Month: June 2022

The importance of the judiciary

This excursion into the conservative perspective ends with the living American I believe best describes practical conservatism–the erasable George Will. Chapter 4 of The Conservative Sensibility is “The Judicial Supervision of Democracy,” a timely read in this era of Supreme Court shockwaves.

John Marshall was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801-1835. Will said, “Without George Washington, there would have been no country. Without Lincoln, a shattered nation would never have been reconnected with the Founders’ premises. The third most important American (was Marshall).”

His leadership established the judiciary as “the epicenter of constitutional government” as it “is perpetually poised to scrutinize the content and application of the laws.” Will said the tradition of “deference to court decisions is a tradition, a practice hallowed by reiteration.” Will continues:

“Paradoxically, the tradition was strengthened by the prestige that accrued to the court as result of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka school desegregation decision, which was far in advance of public opinion, not just in the South but nationally. The prestige came because the court acted without reference to public sentiments, and by doing so addressed an injustice with which majoritarian institutions could not then cope.”

The best principles transcend labels like “conservative,” “liberal,” and “progressive,” as in Nadine Strossen’s 1991 essay, “Supreme Court’s Role: Guarantor of Individual and Minority Group Rights,” New York Law School. See also her NYLS Profile.

“What government may not do”

In The Conservative Sensibility (p. xxvii), George Will asserts that American conservatism understood the new nation as free from a feudal past, … free from an established church and an entrenched aristocracy. … (and) receptive to intellectual pluralism….

Will said the American revolution did not attempt to define and deliver happiness … but set people free to define and pursue it as they please. Americans codified their Founding documents as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do to them….

In 2022, we’re learning about an agenda of some on the Supreme Court to revoke a series of human agency rights about birthing and one’s choice of a partner; and we’re learning more about an attempted coup to prevent the lawful agency of voters to effect the peaceful transfer of presidential power. With that as context, hear Will’s 2019 reflection about the importance of human agency:

the Founding experience was the result of, and affirmed the potency of, human agency. …America’s central government is … constructed to limit the discretion of those in power by balancing rival centers of power.

From “The Trump court limited women’s rights using 19th-century standards,” a perspective by Yale Law School professor Reva Siegel, The Washington Post, June 25, 2022

Natural rights

George Will, in The Conservative Sensibility, says the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “should be construed in the bright light cast by the Declaration’s affirmation of natural rights.” And, “a government constructed on the assumptions of natural rights must be limited government. The natural rights theory is that individuals in the state of nature possess rights that pre-exist government; that government is created for the limited purpose of securing those rights….” (p. xxix)

Will espouses (p. xxiv) “the exercise of natural rights within a spacious zone of personal sovereignty guaranteed by governments instituted to serve as guarantors of those rights.” I would include in that “spacious zone” a woman’s reproductive self-determination among the Declaration’s “self-evident” truths and “inalienable rights.”

Justice Robert Jackson said (p. xxiii), “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. …Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

Has Dobbs v. Jackson reduced the “spacious zone of personal sovereignty” for American women? Does Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion foreshadow further reductions in that “spacious zone?” Is this really a “conservative” decision, or does it launch a new era of intrusive government?

From “Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade ‘will have huge political ramifications,’” by Sarah Grucza, Harvard Kennedy School, June 24, 2022

This week’s theme word: Conservative

Anglo-Irish Edmund Burke (1729-1797) didn’t use the word conservative when he opposed the French revolution in 1790. But, his French disciples did, notably François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), whose 1818-1819 Le Conservateur supported the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.

By 1830, the word Conservative was adopted by a British political party. American conservatism was shaped by Russell Kirk (1918-1994), Barry Goldwater (1909-1998), William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008), Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and George Will (born 1941).

In 2020, Will voted for Joe Biden. His 600-page 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility didn’t include the name Donald Trump. He’s “a person without a party” because today’s republicans have turned away from conservative principles. See “Does ‘Conservatism’ Actually Mean Anything Anymore?

Tomorrow: Will Dobbs v. Jackson be a victory for conservatives or a victory for big government?

From “Jeff Flake Has Taken On Trump And The GOP, But Will It Matter?” by Jessica Taylor, NPR, April 8, 2017. (See also, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Review,” The Dartmouth Review, January 17, 2018.)

Sifting through the law for grace

In ecclesial times, theology students were first in university processionals. By 1976, the commencement procession was alphabetical. So, I was in one of Emory’s rear seats to hear Justice Harry Blackmun’s commencement speech. He is known also for writing the 1973 Roe v. Wade majority opinion.

Roe critics include Susan E. Wills’ “Ten Legal Reasons to Reject Roe” for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2003, and Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson. Among Dobbs critics is Ian Millhiser, who wrote “The end of Roe v. Wade, explained,” in Vox.

Roe and Dobbs will be remembered as two markers on a long and winding road toward peace around healthcare for women who face a difficult and sometimes excruciating ethical decision. I concur with the United Methodist Social Principles and Stephanie York Arnold’s personal statement.

Here’s a bell hooks quote from All About Love, and Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

Love heals. When we are wounded in the place where we would know love, it is difficult to imagine that love really has the power to change everything. No matter what has happened in our past, when we open our hearts to love we can live as if born again, not forgetting the past but seeing it in a new way, letting it live inside us in a new way. We go forward with the fresh insight that the past can no longer hurt us. Or if our past was one in which we were loved, we know that no matter the occasional presence of suffering in our lives we will return always to remembered calm and bliss. Mindful remembering lets us put the broken bits and pieces of our hearts together again. This is the way healing begins.

From “Jackie DeShannon’s ‘Put a Little Love in Your Heart,'” via YouTube

The pursuit of ethics

This is post #1000. The hard part is deciding what not to write about. Today’s world presents plenty of material, such as yesterday’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. Who are today’s great ethicists? Where does one go to learn about ethics? The Reputational Ranking of Philosophy PhD Programs has Harvard and M.I.T. tied for 9th place. The pursuit of ethics deserves a generous share of our best and brightest.

Circa 1975, I took an interdisciplinary course in Biomedical Ethics, with students and faculty from Emory University’s Schools of Medicine, Law and Theology. One issue was who gets kidney dialysis when machines were few. A medical professor said, “The one most impactful decision for renal health in America would be for McDonalds to put less salt on their french fries.”

Among the issues we discussed were organ transplants, Karen Ann Quinlan’s case, in vitro fertilization, and Roe v. Wade. Abortion remains our most difficult biomedical issue. I agree with those who say abortion should be legal and rare. I agree with the United Methodist position on this issue, beautifully and powerfully expressed by my pastor, Stephanie York Arnold.

From “The Supreme Court’s majority and dissent opinions on Dobbs reveal a massive schism,” by Bill Chappell and Nell Clark, NPR, June 24, 2022

When Dixie flipped

After visiting my aunt yesterday in East Tennessee, I phoned her siblings. My uncle, 81, recalled a family reunion where he was shunned because his Kentucky grandfather married into a family whose ancestors had been Confederates or Confederate sympathizers.

Lingering post-Civil War animosity in southern Appalachia took the form of Republican descendants of Union sympathizers versus Democratic descendants of Confederate sympathizers. The region was split evenly between the Dems, the GOP and Independents.

Party loyalties began to flip in 1964, when Goldwater swept the old South, culminating with Republican victories the 1994 midterm elections. That year Senator Richard Shelby switched parties. He was elected as a young Democrat. In January, he’ll retire as an old Republican.

Rusty Bowers‘ willingness to support Donald Trump in 2024 after his 2020 actions illustrates the depth of our partisan identities. Since yesterday, I’ve been humming The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It’s a song with a catchy tune and a fascinating history.

From “Behind the Song: The Band, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,'” by Rick Moore, American Songwriter,

A gift from Frances

Forty-nine years ago I began serving my second pastoral charge. This coincided with beginning seminary. It was a great “practicum.” The parishioners were patient and gracious as I tried to integrate academic material from schooI with the daily life of the parish.

One memorable soul was Frances. I visited her every week. She was homebound because she gave 24/7 care for Harvey, her husband, a stroke victim. She had to do everything for him. I never stayed long. My goal was brevity and frequency. Everyone knew Frances and loved her.

I wrote about Harvey’s death in a January, 2020 post. A few weeks after he died, Frances gave me a framed counted cross stitch Serenity Prayer which she had created. I was overwhelmed. She said, “That prayer kept me sane all the years I took care of Harvey.”

I kept Frances’ gift in my office through the years. Yesterday, I gave the prayer to my friend Bill, who is a stalwart Twelve-Step leader. I knew he would find a way to use it as he goes about the work of being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.

The now “vintage” pattern Frances used, available from Embroidery Outpost

Everyone is an interpreter

In a recent conversation with a friend about the current discussion among United Methodists around whether to disaffiliate from the denomination, a question was raised regarding the 1968 merger between the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church (which formed the United Methodist Church): “The principal controversy that has developed since the 1968 merger is the role of Scripture in determining beliefs.” In my view, the relationship between the 1968 merger and a growing divergence of biblical interpretations among United Methodists, was coincidental, not causative.

My friend and I also discussed the work of Adam Hamilton. Many people (I among them) have been helped by Adam Hamilton’s witness and writing. Some folks question his approach to biblical interpretation, which identifies (1) Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings … (2) Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time but are no longer binding. .. and (3) Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God. This leads to a natural question: “Who determines what is inspired Scripture and what is not?”

I agree with many of the Protestant reformers who insisted that every follower of Jesus has the right and the responsibility to read and interpret scripture for himself or herself. As a practical matter, everyone makes the interpretive distinctions Hamilton describes. Like it or not, admit it or not, everyone is an interpreter of scripture. Everyone gives different weight to various passages. While some may be intimidated by our responsibility as interpreters, I consider biblical study and the conversation around our various interpretations to be a holy and invigorating exercise.

From Companion to the Old Testament (notice the subtitle: “For the Interpreter within Each of Us”)

Dixie Cups

Some United Methodist congregations are discerning whether to disaffiliate from the denomination. I have many friends in congregations that will choose to remain and many friends in congregations that will choose to disaffiliate. Discernment has been going on for at least four years. COVID-19 interrupted the process, but many congregations have been clear about their decision for a long time. Now, they’re trying to determine the most gracious, and most economical way, to exit.

In a 2019 communion meditation at a Walk to Emmaus team meeting, I said that I will remain friends with those who stay and with those to leave. We are forever part of a larger, ecumenical table. At this late date in the disaffiliation process, and at age 71, I’m much more concerned about the division within our nation. I plan to spend the rest of my days naming and opposing the current radicalization in the Republican Party. We’re closer to civil war than I ever imagined possible. Listen to Texas.

Last week a friend shared with me a document produced by a local church that provides some historical background for one congregation’s discernment process. The document asserted that much of the current “theological divide” within the UMC is the result of the 1968 merger between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren: “On the surface, the merger seemed like a logical idea. But underneath, the merger triggered a number of differences almost immediately.”

As a pastor from 1970-2010, I never heard that theory about the 1968 merger. Our regional and cultural differences date to at least 1845, when the southern Methodists seceded from their northern siblings. I believe it’s more accurate to say that the 1939 merger that formed the Methodist Church, uniting the (northern) Methodist Episcopal Church, the (mostly northern) Methodist Protestant Church and the (southern) Methodist Episcopal Church, South was a merger that never fully “took.”

At the 1984 General Conference in Baltimore, I saw the old Confederacy in many votes. Delegation seating, by drawing lots, put the Northern Illinois Conference and the Alabama-West Florida Conference on adjacent rows. Numerous times, the Illinois delegates voted unanimously one way and the Alabama-West Florida delegates voted unanimously the other way. At one point, an Illinois delegate said in good humor, with much laughter by the Conference, “We’ve learned to drink from Dixie Cups.”

The 1939 merger healed some wounds of the Civil War, but our cultural differences have remained.

From “Divisions and Unifications in American Methodism,” Pitts Theological Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University