Friday, May 13, 2005

Minister of God

Via Don Herzog over at Left2Right, I find this incredible article by Justice Scalia on the Death Penalty. It is, in many ways, typical Scalia: eloquent, well-argued, tightly reasoned, principled. And at times, very, very scary.

What sets off my alarm bells is not Scalia's well-known defense of the "dead" (or "enduring") constitution. Nor am I surprised that he concludes (as a matter of theology) that the Death Penalty is morally tolerable. It isn't even his false binary between Christian belief and secular non-belief (Jews, for example, hold different views about life and death matters than Christians). Rather, in this piece, Scalia explicitly affirms the state as an instrument of (the Christian) God.
The mistaken tendency to believe that a democratic government, being nothing more than the composite will of its individual citizens, has no more moral power or authority than they do as individuals has adverse effects in other areas as well. It fosters civil disobedience, for example, which proceeds on the assumption that what the individual citizen considers an unjust law-even if it does not compel him to act unjustly-need not be obeyed. St. Paul would not agree. "Ye must needs be subject," he said, "not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake." For conscience sake. The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible. We have done that in this country (and continental Europe has not) by preserving in our public life many visible reminders that—in the words of a Supreme Court opinion from the 1940s-"we are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." These reminders include: "In God we trust" on our coins, "one nation, under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, the opening of sessions of our legislatures with a prayer, the opening of sessions of my Court with "God save the United States and this Honorable Court," annual Thanksgiving proclamations issued by our President at the direction of Congress, and constant invocations of divine support in the speeches of our political leaders, which often conclude, "God bless America." All this, as I say, is most un–European, and helps explain why our people are more inclined to understand, as St. Paul did, that government carries the sword as "the minister of God," to "execute wrath" upon the evildoer. [emphasis added]

I've said it before, and I will say it again: the view of America (or any nation) as a "Christian nation" is fundamentally undemocratic and is impossible to reconcile with the pluralist principles fundamental to our state. Scalia is an eloquent champion for his side, but he misses that simple point. Where religion is dogmatic, democracy is indeterminate. It is impossible to combine complete, faith-based assurance and prudent, democratic pluralism. And once the state becomes "the minister of God," it is impossible for the non-believer to truly be part of the political community anymore.

1 comment:

Greg Ihrie said...

I hadn't read that opinion before, but it represents a butchery of Christian theology (at least as I understand it). Specifically, few, if any, Christians conflate temporal and spiritual authority. Take, for instance, Catholic resistance to the Holocaust in Poland, or current underground Christian (mainly Baptist) activity to promote democracy in China. No Christian - or anyone else from an Abrahamic tradition - can legitimately place the state on the same moral plane as God, since we know 1) that the state is fallible and 2) doing so violates the First commandment. The state doesn't deserve any special status as a "tool of God" either, because God can use anything to His ends. God's Word must always take precedence, whether written in the Bible or experienced as a revelation or acting "for conscience sake."