside track.  Also, despite the screams of the right, Judge Sotomayor is fairly centrist–not much more liberal  than Justice Souter whom she’d be replacing, and so I thought Obama would save her for replacing a conservative–that he would pick a strong liberal to replace Souter.

I was wrong.  Judge Sotomayor is the nominee. Obama wants her confirmed before the August recess of Congress, so that she will be ready to go when the SCOTUS begins its fall term on the first Monday in October.  I think the GOP will try to drag it out to September, but I don’t think they have the votes to block her confirmation.  She was nominated first for the federal bench by Pres. George H. W. Bush and then elevated to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals by Pres. Bill Clinton. So, Judge Sotomayor has twice been confirmed by the senate already.  Seven (7) Republican senators voted for her confirmation in ’97.  So, it will be hard to keep her off the Supreme Court.  But the Right is already trying.  The confirmation hearings will be nasty.

My one real concern is that with Sotomayor, 6 of the 9 SCOTUS justices will be Catholic.  The remaining 3 will be two Jews and one Protestant (John Paul Stevens, the oldest Justice serving).  In a country where Protestants are still a plurality, if no longer a strict majority, this is a very Catholic-dominated court.  There are 11 Catholics who have been on the SCOTUS in U.S. history–and 5 of those 11 are still serving.  This worries me some on church-state issues where Catholics have tended to support positions that I would consider violations of the 1st Amendment’s ban on all laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”  I haven’t seen an analysis of Judge Sotomayor’s church–state decisions but would like to do so. 

Obama is likely to have 1-2 more Supreme Court picks this term and, if he is reelected, at least 1 more pick in his 2nd term.  I hope the others are more liberal and are not Catholic.

Bio:  Judge Sonia  Sotomayor is 54.  Her parents came from Puerto Rico during WWII and both were working class people.  She grew up in the Bronx, NY and first became interested in the law as a girl reading “Nancy Drew” mysteries.  When she was diagnosed with childhood onset diabetes at age 8, she was told that diabetics did not have the physical stamina to become police officers or private investigators (not true). So, she became a judge.  She graduated from Princeton University in 1976 summa cum laude.  (So much for those who claim she is not intelligent!) She then graduated from Yale University Law School in 1979 after serving as editor of the Yale Law Review.  She has been a NYC prosecutor and a civil litigator for international corporations operating in the U.S.  She has been a trial judge and, when replacing Souter, will be the only member of SCOTUS who has served as a trial judge.  She has been a state appellate judge (appointed in 1991 by Pres. George H.W. Bush) and a Circuit Court appellate judge (appointed in 1997 by Pres. Bill Clinton).  Her name was previously floated as a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O’Conner when she retired from SCOTUS in ‘ 05.

This article shows convincingly that, although the rightwing noise machine will complain loudly about her nomination, they don’t have the votes to prevent her from being confirmed (or even to filibuster her nomination) –unless a major scandal would be uncovered (highly unlikely).  And Republican Senators like Mitch McConnell are on record as opposing the filibustering of judicial nominees–calling it obstructionist.  This won’t prevent them from reversing themselves now, but we can show them to be absolute hypocrites when they do reverse themselves.

Update:  The Senate Judiciary Committee  has just released its questionaire for Judge Sotomayor.  After she has filled it out, they will release her answers.  I indicated my questions for any replacement for Souter here.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, courts, judges, judicial philosophy, law | 24 Comments

Supreme Injustice in CA: Prop 8 Upheld

As expected (and dreaded by GLBT folks and allies), the California Supreme Court rejected arguments that ballot initiative “Proposition 8” passed last Nov. was more than an amendement, but a revision of the California Constitution.  If that argument had prevailed, Prop. 8., which bans same-sex marriage, would have been struck down since revisions cannot be made by ballot initiative alone, but must go through the state legislature.  The CA Supreme Court Judges, even those voting originally that the state constitution guaranteed marital equality, had indicated back in January during oral arguments that they were not open to the “revision” vs. “amendment” distinction.  The really bad news is that they relied on the argument of Prop. 8 litigator Ken Starr (of Monica-gate infamy!) that because the rights of convicted felons to vote can be stripped, so also can previously recognized rights of gay and lesbians be stripped from them.  Great. In effect, the court has just criminalized gayness.

However, the justices also ruled that the 18,000 same-sex marriages that took place in CA during the few short months of its legality (May-Nov. 2008) would remain valid.  As a gay friend (a pastor and fellow member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship) from CA emailed me:  This now creates a system in which some 18,000 gay couples in CA are in a situation analogous to that of free blacks in slave states before the U.S. Civil War–having rights denied to others “of their kind.”

This is not the last word.  Prop 8. supporters will work to get the marriages undone, too.  But  polling since last Nov. shows that Prop. 8 would probably fail (narrowly) if it were re-voted.   Marriage equality has gained ground since last Nov.  So, supporters of marriage equality will seek to undo Prop. 8 legislatively.  I think they will succeed, but if this is to stop going back and forth, I think CA may need a major constitutional overhaul which strengthens equal protections and makes it harder to strip rights from people.

This is one of the enduring tensions in the American form of government:  a democratic republic ordinarily means “majority rule.”  But the Framers of the Constitution also sought to protect the rights of minorities–to defend human rights and civil liberties against “majorities of the moment,” and “mob rule.”  Who and what is protected has been a debate for nearly 200 years, now.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | civil liberties, courts, democracy, GLBT issues, homosexuality, human rights., Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Obama’s Attempts at a “New Governing Coalition” Could Sew Seeds of its Own Demise

Columnist E. J. Dionne (whom I have long admired) outlines what he calls the “Obama Center-Left Two-Step.”  It’s worth reading.  Obama is attempting (and apparently succeeding) at isolating the far right and creating a new governing establishment that includes moderate-conservatives, centrists, and liberals/progressives.  But his way of doing this seems keep progressives permanently unhappy–and it depends on a tough foreign policy that, like the liberal establishment of JFK and LBJ, contains the seeds of its own destruction.  It is a revival of “cold war liberalism” for a new era. 

As Dionne points out, even if Obama is successful, this vision is BOTH hopeful and worrying.

P.S.: Of course, to hear most conservatives talk, liberals have actually run most everything all along despite (so the right claims) the fact that this is a “center-right nation” (extensive polling to the contrary) and the fact that from January 2001 to January 2007 far right Republicans controlled all three branches of the U.S. government.  The right still controls most of the mainstream media while still talking as if the media has a liberal bias– a bias last seen about 1984.

May 25, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | 3 Comments