Commentary Magazine


Religious Bias and the Washington Post

Here we go again.

The Washington Post–which years ago published a story referring to followers of the Christian right as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command”–yesterday published a front-page story titled, “High court with vocally devout justices set to hear religious objections to health-care law.”

Get it? The story, written by the Post’s Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes, is meant to focus attention on–and raise our concerns about–whether justices with deep (and vocal) religious faith can rule fairly on a religious liberties case. (Two cases, including Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., will be argued before the Supreme Court today. Hobby Lobby is a chain of arts and crafts stores owned by David and Barbara Green, business owners who are evangelical Christians and seeking a religious exemption from parts of Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.)

We’re told, for example, that “Justice Clarence Thomas is a former seminarian who says God saved his life.” Alarming, yes, but that’s not the worst of it:

Justice Antonin Scalia is the most outspoken. He has urged fellow intellectuals to be “fools for Christ” and used an interview last fall to underscore his belief in the existence of the Devil, whose latest maneuver, he said, “is getting people not to believe in him or in God.”

Mr. Barnes later devotes two more paragraphs to the interview Scalia did with New York magazine in which he spoke about his belief that the Devil exists. Apparently some members of the elite media find this a stunning admission. (Those of us who love The Screwtape Letters do not.) 

On the matter of Scalia’s use of the phrase “fools for Christ,” let me offer some context. When Scalia said what he did in 2010, he was speaking to members of the St. Thomas More Society of Maryland. Justice Scalia was honored with the Society’s “Man for All Seasons Award,” given to members of the legal profession who embody the ideals of St. Thomas More.

Here’s how Catholic Review reported on the event:

Scalia outlined a long list of Christian beliefs that he said are greeted with derision by the worldly – dogmas including Christ’s divinity, the Virgin birth and Christ’s resurrection.

“Surely those who adhere to all or most of these traditional Christian beliefs are regarded in the educated circles that you and I travel in as, well, simple-minded,” Scalia asserted.

The Catholic justice cited a story in the Washington Post that described Christian fundamentalists as “poorly educated and easily led.”

“The same attitude applies, of course, to traditional Catholics,” Scalia said, “who do such positively peasant-like things as saying the rosary, kneeling in adoration before the Eucharist, going on pilgrimages to Lourdes or Medjugorje and – worst of all – following indiscriminately, rather than in smorgasbord fashion, the teachings of the pope.”

Scalia said believers should embrace the ridicule of the world.

“As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,” he said, “we are fools for Christ’s sake.”

Scalia noted that Christ described his followers as sheep and said no one will get into heaven without behaving like “little children.” Scalia warned, however, that reason and intellect must not be laid aside where matters of religion are concerned.

“Assuredly, a faith that has no rational basis is a false faith,” Scalia said.

The actual account leaves a different and more textured impression than the Post account, no? And did you notice something? Mr. Barnes didn’t report fully on what Scalia said, which is this: “As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we are fools for Christ’s sake.” (Emphasis added.)

Most people would agree that there’s quite a difference between saying, “[Scalia] urged fellow intellectuals to be ‘fools for Christ’” and saying, “Scalia, in a speech in which he was honored by the St. Thomas More Society of Maryland, quoted the Apostle Paul in urging his fellow Catholics to be ‘fools for Christ.’”

It is a phrase most committed Christians would immediately recognize, and they would understand what it means: People who take their faith seriously will be viewed by those in the world who don’t share that faith as benighted, unenlightened, zealous, perhaps even something of a threat. Remarkably, St. Paul offered these thoughts even before he could cite the Washington Post’s coverage of Christians in public life as evidence for his claim.

Judge for yourselves, but it strikes me that the point of the story is fairly obvious: A devout person of faith is automatically suspect when it comes to judging on religious liberty matters. As a friend of mine put it to me, it’s “setting the stage for the argument that all but atheist progressives should recuse themselves from considering the legitimacy of the latest bold advance of atheist progressivism.” (We know how these things work. Liberals on MSNBC, having heard the secular dog whistle, are already raising doubts of whether “the court that will decide [the religious liberty cases] includes six Catholic justices, some of whom have not been shy about asserting their religion.”)

It would of course be offensive if the Post had (hypothetically) run a front-page article raising questions about whether a black justice could fairly rule on Brown v. Board of Education or if a Jewish justice could fairly rule on National Socialist Party v. Skokie. Does one’s sexual orientation–gay or straight–compromise one’s ruling on cases like Lawrence v. Texas? Would it be fair to raise doubts about the objectivity of non-Christian justices if they rule against the Greens in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby? Exactly where does this identity politics begin and end?

Let me make one final observation. Everyone is motivated by a philosophical view of the world. It may be informed by religious faith or not. It may be Catholic or evangelical–or materialism or pragmatism. It may be based on the teachings of Jesus–or Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s theory of utilitarianism, Nietzsche’s Will to Power, or Derrida’s deconstructionism. One’s view may be shaped by Maimonides, Aristotle, John Rawls, or Richard Dawkins. It may be a very odd combination of all of the above. Or none of the above.

My point is we all have certain views about the human person and about human dignity–if the latter exists and if so, what it is based on. We all bring certain assumptions and precepts, some well formulated and others not, on how we interpret the world around us. Yet for people of a certain cast of mind, the only time this matter becomes controversial is when the worldview is Christian–particularly orthodox and traditionally Christian. (Many journalists tend to be less troubled by people of religious faith if their faith leads them to a liberal outcome. This explains why Jerry Falwell was treated much more harshly than Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, even though they are different sides of the same coin.)

When four years ago Justice Scalia said, “Surely those who adhere to all or most of these traditional Christian beliefs are regarded in the educated circles that you and I travel in as, well, simple-minded,” he knew of what he spoke. See the story by Robert Barnes, supra.  

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