On Sermons and Supreme Court Justices
As I write this, I am preparing to preach tomorrow, a passage from Colossians 2 on the subject, “Don’t Follow the Rules”. As always, I’m excited to dig into what the text entails, ferret out its meaning as best I can, bridge its timeless truths into the 21st century context in which we find ourselves, and apply it to the lives of my friends.
And I got to thinking about the similarity between my task and that of Supreme Court justices. What I try to do–imperfectly because I am a frail human, and sometimes because even the best of Bible scholars aren’t totally certain–is to ascertain what the authors of Scripture, whom I believe were operating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, meant when they wrote what they wrote. I want to know the issues they were addressing in the ancient culture, and then find out exactly what they were saying, in context, to their audience. I remember that they were addressing a particular situation, and thus not writing TO us, but at the same time, that all Scripture was given FOR us. We, as it were, look over their shoulders as they write.
But the most basic task for me, as for any faithful preacher of the gospel, remains: what did the authors mean when they penned the text of Scripture? Get that wrong, and the whole sermon skews in any variety of different ways, none of them good. Parenthetically, and I don’t mean to pretend I am in a very scant minority, nor to disparage the good work of thousands of other faithful gospel proclaimers, but I would venture to say that getting that task wrong characterizes a significant percentage of pastors in America’s pulpits today. As the faithful Alistair Begg remarked at the beginning of his first-ever “Basics” Conference on expository preaching, “the reason a conference on expository preaching is needed so badly is that there is so much bad preaching.”
But I digress…so where, Harv, does your job and the work of the Justices align? It is surely in this basic way: the job of a Supreme Court Justice is to ferret out the original intent of the framers of the Constitution when they wrote it, and then apply it to contemporary situations. I’m not saying that’s always easy; in the text I preach tomorrow, there’s a word or three upon which commentators are divided as to its meaning. Similarly, two Justices with the very same commitments may, on occasion, differ on a minute detail of the original meaning. They may differ on how to apply it to the situation they face. They may find it difficult sometimes to weigh two compelling-but-competing interests in the application of the law. But where they should never, ever differ is upon their basic task: interpret the law according to the intent of those who wrote it.
Sadly, this perspective is not unanimous, and it is precisely this problem that leads to aberrant rulings that disregard the plain meaning of the Constitution, substituting some manner of “new perspectives” or “experiences” or what-have-you, under the guise of the Constitution being a “living document”. Or, as the inimitable Robert Bork put it (and I paraphrase), “I’m fine with the idea that the Constitution is a living document, but it is not a mutating one.”
We see, for instance, this confounded “reasoning”, this “mutated Constitution”, in the Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. People who don’t understand the function of the Constitution or the charge of Justices tend to applaud Roe (and fear its hoped-for overturning this summer) because they like the outcome. They aren’t interested in process, but merely in getting the results they want. The problem with this, of course, are many; ignoring the Constitutionally-assigned role of Justices, the Court has the authority to essentially declare whatever they deem conforms to contemporary norms to be “what the law ACTUALLY means”, and then NOBODY’s rights or protections are guaranteed. What you may love today, you may loathe tomorrow, and there’s little to stop activist judges from making of the law what they will.
So this brings us to Ketanji Brown Jackson. Much has been made of her being the first black woman nominee, and undoubtedly barring some deep dark revelation, the first black woman Justice. Anyone who makes it to the Court deserves a measure of congratulation, and she is no exception. She apparently has some impressive credentials, and even found some respect among some conservatives, at least compared to other possible choices. Though I didn’t hear it, she apparently gave a nice speech recently.
And of course, some have hailed the choice because of the “diversity” she brings, and the “different perspective” that, as a black woman, she ostensibly brings to the Court.
And therein lie the problems.
Diversity is, in the proper places, a good, even a wonderful, thing. I don’t “celebrate diversity”, because as a catch-all category, it stinks. I would not celebrate the “diversity” of an actual Nazi serving in Congress, a child-molester in the pulpit, or an unqualified person serving as president (ahem). On the other hand, we moved into our neighborhood and were happy that it can boast people of different colors, cultural heritages, belief systems, and ages, and while I would love for some of those belief systems to change–I don’t “celebrate” the existence of “diverse” religious beliefs I consider false–so long as they exist, it doesn’t bother me that people who hold them share our subdivision. And there are many, many other places and situations where diversity isn’t only valuable, it should be sought.
The Supreme Court is not one of those places, at least not per se.
Now, if everyone shared the same commitment, described above, to correct Constitutional interpretation, that’d be one thing. Sadly, they don’t, and that fact has wreaked havoc through the years of our nation’s history. It matters not the color or age or religious beliefs or cultural background of Ms. Jackson; what matters is her fidelity to the interpretation and application of the Constitution as it was understood by the framers. And no amount of “diverse experience” can atone for an absence of that.
Because here’s the truth: she’ll be replacing a man, Stephen Breyer, who did not have that commitment. Two or three current Justices did not either, nor did Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, or the “Notorious RBG”, and as such, none of them were good Justices, regardless of other fine qualities they might have had.
So what to make of Ms. Brown Jackson? Sadly, having been nominated by a President with little understanding of the critical nature of Constitutional interpretation, it’s doubtful she holds to the correct understanding of the role. And the fact that she brings a “diverse perspective” is of no more value than what type of car she drives. Now, conversely, were it to be true that she held to a right understanding of her role, I’d be thrilled. Frankly, were that the case, I would be tickled pink, had she eight sisters who held to the same Constitutionally fidelity, to have a Supreme Court made up of nine Brown siblings who interpreted the law rather than attempting to legislate from the bench; it’d be a considerable improvement over the bench’s current makeup.
And it doesn’t even matter what her personal positions are on issues; she could be pro-choice, a fan of big government, or go-down-the-list: if she rightly understood her role, the fact that her skin is brown and her gender is female is an utter irrelevance. Just interpret the Constitution as it is written.
And I’ll try my best to do the same with Colossians 2.