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

Do evangelicals lack 'intellectual heft' for the Supreme Court?

(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)


  1. This is the only thing that matters: If Gorsuch follows Chief Justice Marshall’s historical-critical logical method for determining the meaning of the Constitution.

    “The single question for consideration is whether the act of the State of _____ is consistent with or repugnant to the Constitution of the United States?…To say that the INTENTION of the instrument must prevail; that this intention must be collected from its WORDS; that its words are to be understood in that sense in which they are generally used by THOSE for whom the instrument was INTENDED; that its provisions are neither to be restricted into insignificance NOR extended to objects not comprehended in them, nor contemplated by its framers is to repeat what has been already said more at large and is all that can be necessary.”

  2. Evangelicalism, in my opinion, is counter to our secular Constitution so I am pleased there are none on the Supreme Court.

  3. Not quite. Law is not Bible study. We do not interpret the law by clairvoyance or making arbitrary arguments as to how the 18th Century mind worked. Precedence is applied. The law is interpreted and review in accordance with Constitutional principles to apply to the conflict on hand.

    215 years of judicial review in a common law legal system have functioned quite well. Originalism” and “the intention of the founders” is a dishonest crock.

  4. You shouldn’t worry about laws of the present day but the sin that determines your eternity. B1Jetmetch

  5. “James…James, where the devil are you, James!”
    “Why, I’m over here.”
    “What are you doing?”
    “Look, Tom, I’m doing what I always do at this time of the day – I’m watching DIY. You know that. What’s the problem?”
    “Oh, some whippersnapper from the 21st century is slandering our work, that’s the problem. I heard he said, “Originalism” and “the intention of the founders” is a dishonest crock.”
    “He said that, did he. Where’s my horsewhip. I’ll show him a…”
    “No, no, no James. That will never do.”
    “What then, Tom?”
    “Give him a copy of The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk. If that doesn’t cure him, nothing will.”
    “But can he read?”
    “Good question – it is the 21st century, you know. Critical thinking skills are in short supply.”

  6. Merely your point of view as a legal argument…it ain’t necessarily so.

  7. Very funny and a commendable recommendation with respect to the volume you suggested, but probably to no practical effect in this case. Spuddie will doubtless enumerate a host of reasons why Mr. Kirk’s arguments are invalid.

  8. But…but…but… what about diversity? Oh dear me.

  9. But against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. Mark Twain

  10. Or more likely just two. One, they’re “dishonest.” Two, they’re not “sane.” End of Spud’s powers of argumentation.

  11. Just a point of view. Nothing “legal” about it. There is no federal common law at all (the Erie vs. Tompkins case). The SCOTUS is only authorized to review laws against a statute (the Constitution), and statutory construction by definition requires attention to the plain meaning of the text and the purposes for which the people enacted it.

    To call the classic rules of statutory construction “a dishonest crock” is the legal equivalent of “math is stupid.”

  12. Only the cross will. Everything else, not so much.

  13. Amen!
    I Cor. 1:18 For to those who are perishing, the preaching of the cross is foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
    19 For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”

    23 But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. 24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, we preach Christ as the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

  14. I believe a little historical insight might be helpful:

    The Anglican Church, from which the Episcopal Church descended, was neither Catholic nor Protestant. Henry VIII kicked out the Catholics and their pope because he wanted to be pope himself! The Anglicans evolved into being the best of both worlds.

    Whatever the Episcopal Church may be today, not even the “low church” variety could be considered evangelical!

  15. If Evangelicals want to be taken seriously again in the public square by the general public at large, then they ought not to compromise their moral integrity by voting in large numbers for a presidential candidate who is anathema to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  16. Separation of church and state.

  17. Whatever happened to Liberal Protestants? Don’t they deserve a seat on the Court? The present court is too heavily weighed in favor of Catholics.

  18. Evangelicalism is a “wide” country with a left and a right coast but a huge heartland, Jim. Most evangelicals are secular enough to not insist on teaching the bible in schools other than as literature. But I do remember those palmy days when Mrs. McQ. would start the day off with a text of scripture and a nonsectarian prayer. Those were good days.

  19. What about it? If an Evangelical jurist is the best pick for the job, so be it. I never said they shouldn’t be on the court – I’m just personally pleased there aren’t too many.☺

  20. Unless someone can prove otherwise my eternity will be a dirt nap – from dust to dust.

  21. Har har. You ever read the gospels? I suggest you start with the Sermon on the Mount. Its focus is not on pussy-grabbing.

  22. Nor are their focus on coke snorting and weed smoking.

  23. I wouldn’t count on that Jim.

  24. We have three justices who disagree with me. We have 216 years worth of justices who do not.

  25. You speak for the dead! Burn the witch!

  26. okay, well you’ve shifted from none to ‘aren’t too many.’ The article seems to be asking, “Why not one?”

  27. If we are going by intention, then the right to bear arms should be limited to muskets.

  28. “Evangelical” is kind of like code for “takes all that stuff in the Bible seriously.” Jesus said the world hated him and would hate his disciples, so it’s not surprising that most Americans would consider an Evangelical unacceptable. I don’t think a lack of civility has anything to do with it, unless “civility” is code for “not taking all that stuff in the Bible seriously.”

  29. I am quite sure the number of past justices who would disagree with you extend far beyond the present three you cite. Your assertion is so fanciful it is hard to take it seriously.

  30. Actually, I expected you to offer the suggestion that a Muslim, Atheist, etc., might better meet the criteria for diversity on the Court. I have no prerequisites to suggest with respect to the moral philosophy of a jurist as long as they are solidly grounded in constitutional law. But the very fact that the Nine in question of whatever era can find unanimity only in rare instances says something about that.

  31. Or claiming to repeal the Law of Gravity and then wanting to arrest people for trespass. But then you don’t have to convince me, the common target is Spuddie. : )

  32. You have just cited my favorite American author and humorist, though I regret that Mr. Twain seems to have , albeit reluctantly, rejected God.

  33. Yes it is true. But I still like him best of all American authors. His wife tho was a believer.

  34. “Originalism” is a fairly original idea for the Supreme Court. Dating not much further back than the last 20-30 years or so. Its a way to pretend concepts of the 14th Amendment should not be considered and an excuse to skew decisions away from considering useful past interpretations.

  35. “To call the classic rules of statutory construction “a dishonest crock” is the legal equivalent of “math is stupid.”

    Great analogy! Love it!

  36. Martin Marty is a Lutheran? That means Martin Lutheran and Jonathan the Baptist both contribute to RNS. I don’t know why that sounds funny and makes me laugh a little on the inside.

  37. So when did you die? Are you a zombie? That would explain a lot!

  38. “Evangelical” is kind of like code for “takes all that stuff in the Bible seriously.”

    Well that is the perception they want to project. But in reality it is code for “uses the Bible to avoid responsibility for their own personal views and behavior”.

    People don’t like them because they come off as nosy, passive aggressive, dishonest, sanctimonious hypocrites. People who rely on proof texting the Bible to excuse acting badly in public and lack of respect for personal boundaries.

  39. Oh nonsense. Thomas Jefferson described originalism perfectly in 1823. As did Chief Justice John Marshall even earlier than that (1803). And the father of the constitution himself, James Madison, said it best of all: “I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that be not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable exercise of its powers”

    It simply wasn’t called “originalism” then because the nation had not yet had to deal with decades of judicial usurpation. It was simply common-sense stautory construction that everyone took for granted.

  40. Christ died for me, and left me His word, Spud. It’s all there. BTW – He also returned in the flesh and ascended to Heaven to prove that sin had no reign on Him. What about you?

  41. But you didn’t. So you are getting it a little second hand and long after the fact. 🙂

  42. Me. Obama is certainly a more moral politician than any Republican nominee for President since Eisenhower

  43. Not for anybody not S str8 white male

  44. No. He rejected fundamentalism. He never would’ve been admitted to his lodge if he were a non-theist.

  45. The problem is the so-called evangelicals just cherry pick scripture to claim god hates the same people they do.

  46. What a coinkidink! I said that very thing to a coworker today about Ike being the most moral potus in my memory. But BO being moral – nope. Dope smoking, coke snorting liar-in-chief. Other than that he is probably an okay guy. He’s one of those “do as i say not as i do” kind of guys.

  47. You miss Mouw’s point. He’s saying the decision makers don’t believe graduates of evangelical universities couldpossibly have the intellectual rigor of Catholic & Jewish legal scholars. But the decision makers are right: for instance, anyone who does not believe in evolution is by definition either a dupe or a prevaricating manipulator

  48. The commands of Christ are important. To paraphrase you: if you don’t want to trust and obey Christ don’t profess to be a Christian and if you don’t want to be confronted about your sin don’t go to a conservative gospel preaching bible teaching church. Just that simple.

  49. C’mon, admit it, you liked it. I saw that little smile – oh that wasn’t a smile? A smirk. Hmmmm. Oh well, I tried.

  50. No, he rejected Christianity. You don’t know your Twain history.

  51. “cherry pick scripture” Kind of like you do?

  52. As apt to confrontation as Twain was, nonetheless it would not have been beyond him to dissemble on the question of God if it would gain him the entrée he sought with a particular society. Which only reinforces my argument against Twain’s belief in any form of theism. If Twain believed in God, he certainly disapproved of Him. I base this on a lifelong study of Mr. Twain and his works.

  53. I understand the conflict that has arisen regarding the application of the 14th Amendment, and it is apparently a vexing one. But your reply does not address my point that whenever the time, and whatever the place, unanimity has not been a hallmark of SCOTUS at any time, which tells me that constitutionality is often in the eye of the beholder in practical terms, rather than in objective assessment of the law. I find originalism as good an argument as any. It is plain, simple, and is common sense, as ably argued by Shawnie5.

  54. Yet I’ve read that Twain’s skepticism had a deleterious effect on her faith.

  55. Pretending to divine the intent of the founders as a legal argument rather than forgoing analysis of arguments and interpretations is a break from how SCOTUS (or any US Court) has always operated. Originalism is an original idea, not some kind of tradition or even something considered a good faith method of analysis. Its a tactic used to come up with interpretations which generally deliberately ignore civil liberties issues. Our common law legal system was designed on the notion of judge made law, precedent. It can’t be so easily ignored and considered a good faith form of analysis.

  56. Probably so. His later life was filled with sorrow. He lost his wife and two of his 3 daughters. Although his comments about death appear to reveal a man who takes a humorous view of death the loss of his beloved wife and daughters shows a different man: inconsolable, brokenhearted, despondent.
    Paul the Apostle shows a different approach to death:
    II Tim. 4:7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, and I have kept the faith. 8 From now on a crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.

  57. Often fundamentalists accuse persons of character of rejecting deity but what we reject is fundamentslism.

  58. You don’t know the meaning of Christianity. yOu won’t find it at a right wing church

  59. John 14:6 and Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but through Me.
    I think l know a little more about Christianity than you think I do.
    I believe what Jesus said about Himself – do you?

  60. If all you’re saying here, Richard Mouw, is that when “the Apostle Peter in his first Epistle” exhorts his disciples to “‘honor everyone … seek peace and pursue it’ … disagree ‘with gentleness and reverence'”, that sounds like the stuffs of “convicted civility” to you, as defined by Martin Marty, that’s FINE. Right or wrong, neo-Evangelical or not, it’s up to you how you receive the words of your apostle, one of the original apostles of Christ Jesus to all Jews and Gentiles for all times.

    But if you’re tempted to mislead your readers into thinking that apostle Peter’s letters to his disciples from back then until now and into the future, were (all) “about how we act in the public square” – in accordance with your theological and ethical definition of “the public square”, that’s TOTALLY NOT FINE. Stop neo-Evangelicalizing apostle Peter, when all he was trying to do was evangelizing you to become crucified, buried and resurrected with his crucified, buried and resurrected Master. That’s all that mattered to him. Not this business with your “public square” stuffs.

  61. Excellent citation, and this is precisely why I mourn M. Twain. He would have made a fine Christian had he so chosen. Another excellent raconteur of more recent vintage, who to my mind is a 21st Century Twain, is P.J. O’Rourke. P.J. professes Christianity, but largely as a cultural impress on the margins of the Left, though politically he is much more the Libertarian.

  62. You still haven’t addressed the question of the historical failure to achieve greater unanimity on the Court, despite (generally speaking) the best legal minds being appointed to it.

  63. Twain, as I have read, was greatly influenced by Auguste Comte’s logical positivism. But he did retain some vestiges of religious understanding: for eg. Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.
    – Mark Twain

  64. The law isn’t about uniform results or grand pronouncements. It’s about coming up with the decision that resolves the real life conflict between parties. Discretion is a vital part and opinions will vary with the circumstances. I wouldn’t expect uniformity nor ask for it out of a functioning judiciary which seeks to address issues and people before then in a fair and just manner.

  65. A sound and reasonable reply, but the contest will go on.

  66. You gotta love a guy with an insight like that.

  67. I’ll put PJO on my “to read” list at your recommendation.

  68. I hope you will find him as amusing and insightful as I do, though I do have my differences with him.

  69. Are there evangelicals in crowds screaming “lock her up”. Surely she is innocent until proven guilty.

  70. Mike Pence says evolution is just a theory. It is remarkable that the evangelicals over at have no problem with evolution.

  71. You’re. Confusing fundamentalism and X

  72. And I think you’re confusing Biblical Christianity with what you think is Christianity.

  73. “Biblical Christianity” = political correctness

  74. I really could not care less how seriously you or anyone else takes Evangelicals.

    I’ll vote for whoever — out of the candidates on offer — I have assessed to be the better candidate for the future of my people, my nation, my country, my culture, and my faith.

    How do ya like them apples, hotshot?

  75. Your idea of “moral” is immoral. Barack Obama was and is an enemy of the American people, of Whites, of Christians, of decency and truth, and he’s headed for an eternity in hell, and you’ll be joining him there someday, you godforsaken degenerate. Barack Obama: Worst President Ever.

  76. We invented the Supreme Court, you retarded degenerate.

  77. Get out of my country, you hell-bound heathen.

  78. You needn’t worry about what anyone can prove. You just go on whistling past the graveyard and someday when it’s too late for you to do anything about it you will be able to confront your smug arrogance for eternity. Good luck with that!

  79. Of course the Leftwing lunatic version of “separation of church and state” means that the state can coerce Christians to violate their conscience, their Freedom of Association, their Freedom of Religion, and their Freedom of Speech.

    Stop lying, Jim. You’re a God hater, through and through, and that’s why you hate those who belong to Him.

  80. Straight White Males invented just about everything good in this world, including this country.

    You’re welcome!

  81. Better than the one we have now or either of the Bushes.

  82. As bad as Bush and not 10% as good as Trump.

  83. Wow! It’s the “That’s racist! tactic! Never seen that one before! And a devastating refutation of my clearly factual assertions, no doubt!

    The leftwing degenerate never needs to make his case. All he has to do is take out one of his choice words from his lil’ box of magic things and he never has to confront reality.

    Argumentation? What’s that?

    Facts? What are those?

    Racist! Bigot! Fascist! Misogynist! Xenophobe! Etc.

    Magic Words, brought to by the hell-bound God haters of the Universe.

    You’re a loser, son, and you’re gonna perish. You should fix that.

  84. I call ’em as I see ’em. Readers will notice the poster with the ridiculously alliterative nom de guerre never offered any argument that his rant was not racist. Just goes to prove the old saw “throw a rock at a pack of dogs and the one that yelps is the one you hit.”

  85. Depends on what you want. If you want fascism, the Orange one’s your man.

  86. Only in the fundieverse is recreational imbibing in substances evidence of poor morality. That’s about as quaint as Amish who don’t drive cars and trucks but pay an “English” [their term for non-Amish] to give them rides.

  87. Youre right – it wasn’t immoral – it was just stupid, really really stupid. And he was snorting coke til he was 25. That’s how really stupid he was.

  88. People who trot out the word fascism but couldn’t define it without looking it up first make me snicker.

  89. The terms “racist” and “racism” long ago lost any meaning. They are now mere cudgels used by weak people against those who notice certain facts and realities. Sadly for those who use it, the term and others like it have become the proverbial “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Such tactics stopped working on normal people a long time ago, but since you have nothing else, it remains your crutch.

    As for me supposedly “yelping,” where did I do that? Methinks you’re imaging things that never happened, unless you equate someone replying to your obnoxious douchebaggery and putting you in your place as somehow against the rules. In the future, if you don’t want your genitals chopped off, don’t put them on the chopping block.

    There isn’t an original thought in your head. You’re a walking cliché. Every single one of those brain droppings you squat and squeeze out with every post was placed there by someone else. You’re weak. You’re infantile. Now is the time to ask yourself if that’s how you want to go through life. If you decide “yes,” then do not be surprised when you try to lock horns with the wrong person. Just take your lumps. You deserve them.

  90. Lock horns? Yours were sawed off long ago you little Polled Hereford heifer. Racism is as real today as it was in 1950 and 1850. It’s just that there’s repercussions for it and you cowards don’t wike it.

  91. Hmm, using recreational substances while editing the Harvard Law Review? very impressive.

  92. The fourteen points of fascism are:

    Powerful and continuing nationalism
    Disdain for human rights
    Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
    Supremacy of the military
    Rampant sexismControlled mass media
    Obsession with national security
    Religion and government intertwined
    Corporate power protected
    Labor [sic] power suppressed
    Disdain for intellectuals & the arts
    Obsession with crime & punishment
    Rampant cronyism & corruption
    Fraudulent elections

  93. Yay! You can use the internet. It’s funny how I got you to look that up.

  94. The “you’re a racist” ploy still isn’t working, but it is backfiring, so there’s that.

    Such colossal douchebaggery played no small part in the hilarious and humiliating defeat of Hillary Clinton. You leftwing lunatics are not very bright.

  95. Wait a minute. The “left-wing lunatics” were all vociferously opposed to HRC. A few more coming aboard might have stemmed the tide in Wisconsin, but probably not in Ohio and Iowa.

    Right now the “Alt-Left,” i.e., formerly known as Bernie Bros, dismiss acknowledgement racism exists as “identity politics.” Sounds like you are one of them.

  96. Yes you are an impressive master baiter.

  97. I am more concerned that Evangelicals lack the ‘intellectual heft’ to even vote let alone become a justice on the Supreme Court. And what has hurt our intellectual heft includes our proclivity for authoritarianism and our insularity in terms of our reading lists and the list of people we will listen to. For we act as the West did when Martin Luther King Jr. complained during his speech against the Vietnam War:

    The Western arrogance of
    feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from
    them is not just.

    For if we substituted the word ‘Evangelical’ for the word ‘Western’ in the above quote, we have an apt description of much of American conservative Evangelicalism.

  98. Our PC climate wud not allow the question: Do Blacks lack intellectual heft? or Do Women lack intellectual heft. But it it passes PC to dismiss Bible-believing Christians as ignoramuses & obscurantists

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