Originalism and Interpretation

October 22, 2020

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is a self-proclaimed “originalist.” I have no desire here to discuss Judge Barrett but I do have a special interest in “originalism,” because it resonates with my concerns about biblical interpretation.

In terms of United States law, “originalism” is a way of interpreting the US Constitution. It asserts that all statements in the constitution must be interpreted according to the original socio-cultural understanding when it was adopted. As Judge Barrett explained recently, the Constitution’s “meaning doesn’t change over time.” 

“Originalism” is in contrast to the interpretive understanding that the Constitution should be interpreted in the context of current socio-cultural realities, even when such an interpretation is different from the original interpretation of the document.

My field of course is not jurisprudence but historical theology. As an historical theologian I do have problems with “originalism.” Understandings do change. The old context is not necessarily the contemporary context. The meanings of words change as well. For example, the word “gay”was originally synonymous with happy or cheerful. In the later 20th century it gradually came to designate someone who is romantically or sexually attracted to someone of the same gender or sex. 

“Originalism” understood as “the original meaning theory,” is closely related to literal textualism. It maintains that interpretation of the written constitution or a law should be based on what people, living at the time of its adoption, would have understood as the ordinary meaning of the text. Most legal originalists, like  Antonin Scalia — Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1986 until his death in 2016 — hold this view. Scalia was in fact the intellectual anchor for the originalist and textualist interpreters in the US Supreme Court’s conservative wing. 

When speaking or writing about “originalism,” I have often used the famous phrase from the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men…….” Words and their meanings…

If one goes back to the lived reality understanding of the signers of the 1776 document, they – all white MEN — certainly did not accept that native Americans and African slaves were equal to them. Nor did they think that women were equal to men. 

The inequality of women and men in US society, for example, has lasted a long time. Almost a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded, in 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony then attempted to vote in the presidential election in Rochester, New York. She was arrested, convicted, and fined. Finally, in 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote in federal elections. 

When understanding a legal document – or a biblical text – one must consider: (1) the understanding of the people back then when the document was written, (2) how that text affected human behavior back then, and (3) how we understand such a text in terms of socio-cultural understandings today. I value tradition but have one foot in earlier tradition and the other in contemporary lived experience.

How, for instance, do “originalists” understand Hebrew Scripture texts like these from Chapter 20 of Leviticus (which reached its present written form between 538–332 BCE) “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death….If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death….If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, …They must be put to death.”

Or, for example, these New Testament texts: Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Or Matthew 5:30: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.”

More recently in the news, thanks to Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett and her far right “Catholic” group People of Praise, there has been much discussion about their interpretation of Ephesians 5: that men are divinely ordained as the “head” of the family and that it is the duty of wives to submit to them. 

The textual interpretation of Judge Barrett’s group is very authoritarian and certainly tainted with a dose of patriarchal misogyny. Ephesians 5:22-24 (most likely written not by Paul but a student of Paul the Apostle) really did not say that wives are inferior to their husbands; but the text does reflect the cultural understanding of the time. The household of the first century Greco-Roman world was hierarchical, with the adult male firmly entrenched at the top and his wife, children and slaves below. Submission meant a woman was expected to center her life around her husband, avoid the assertion of her own desires, and conform herself to her husband’s will.

When first century authors of Scripture penned their words and first century audiences heard them they did so in the first century socio-cultural context. Contrary to what Judge Barrett says, we do grow in our understanding and we should not be controlled by a static and unchanging cultural understanding. Textual interpretations are provisional. We can and should understand the past and its cultural setting and language. We must, however, live in the present, with our contemporary cultural understandings, perspectives, and language.  And on that foundation we move toward the future, often speaking with another voice.

Jack

Polarization and Public Morality

October 15, 2020

There is no debate today….When I think about today’s extreme polarization in US society, however, I become concerned about public morality. It has nothing per se to do with being a Republican or a Democrat, or being left or right of center. It has everything to do, however, with our survival.

Public morality – what some call civic virtue — refers to ethical standards for public behavior. The survival of democracy depends on it. A democracy is a social system in which citizens are bound to fellow citizens, with each individual bearing social as well as personal responsibilities. Public morality governs everyday life: the decisions we make, how we treat ourselves and others, and what we think about the world — about nature, business, culture, religion, family life, and so on. Openness is essential as well as serious reflection and engagement.

Without a healthy public morality, democracy collapses into either chaos or authoritarian dictatorship.

Those dangers are very real today. Public morality is often cast aside in authoritarian dictatorships because social order is maintained not by adherence to shared public values but by fidelity to the dictates and wishes of the authoritarian leader. Authoritarian leaders like chaotic situations in which people living in fear can be kept obedient and dependent on the leader. 

In a healthy democracy there are certain generally held moral principles. Key primary values, for example, are that murder is immoral, theft is immoral, harming innocent people is immoral, and lying is immoral. When these immoral actions are turned into social virtues or social normalities, society is in trouble. Think about contemporary militia and vigilante groups. 

Public morality insures, in effect, the survival of the human spirit. By the “human spirit” I mean those positive aspects of humanity that people show toward one another: empathy, respect, generosity, connection, emotional bonding, and identifying with the other. These elements require a sense of equality and a demand for human rights and justice in all domains of life, especially social and economic justice. Extremely self-centered righteousness leads to conflict, not cooperation; to fear, not hope; to aggression, not mutual respect; and to suspicion, not trust.

People set and adjust their public morality through interaction with family and friends, and with social, religious, political, and educational groups with whom they identify. 

After the next presidential election, regardless who wins and becomes president in January, we will still need to safeguard our democracy based on shared common-good public morality. Maintaining the common good means caring not just for ourselves but taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

As the American philosopher, George Lakoff, stressed in a recent book: “Houses fall apart if they are not maintained, so do democracy and the gifts of democracy that we barely notice and take for granted: the right to vote, public education, human rights, due process, unbiased news, clean water, clean air, national parks, safe food, good jobs, ethical banking practices, affordable mortgages, fair elections.” [The Little Blue Book: Talking and Thinking Democratic]

And a closing thought from the French philosopher and writer Voltaire (1694 – 1778): “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

It’s all part of public morality and avoiding polarization and chaos. – Jack

US Catholics in National Politics

After this week end, the 2020 US presidential election will be just three weeks away. Since Catholics – e.g. the anti-abortion crusade and Biden and the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court appointment – are much in the news, I thought it might be helpful to get a perspective on contemporary US Catholics. If Joe Biden Jr. is elected president, he will be the United States’ second Catholic president. The first of course was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35thpresident of the United States, elected in November 1960. 

In the United States today, Christians make up 65% of the total adult population; and 43% identify as Protestants and 20% as Catholics. (In 1960 about 25% were Catholic.) According to the Pew Research Center, about one-fifth of the total US adult population today is Catholic; but Catholicism in the United States has experienced a greater net loss, due to religious switching, than has any other US religious tradition. Already in  2015 a Pew Research report noted that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. That loss continues today especially among the young. Those who currently identify as Catholic are generally older and more conservative. Today’s priests and bishops educated and trained under the influence of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI tend to be right or very right of center. And they tend to oppose Democrats on issues of abortion, birth control, and gay marriage.

There still are, however, a great many US Catholics who say they want to see their church make significant changes, even when most US Catholic bishops oppose those changes. For example, six-in-ten US Catholics  say they think the church should allow priests to marry and should allow women to become priests. Just about 50% of US Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.

Catholics in the United States are racially and ethnically diverse. Roughly six-in-ten Catholic adults are white, one-third are Latino/a, and smaller shares identify as black, Asian American, or belong to other racial and ethnic groups. 

The US political climate for Catholics has changed considerably since the days of JFK. Former Vice President Joe Biden Biden was born into a Catholic family, baptized a Catholic, went to Catholic schools, attends church, and presents himself to the world as a Catholic. He is hardly right of center. On the far right, however, is Amy Coney Barrett. If she ends up in the US Supreme Court, replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she will bring the number of Catholic supreme court justices up to six out of the nine. (Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch is Episcopalian but was raised Catholic.) Barrett has been strongly endorsed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Cardinal Dolan also likes to boast about his friendly relationship with President Trump.

Currently there are 22 Catholics in the United States Senate, and 141 Catholics in the United States House of Representatives, including the current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Vice President Mike Pence, who describes himself as a “born-again, evangelical Catholic” was raised Catholic and a Democrat; but he converted to Protestantism in college and became a “Ronald Reagan conservative” Republican. 

Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich, who served as the 50th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, became a conservative Catholic in 2009. Newt, who is a co-chair of the advocacy group Catholics for Trump, became a Catholic thanks to his third wife, the conservative Catholic, Callista Gingrich, who is the United States Ambassador to the Holy See. William Barr, United States Attorney General, like Amy Coney Barrett is an extremely far-right Catholic; and Stephen K. Bannon, former chief strategist in the Donald Trump administration is also an arch conservative Catholic. And, last but not least, First Lady Melania Trump is a Catholic, making her the only Catholic First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in 2016, 52% of US Catholics backed Republican Donald Trump while 44% voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Catholics also narrowly backed the Republican George W. Bush over the Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

How does one characterize US Catholics today? 

According to the Pew Research Center, today’s US Catholics are split down the middle politically. Around half of Catholic registered voters (48%) describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party, while roughly the same share (47%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. 

White and Latino/a Catholics are very different politically. Nearly six-in-ten white Catholic registered voters (57%) identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, marking a big shift since 2008, when four-in-ten (41%) supported the GOP. Most Latino/a Catholic voters (68%), meanwhile, identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, a share that has remained fairly stable in the past decade. 

In a Pew Research poll conducted in late July and early August of this year, 54% of white Catholics said they approve of Trump’s performance as president, but 69% of Latino/a Catholics said they disapprove of the way he is handling his job. And 59% of white Catholic registered voters said they would vote for Trump, or lean that way. (What would they say today?) Among Latino/a Catholic registered voters, 65% said they would vote for Biden. 

I think it is helpful to understand that US Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church. On abortion, for example, 77% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholic adults say they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The official position of the Catholic Church of course is strongly opposed to abortion. 

Partisanship also colors US Catholics’ perception of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Around six-in-ten US Catholics (59%) say they think Joe Biden is “very” or “somewhat” religious, according to a February 2020 survey. Far fewer Catholics overall (37%) say Trump is at least somewhat religious, though the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this question is huge (63% Republican vs 10% Democratic).

President Trump and his brand of Republicans have worked hard to attract those Catholics who have made  opposition to abortion the key issue above all other issues. This strategy likely will be on vivid display in coming days as Donald Trump pushes for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the  Supreme Court. 

Over the years, former vice president Biden, in fact, has earned much criticism and correction from US bishops because of his positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Foremost among them have been the former Bishop of Wilmington Michael Saltarelli, Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia, and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence. Tobin suggested in a tweet on August 11, 2020 that Biden is not even a Catholic: “Biden-Harris. First time in awhile that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”

Biden, however, continues to stress his background as a Catholic and to build affinity with more open-minded Catholic voters. He stresses other aspects of Catholic teaching, not just abortion, like caring for the poor and vulnerable, welcoming immigrants and refugees, and supporting labor unions and welfare programs.

Hoping that Biden will become the second Catholic president of the United States, three dozen Catholic lawmakers, ambassadors, educators and nonprofit leaders have signed on to serve as national co-chairs of “Catholics for Biden.”  A further Catholic endorsement for Biden has come from Sr. Simone Campbell and the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. Campbell noted: “Catholics cannot be true to their faith and vote for Donald Trump in November. Every day, I see the cracks in our nation’s foundational values growing wider. President Trump is doing everything in his power to divide us, while our economy and health care systems collapse under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a spiritual crisis, and our faith and patriotism compel us to speak and to act.”

While President Trump pushes the anti-abortion agenda and reversing Roe vs Wade, presidential candidate Joe Biden wants to build on the progress made by the Affordable Care Act, which covers access to preventive care and contraceptives. He proposes that “the public option will cover contraception and a woman’s constitutional right to choose.” He has no difficulty reconciling that with his Catholic faith. As of 2019,  83% of religiously unaffiliated US Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a slim majority of Catholics (56%).

Contemporary US Catholics are quite a religio-socio-political mix. The old political theory of a “Catholic vote” is dead. There is no “Catholic vote” in the sense of a bloc that moves predictably toward one party or the other. Despite a certain convergence of views among Catholics—a concern for social justice, a collective dedication to the value of the family—Catholics haven’t voted as a bloc since the early 1960s, when they solidly backed the Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. I suspect Biden realizes this. I am not so sure about Donald Trump.

Jack

Alert Christianity

Last week I wrote about the historical evolution of the Christian Right in the United States. I thought it would be good to review where we have been…… This week a look forward. Where are we going?

As we move ahead we need to be alert Christians. I explain this in a number of what I call, socio-theological-political observations:

  • In the United States we are quickly moving from consensus to chaos. I am very concerned – alarmed actually – about the rigid, hateful, and violent polarization that has become a deadly social virus in the United States. It destroys the US ability to deal effectively with Covid-19, to live with an increasingly multi-racial USA,  to resolve unemployment and poverty problems, to provide national health care, to cooperate with other nations in our global inter-connectedness, and of course, to handle the next big catastrophe: climate change. Covid-19 is awful, but climate change could be much worse.
  • I am not a prophet of doom and I still believe in the human ability to resolve problems created mostly by humans….but the clock is ticking. The longer we delay the larger the problem and the longer it will take to resolve the problem. Being alert also means being active. And being alert and active is a community endeavor.
  • We need honest self-appraisal and respectful other-understanding. We need to think about what we are doing and why. I come from a strongly Republican family background. I respect and love my family, but I am a Democrat. And my theology is more left of center than their’s. Nevertheless, I do respect a variety of theological and political positions, as long as we can be mutually respectful and willing to reflect and discuss. I do not try to convert others to my viewpoint; but I do want others to understand my viewpoint and I want to understand their viewpoint. It is in our mutual interest. 
  • Viewpoints do change as well. I was once a very rigidly fundamentalist Catholic. In high school they called me ”Pious Dick.” Then, one day, I began to ask questions about God, the church, and Jack……… I came to realize that I did not have all the answers and that no one has all the answers. I became an inquisitive thinker, with a strong desire to know and to know why….. I realized as well that we live and learn with provisional understandings. Human life is an ongoing truth-journey. And sometimes we have to stop, reconsider, and rethink everything we think we know. 
  • Institutions – religious and political — often prefer obedient non-thinkers rather than articulate truth-searchers. Obedient non-thinkers are easier to control. And some institutional leaders try to hide the truth (e.g. clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church) or they manufacture “truths and facts” to suit their own political or religious agenda. Our challenge is to be courageous questioners and thinkers who observe, reflect, and then act.
  • There are often people who call themselves “Christian” but who behave in unChristian ways. Then there are authentic Christians. The indicators are clear. Authentic Christians do not mock, denigrate, terrorize, or violently abuse or kill those who do not agree with their religious or political positions. Christianity is not about holding a particular religious viewpoint nor belonging to a particular political party but belonging to Jesus Christ and holding on to and living his Gospel.
  • Healthy Christians are self-aware and other-aware. People who are only self-aware become selfish and vindictive. The authentically Christian God is not the punitive god of rewards and punishments but the parental God of Jesus of Nazareth  – the God of love, mercy, and compassion.
  • Regardless who wins in November, the United States is at a great turning point in its history. I am a patriotic citizen of the United States and I believe in a “UNITED States” not a polarized society in which a few authoritarians have power over others. Power over others is demeaning and dictatorial not democratic. Our focus must be the common good. Cooperation, community, and the good of all should be our national goals.

And I conclude this reflection with a quotation from one of my theological heroes, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed on April 9, 1945 in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. (The 90th Infantry Division of the United States Army liberated that camp on April 23, 1945.) Bonhoeffer courageously opposed Adolf Hitler and his inhumane authoritarian Nazi regime.

 Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should … shock the world far more than they are doing now… take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first of all the possible rights of the strong.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Sermon on II Corinthians 12:9)