Justices need not be Protestant to do their jobs well
Q: If Elena Kagan is confirmed to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court would for the first time in its history be without a justice belonging to America's largest religious affiliations -- the Protestant traditions. If Kagan is confirmed, six of the justices will be Roman Catholic and three will be Jewish. Should the Supreme Court be more representative of America's religious traditions? Does religion matter in the mix of experience and expertise that a president seeks in a Supreme Court nominee?
As a Protestant, I am proud that our nation's Protestant founders gave us the gift of separation of Church and State. Thanks to their wisdom, for a Supreme Court nominee, just as for our elected representatives, the question of religion ought not to be a question at all.
A justice's religious tradition should not affect how he or she interprets the law, and consequently his or her religion should not have any bearing on the President's nomination or the Senate's decision to confirm.
Our nation was also built on the ideal that we are all equal before the law. Perhaps, in establishing this founding principle, our forefathers were inspired by the Protestant belief that we are equal before God. But no matter what the original inspiration, the implication is clear: in matters of government and the Court, our equality before the law trumps all else, including religion and the demands of identity politics.
And it's a good thing, too. If identity politics governed the makeup of the Court, we would be in quite a conundrum: Attempting to represent every religion in America on the Court would necessitate seats for hundreds of justices!
Much more important than these considerations is whether a justice upholds the central tenets of the American Constitution. One of these is equality before the law. Another is the core value of justice, which requires sensitivity to the vast variety of perspectives and circumstances present in our country.
For me, this respect for different beliefs and different experiences stems from my Protestant tradition. Just as I strive to love my neighbor, a justice should strive to understand and respect citizens from all walks of life.
However, these values are not exclusively Protestant. Elena Kagan, who is Jewish, stated clearly in her remarks on Monday that part of the Supreme Court's work as she sees it is "enabling all Americans, regardless of their background or their beliefs, to get a fair hearing and an equal chance at justice." This position mirrors my Protestant perspective.
So should American Protestants be worried if there is not a practicing Protestant on the Supreme Court? No.
All told, religious affiliation matters as much or as little as any other aspect of a justice's personal life, be it gender, race, socio-economic background -- we could go on and on. These aspects of a justice's life are less important than a fundamental respect for all who come before the Court and a deep commitment to equality before the law.
May 11, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
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