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What Originalist Neil Gorsuch's Protestant Roots Mean

What Originalist Neil Gorsuch's Protestant Roots Mean

Well, maybe not much.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has been scrutinized from nearly every angle, and one of the most significant points of discussion is his view on religion, both professionally and personally. When the controversial Supreme Court nominee took his seat Monday, he became the first non-Catholic and non-Jew on the bench in over a decade — but that fact may not be as meaningful as some make it out to be.

For one, “Justice Gorsuch's background could actually be a bit more complex than ‘Protestant,’” said Richard Garnett, University of Notre Dame law professor and director of the Program on Church, State and Society.

Even if Gorsuch now attends an Episcopal church, he was raised Catholic and received a parochial education.

“Some Catholics might say, then, that he's actually — like five of the other justices — a Roman Catholic,” Garnett said.

Related Link: How Will Trump's Supreme Court Pick Affect The Economy?

Muddied Religion

On top of that, the theological and historical diversity among Protestants in the United States means there is no comprehensive Christian philosophy and no single “Protestant” way of judging. Intra-religious disputes arise over topics such as abortion, immigration policy and affirmative action, as well as more nuanced legal details generally brought before the court.

“I do not believe — and I am confident that Justice Gorsuch does not believe — that there is a distinctly ‘Protestant’ way of judging, or of interpreting and applying the Constitution,” Garnett said. “It is certainly the case that many people's values and commitments are shaped by religious faith and tradition, and it is very likely that Justice Gorsuch's have been too. But most judges would insist that, most of the time, the questions that judges are asked to answer are more technical than theological.”

The fact of his Protestantism, then, bears little significance to his role on the Court.

The Not-So-Protestant Constitution

Nor does it affect his position as an originalist, a proponent of interpreting the Constitution according to the framers’ original intention.

On Monday, Gorsuch succeeded Catholic originalist Antonin Scalia, who shared a common judicial philosophy but varied in religious philosophy. Although Gorsuch aligns ideologically with the framers and appears better positioned to grasp Protestant perspectives underpinning Constitutional principles, the intellectual edge is undercut by the fact of religious plurality.

Gorsuch’s Episcopalian lens likely differs from those of the Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Quaker, Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian and even fellow Episcopal framers of the Constitution.

“While we can possibly say that America's individualistic traditions and market-oriented approach to many policies generally reflect our largely Protestant character, I think it is very difficult to identify anything distinctively Protestant about a modern-day Protestant judge’s approach to the law,” Garnett said.

Additionally, there’s the fact that the Constitution may not have been significantly shaped by its authors’ religious roots.

“It is true that the vast majority of those who drafted, and then ratified, the Constitution were ‘Protestants,’ but it is less clear what that fact has to do with the Constitution's meaning,” Garnett said.

More recent legislative activity, such as prohibition and abolition, were largely influenced by Protestant activism, and Garnett noted that some modern judges have been motivated by religious bias. However, most of the provisions brought before the Supreme Court “do not seem to reflect any distinctively Protestant view.”

Image credit: White House official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Posted-In: Christianity Neil Gorsuch Protestant religionEducation Politics Interview General Best of Benzinga


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