The Supreme Court and the American mind

Why are we asking if the religious composition of the United States Supreme Court should be more representative of America’s … Continued

Why are we asking if the religious composition of the United States Supreme Court should be more representative of America’s religious traditions, now that it is likely that for the first time in its history, the Court is likely not to have one single Protestant on board? There will be six Catholic and three Jewish justices, should Elena Kagan’s nomination go through, and some people are nervous. Why?

Their cultural and legal roots being in England, where laws excluded from public office all non-members of the (“established”) Church of England, the U.S. Constitution’s signatories removed the possibility of such exclusion: “….no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any [federal] office….” (Article 6, Section 3; my underlining).

1…..I, a Protestant, am “nervous” not because of the probability that the U.S. Supreme Court will have no Protestant member but because of the legally irrelevant but politically loaded question as to whether the membership should be “representative of America’s religious traditions.”

2…..”America’s religious traditions”? Fifty five years ago, that meant what Will Herbert called it in his “Protestant – Catholic – Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology.” (Reinhold Niebuhr commented that “his thesis is that America is not so much a melting pot as three fairly separate melting pots.”) Today, due to the loosening of immigration laws beginning forty five years ago, all the world’s major religions have populations in America: that is the fact of “pluralism.” And the belief is widespread that one religion/culture is as good as another: that is the ideology of “multiculturalism” taught in our public schools.

3…..Consequently, we have a NEW fact, namely, America’s religions, and an OLD fact, “America’s [three] religious traditions.” Personally, if a religious test for Supreme Court membership were not illegal, I would want membership restricted to devotees of “America’s religious traditions.” My preference would not be a matter of prejudice: in the University of Hawaii, I taught “The World’s Great [meaning major] Religions.” Rather, my preference would be a matter of national identity, the particularity of the American civilization sustained by the American mind.

4…..Of a people’s “mind,” the axiom generally holds: the more it changes, the more it remains the same. Mao’s “cultural revolution” failed to cancel the Chinese mind (of which we hear from a son of ours teaching in a university in China). But an exception may be what is happening to the American mind, which is being ideologically eroded by aggressive atheisms and assumed egalitarianism-multiculturalism.

5…..The historical “American mind” is to be distinguished both from nativism/chauvinism/Americanism on the right and a utopian, antinational globalism on the left. It was born of the marriage of Biblical enculturation and Enlightenment political philosophy. In the case of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Steele Commager described the marriage as a merger of “the virtues of Puritanism without its defects” and “the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.” / Contemporary American historian Mark Noll, to emphasize each side of the marriage, speaks of America’s “two foundings,” the religious (which was Protestant) and the political (which was republican-democratic). My preferred analogy is that the American mind has two brain-hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum of our “civil religion.”

6…..In choosing nominees to the Supreme Court, American presidents should limit their choices to representatives of the American mind generously understood. Generously understood: some who are not Protestants, Catholics, or Jews are of the American mind, convinced of the historic American values and virtues. In this nominating, what weight presidents may give to balance – in gender, culture, religion, judicial philosophy – is entirely up to them.

7…..While confirmation of a presidential nomination to the Supreme Court requires only a majority of the Senate, we the people are free to express our opinions both as to particular nominees and as to the ideal composition of the Court. As to the latter, my opinion is that the Court should always be 4-to-5 on gender and on tight/loose interpretation of the Constitution.

Willis E. Elliott
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  • DanielintheLionsDen

    But as time passes, wouldn’t a transformed American mind still be an American mind? I think that America before the Civil War would seem a very strange and foreign place, if we could go back there to visit. Why shouldn’t America change, as times change, as the world changes? as new immigrants come? Everything changes. We can’t cling to the past.

  • mono1

    hello dr/Ethe american mind need to expand and conect beyond the american boundry and american shortness of history. what is funy is the fact that the american mind disconect it self from the rest of the world and in the same time want to educate the rest of the world????w,dnt be proper to study the American mind as part of the total humanity and the total mind of humanbeing ?in other words ,what is unique about the american mind that the rest of humanity missed or lacked?

  • elliottwl

    TO MONO1You ask,”what is unique about the american mind that the rest of humanity missed or lacked?” It’s Biblical & Enlightenment roots, as I said: no other nation was founded on that combination of traditions. Of course other traditions can be, have been, & are being grafted into the branches of the American mind. But grafts depend on, do not deny, roots. The additions are organic, not like marbles added to a bag. / But of course some immigrants try to isolate their culture, cyst-like, from the American mind. And a few even intend to subvert the American mind & replace it with another, namely Sharia.

  • elliottwl

    TO DANIELINTHELIONSDENChange, of course! (I voted for Obama.) But revolution, no. The Constitution was & is revolutionary enough.

  • darling_ailie

    I pity you. With all your education you lack the capacity and the insight to see how the non-Abrahamic faiths can add insight to a society. In addition, you seem to be arguing that some Americans who were born on American soil but who are not Jewish or Christian, are in some way less American than those who fit your stereotypical traditional ‘American’ background. Shame on you.Not all that long ago American Protestants argued that allowing Jewish and Catholic immigrants threatened the Protestant tradition that defined all that was ‘American’. These people believed that only white Protestants could be REAL Americans. We keep hearing the term ‘Judeo-Christian’. The term and the concept is quite new, having come into common use during WW II. Prior to that the term ‘Christian’ was the one in use, and by that people meant Protestant. When I was a child I remember the public school teachers telling us that the US is a ‘Christian country’. They regularly spoke of America’s ‘Christian traditions’ as the Davids and Sarahs in our classes looked away and wriggled uncomfortably in their seats. And that was long, long after WW II. So you really should omit the Jews from your pretty picture of what makes up the American mind. Only recently have Jews been seen as American by other Americans. Even at my age I remember the widespread anti-Semitism that kept all but a very few Jews marginalised from mainstream America. Last summer ITV showed the 1947 film, Gentleman’s Agreement. Friends and some of my English relatives saw it. They called me to ask whether the film exaggerated discrimination in post-war America. I was ashamed to have to admit that the situations depicted were not exaggerated. They were shocked because Jews are accepted in British society.With American society fractured by hatred, with the US economy mortgaged to China, with both political parties having justified wars of choice based on deceit, with no safety net for the middle-class, is the society created by the ‘American Mind’ something to admire? I no longer live in the US.