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The Pryor Controversy
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It seems that Democrats in the U.S. Senate are officially in favor of judicial candidates of Catholic background who have only “shallow” feelings about their faith, at least if one is to make any inference from their warnings to Attorney General William Pryor from Alabama that his “deeply held” feelings trouble them. William Pryor is one of the most outstanding of the nominees to come before them, a serious Catholic twice elected in a state hardly Catholic at all and universally admired for his integrity and respect for law.
I don’t have a litmus test for judicial nominees, the senior senator from New York said, but I do fear that this nominee has such “deeply held” feelings that it defies credulity that he could do his duty as a judge, and enforce the law impartially.
Yet the evidence shows that on the gruesome act of partial-birth abortion, Attorney General Pryor did his duty in Alabama with exact fidelity to the law, instructing his attorneys to follow the guidelines of the Supreme Court to the letter, no matter his or their “deeply held” feelings. Grown-ups often have to do this.
Besides, it isn’t quite right to describe what moves devout religious persons, Catholic or otherwise, as “feelings.” A far better word is “convictions.” On the part of well-instructed Catholics at least, those convictions had better be carefully and fully informed by reasoned judgment.
In fact, in regard to abortion–and abortion was the one issue brought up again and again by Democrats in the judiciary committee–it is a matter of Catholic faith that one does not need Catholic faith to make a judgment about the evil of abortion. All that is required is some basic knowledge about biology. What is killed in an abortion is undeniably human, a being with an individual genetic code separate from that of its mother and father. It is a human individual. Unless it is killed, it will grow into a full-grown woman or man, perhaps even a senator. It does not take rocket science, and certainly not faith, to know that killing a human individual for one’s own purposes is not right.
Faith has nothing special to add to this moral judgment, except an infusion of the moral courage to act according to it, prudently and with wisdom.
Some other really stupid things have been said in the Senate, and in the surrounding debate in the press, about religion. One journalist from the Washington Post called some religious views “weird,” a word that I suppose means “outside the rational,” and then in the same breath denied that reason has anything at all to do with faith. A little reading in the immense literature of religious conversions might have shown him the depth, intensity, and long duration of the reasoning that goes on in a person’s mind and heart, when he or she begins to reorient all familiar ways of reasoning about the nature of reality.
C. S. Lewis, for instance, has described his own conversion in detail, a long search that took him several years. Once he became fairly certain that he stood in the presence of God, who until then he had been able carefully to ignore, the question arose for him: In which social community ought I to pursue knowledge about this God? The first criterion that occurred to him was that it ought to be a community that at least claims to be universal. Otherwise, the God he sought would be too limited. One by one, he weighed some other criteria, until he was satisfied that what he was doing was rationally defensible on all sides. Not by way of a demonstration, as in a geometrical proof. But by way of a reasoned decision, with sound replies to all serious objections.
Reason and faith are not the same thing, but they are a fitted pair. They belong together, and each of them works better when paired with the other. That at least is the way the American Founders employed both reason and faith, in mutual accommodation. Indeed, in its reasoning about the fateful decision it was announcing, the Declaration of Independence includes four crucial names of God, the source of nature’s laws, Creator, Providence, and Supreme Judge of our intentions.
In addition, the defense that both Jefferson and Madison gave of the right to religious liberty depends crucially on a specifically Jewish and Christian concept of God. Theirs is not a Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim concept, let alone the concept of God in Aristotle or Plato, Kant or Leibniz. It is the concept of a God who reads our intentions, hearts, and consciences, not just our outward behavior. This God demands to be worshiped in spirit and in truth. This God singles us out one by one, and renders the arena in which He meets the individual conscience sacred.
Jefferson and Madison both point out that the human creature owes this God a response to His initiatives, and this duty of every human individual to the Creator, they say, is precedent to any other obligation, even those of civil society. This duty is inalienable; no one can exercise it for anyone else. This duty gives rise to our right to personal liberty of conscience, beyond the reach of the state, civil society, or any other individual.
Are we to understand the Democrats as asserting that any “deeply” serious Orthodox Jew or Roman Catholic or Baptist who recognizes this ground of religious liberty is unable to see, on the same ground, that every other human conscience also shares the same rights of conscience?
Are we to understand the Democrats as asserting that only religious people who have “shallowly held” beliefs are reliable as judges? Will judges of “shallow” beliefs have the courage to override their own feelings in order to apply the law impartially?
Attorney General Pryor has been very frank in stating what many Americans believe–that the current abortion regime of Roe v. Wade is as bad as, or even worse than, Dred Scott, because it reduces the legal status of a whole class of Americans to a level less than human. Just the same, Roe v Wade is the law of the land, and even those of us who believe deeply that it is an abomination must respect it as the law. We will do so until, like Dred Scott, it is properly and by the will of the people, using due process, overturned.
In short, Pryor’s convictions on abortion and Roe are not merely personal to him, but socially very widely shared. No American majority has ever voted for our current abortion regime. If you doubt this, put it to a vote. Moreover, the reasons behind this widespread conviction are far more powerful than those for the abortion regime, which in fact is not based upon reason but upon desire, euphemism, and lies. That is why it must be so doggedly barricaded in and bitterly defended.
But arguing about Roe is in one sense beside the point. The Senate has willingly or unwillingly trespassed upon the sharp and hard provision of the Constitution that there shall be “no religious test” for public office. It is not right for senators to be questioning candidates for public office to gauge whether their religious beliefs are “deeply held” or “shallowly held.”
Nor is it right for them, again and again, to practice character assassination upon those with whose constitutional philosophy they disagree. The same courtesy that senators are expected to show to their distinguished fellows they should accustom themselves to show to those other public servants who appear before them for confirmation. Confirmed or not confirmed, all should leave their presence with their reputations and their dignity intact.
Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar at AEI.
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