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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/13/14

Are the Five Male Catholic Justices on the Supreme Court Theocons?

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 13, 2014: The recent Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has understandably generated a lot of discussion involving different angles on the ruling.

Samuel G. Freedman, a Jewish journalism professor at ColumbiaUniversity, published the op-ed commentary "Among Justices, Considering a Divide Not of Gender or Politics, but of Beliefs" in the New York Times dated July 12, 2014 (but dated July 11, 2014 on the newspaper's website).

Freedman's angle for discussing the ruling involves the religious divide among the Justices: three are Jewish, but six are Roman Catholics. (Disclosure: I come from a Roman Catholic background. However, for many years now, I have not been a practicing Catholic. Today I would describe myself as a theistic humanist, as distinct from a secular humanist.)

The ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby involved a 5-4 divide among the nine Justices. In this case, and in another case that Freedman discusses, Greece v. Galloway (about public prayer at a government meeting), the five male Justices in the majority were all Roman Catholics. Because the two cases that Freedman focuses on involved the practice of religion, he reasonably suggests that we Americans should consider the religious divide of the nine Justices now serving on the Supreme Court.

In the spirit of considering the religious divide, Freedman makes the following statements:

"For Jews [in the United States], said the political scientist Kenneth D. Wald of the University of Florida, a secular state became synonymous with their comfort and accomplishment in the United States. 'Defending and extending the secular definition of the American state,' he has written, 'became the (often unstated) core political priority of America's organized Jewish community.'"

For the sake of discussion, let's say that Wald's characterizations of American Jews are basically accurate. In addition, let's allow that his characterizations may help us understand the three Jewish Justices.

Now, Damon Linker has published the book The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (2006).

On the front cover of the dust jacket, we read the following statement: "For the past three decades, a few determined men have worked to inject their radical religious ideas into the nation's politics. This is the story of how they succeeded."

Linker focuses primarily on certain Roman Catholics. But are the six Roman Catholic Justices similar to the theocons in the sense of seeing themselves as waging war on secular America, or at least on "the secular definition of the American state" that Wald describes in the above quote?

I hope that they are not. But the theocons discussed by Linker are not exactly a novelty among Roman Catholics. Why not? Let me explain.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Roman Catholic popes have inveighed against modernity. Secularism is presumably a byproduct of modernity. So they are also against secularism. But we may wonder if the papal denunciations of modernity and secularism have trickled down to ordinary Catholics such as the six Justices.

Philip Gleason, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, has published the book titled Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 1995). As the title of his book clearly indicates, the papal inveighing against modernity and secularism trickled down to Roman Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States in the 20th century.

For relevant critiques of modernity and secularism involving now-emeritus Pope Benedict XVI (also known earlier as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), see the following four books: (1) Values in a Time of Upheaval (2006), (2) Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (2006), (3) The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (2006), and (4) Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (2006).

In short, we can assume that the six Catholic Justices did not escape from the papal critiques of modernity and secularism as part of their Catholic cultural conditioning.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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