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FREEDOM OF RELIGION

There is alarm among progressive Americans (at least) that their current president, Donald Trump, is seeking to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court bench left yawning after the sad death of the hugely popular and in some quarters notorious RBG, with a woman judge, legal scholar and Notre Dame law professor, known to be a conservative; and a member of an unusual, eccentric religious sect, affiliated to Catholicism but also with Pentecostal leanings. The highest court in their land is ultra-politicised, because it is the final arbiter for interpretations of what is and is not constitutional, and, this has stark implications for Roe v. Wade, gun control, and freedom of speech cases, and beyond. Now, as Habermas argued, all interpretation has bias, but the Court tends to focus on either the 'original intent' of the framers, or seek a more living, process-oriented view of the document. Ms. Amy Coney Barrett is called by some in the media 'an extreme ideologue' - and it is certain her opinions on the bench would skew towards the stricter more limited readings of the Constitution - that is, likely tending to less 'activist' government. Progressives fear the court, balanced at 6-3 in favour of the right wing, would decide in a way that could set back their agenda (also ideological) for decades, as the Justices sit for life.

The American system is calibrated to balance competing interests, including rural and urban, and has a genius for halting any too-radical shift in any direction. I am one of those observers who thinks it is the finest political system ever devised by human imagination, though corrupted by human interests and misbehaviour, which is to be expected. The fact that Ms. Amy Coney Barrett holds a legitimate conservative position is of concern to those who disagree with her, but disagreement and difference is not justification for disqualification.

Both sides of the turbulent culture wars in America need to remind themselves of the fact that their opposite numbers are also legitimate, insofar as they believe or hold political positions; once any party or group seeks to rule another viewpoint as beyond contempt or consideration, you lose democracy, and have a dictatorship; this is because democracy is precisely about managing the pell-mell, robust and wildly chaotic aspects of human thought and self-interest. What I am trying to say is that, while it may be a tragically ironic outcome to see RBG's feminist pioneering activism replaced by her direct contradiction, it is also Hegelian, and ultimately what the framers intended. A constant shift between the extremes on both sides of any argument usually ends up with, over time, a consensus somewhere in the middle.

Time is slow compared to human impatience, and it is likely the momentous debates around the meaning of life and reproductive rights will be fought for decades. In a sense, this is only fair, since the concerns are of the deepest and most complex kind, on all sides. Is there a more significant human question than the meaning of life? If so, it may be the meaning of Justice.

I support Roe v. Wade, but I am also a Roman Catholic. I am concerned Ms. Amy Coney Barrett would side with Trump in a challenge to the 2020 election results, with troubling consequences. I also believe the American system is too robust to be overthrown by Trump, and that the US army would not permit him to remain in the White House past his due by date. However, if he was to set up a Southern rebel government in Florida, he would command 42% of the American population and could mount an insurgency; but this is for now hyperbolic fictionalising.

Still, the journalism, op-ed columns, and general media attacks on this conservative, Christian woman, have been distasteful, and are dangerous. For in America, everyone has the right to be an oddball, and all religious views, seen from an atheistic, or cynical, perspective, appear weird. If you begin to try and argue that some religious affiliations disqualify a Supreme Court Justice, you no longer have a democracy: Mormons, Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, Anabaptists, Christian Scientists - these are all strange people, just as are Catholics, and Buddhists - but only 'strange' in that they hold beliefs that are different from the science of our day, and the prejudices of the moment; what may appear quaint, weird, or bizarre to one person is another person's culture, and exultant source of comfort and wisdom.

Being in touch with God, or some form of Nirvana, is not 'ordinary' - exceptional claims are made, and followers and believers possess positions and dynamisms within that surpass the mundane world. Faith is disruptive and destructive, it charges the soul or mind or person with commands and expectations; it is a fuse and a drive. It is spring in the blood.

No person of faith can pretend to be bland, indifferent or entirely safe for secularism. If I walk with angels by my side, I am not likely to fear the opinion of mere mortals. America has always been a religious place. Its original indigenous peoples were and are deeply spiritual; few if any Americans do not hold an opinion on God, and a majority believe in some form of divine presence. The Constitution itself is gilt-edged with God. Margaret Atwood's books predicting a religious fanaticism taking root in America and demeaning women are not fiction, they are history, extrapolated.

For good or ill, any person standing for the Bench in America will have something to say about some form of faith. And, if we seek only the less-peculiar, less-traditional, less-severe forms of religion, we are like the vegetarian who asks the butcher to 'trim the meat' on their cut of steak. All religion is, ultimately, ranged against the merely human, and confronts materialist ideologies and scientific worldviews with a strong equal and opposing claim to knowledge - a gnosis that in some senses is more powerful, and far weirder than any dystopic book could ever conceive of.

If we oppose this nominee because they are a woman, educated at Notre Dame, hold conservative views, or take Mass, we are opposing the democracy we seek to uphold - because a democracy only works when even our enemies, let alone those who merely dissent from us or the common mob, may also take up positions of power in our society. It would be pleasing in an infantile way if everyone always agreed with everything we thought or said, and acted precisely as we wanted, but that is not the world; it is not even the world any sane person should want to build. If it was, we'd simply kill all those who did not agree, and set up a nation of the like-minded only, as Mao did, or tried to do. For there are only two positions, finally - either you serve somebody, as Bob Dylan reminds us, or you seek to become a god yourself.




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