Do evangelicals lack ‘intellectual heft’ for the Supreme Court?

(RNS) While evangelical scholars continue to address the important issues of the mind, we also need to be working more generally on the spirit we bring to public engagement.

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is sworn in to testify at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/James Lawler Duggan

(RNS) Some of us are curious about Neil Gorsuch’s religious convictions.

The new Supreme Court Justice was reared Catholic, but now attends Episcopal Church worship services. Is that evidence he now thinks of himself as a Protestant? Well, it isn’t clear. His wife is a devout Anglican — they met when he studied in England — and he may be accommodating himself to her Protestant preferences while still nurturing strong Catholic convictions.

Why the curiosity about this? It isn’t as if knowing the answer will add anything interesting to what we already know about his judicial philosophy.

The curiosity has to do with a minor historical point that is of interest mainly to folks like me, who actually go through the periodic reports listing the religious affiliations of members of Congress.

The present breakdown of the other justices on the Supreme Court is five Catholics and three Jews. Gorsuch filled the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia, who was a devout Catholic. The last Protestant justice was John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010.

In addition to my general interest in religious affiliations in public leadership, I do bring a special concern to this subject as an evangelical.

A few years ago, when the topic of Supreme Court appointments was much in the news, a commentator observed that while we evangelicals have a lot to say about judicial decisions, when it comes to choosing justices who have conservative religious views, the nod typically goes to Catholics. On questions of legal theory, the commentator observed, evangelicals lack the requisite “intellectual heft.”

That assessment has some plausibility, but it does beg for some qualifications. For one thing, there is one evangelical — a gifted judicial thinker — who has made the lists of possibilities in the recent past: Michael McConnell, who now teaches constitutional law at Stanford. He served for six years as judge in the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Plenty of “heft” there. And there are many bright and young evangelicals in the legal profession these days who show much promise.

What we evangelicals have to admit, however, is that more “intellectual heft” alone is not going to solve the problem of how we are seen in public life. While evangelical scholars continue to address the important issues of the mind, we also need to be working more generally on the spirit we bring to public engagement. We need more attention to the topic of a spirituality for Christian citizenship.

When I decided to write a book on civility in the early 1990s, I was stimulated in part by a brief comment I had come across from the prominent Lutheran scholar Martin Marty.

Many people today who are civil, he observed, do not have very strong convictions; and many who have strong convictions are not very civil. What the world needs, Marty said, is people with convicted civility.

This certainly cannot mean compromising our basic convictions. But it does mean recognizing that one of those basic convictions ought to be about how we act in the public square. The New Testament writers make this clear. To cite the Apostle Peter in his first Epistle: We must “honor everyone” and “seek peace and pursue it,” treating people with whom we disagree “with gentleness and reverence.”

To work at living up to those obligations as evangelicals would add some marvelous spiritual heft to the intellectual variety!

(Richard Mouw writes the Civil Evangelicalism column for RNS)

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