Colbert v. Stewart, and brief thoughts on clergy authenticity

There's lots of love out there right now in the religious world – well, in the Comedy Central-watching religious left world, anyway – for Stephen Colbert.  Several outlets have picked up on a Religious News Service (RNS) piece, Behind Colbert's right-wing funnyman, a quiet faith, and it is making its rounds among my friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook.  But count me among the less-than-impressed.

Stephen Colbert is funny and has good hair, and he often makes great and biting commentary through the faux smile of his conservative caricature.  Those who know religion can catch his subtle references to maters of faith and can appreciate that his comfort with matters of faith is rooted, by all accounts, in his own deeply-held personal faith commitments.  Most recently, Colbert went before a congressional subcommittee and, after a testimony offered in persona as the right wing commentator blowhard, he offered what seemed like a heart-felt and authentic plea for the better treatment of migrant workers, who he identified with "the least of these" in Jesus' famous words from Matthew 25:40.

Stephen_colbert-9310 But there's one problem: Colbert is phony.  For someone who is a comedian, authenticity isn't Goal #1 – laughs are.  Phoniness is part of the gig, making him funny … in an exaggerated and contrived way.  There's almost a Sasha Baron Cohen as Borat quality to Colbert when he is in persona.  But, when isn't he in persona?  We don't really get any sense of who Stephen Colbert himself actually is – except, perhaps, when he laughs at his own absurdity, temporarily falling out of character.  We don't know where the line separating his eponymous role from his own self is drawn.  It is this inherent quality of caricature in Stephen Colbert that makes him unsettlingly funny … but which, by contrast, prevents us viewers from having any clue with whom we're actually dealing. 

When an actor portrays a role in a movie or television show, the rules are clear – the actor is acting.  But when Stephen Colbert "acts" in a role named after himself, and when he comments on political and social issues of current interest in that role, we're not sure what we're seeing any longer.  Where does the shtick end and the reality begin?  Again, it's funny.  But – and now in reference to this RNS piece about his faith – it is this inability to trust just who or what we're dealing with when we watch Stephen Colbert that diminishes any impact his unique testimony of faith might have.  For how can we tell if his faith is part of the act or perhaps something authentic?  That too was the problem with his testimony before Congress.  His testimony was an act.  The form in which he offered his testimony detracted from any serious message he may have had to share with our elected leaders.

That's why, in the contest between Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, I'm on the side of Jon Stewart.  Stewart isn't a caricature.

Jon Stewart is a comic, but he is also more than a comic.  He is either "the smartest funny man or the funniest smart man" on television, as Paul Begala described him on an ill-fated episode of Crossfire six years ago.  But he's even more than a smart social commentator mixed with comedic relief.  Stewart is, dare I say, real, in a world full of fakes.  What is real?  I'll leave that question to the philosophers and to Neo and Morpheus from The Matrix.  But whatever real is, I believe that Jon Stewart is it. 

Six years ago Jon Stewart appeared on CNN's Crossfire, not in any persona, but as himself – a comedian, yes, but also as an American passionately worried about our nation and the state of its political discourse, insisting that shows such as Crossfire are "hurting America."  Whatever you think of him and his views, Stewart that day spoke honestly and earnestly and, almost single-handedly, brought down a show that epitomized the worst of American political discourse.  That's his appeal, and that's why I like him so much.  When on The Daily Show Stewart is blasting FOX News on one hand and is exasperated at the Democrats on the other, we sense that this is not an act but the brilliantly-delivered insights of a left-of-center comic who is one of the few people willing to say that none of the political emperors are wearing any clothes.

Shift to the church.  Who are we ministers when we step into the pulpit?  Are we phony preachers putting on a show, trying to portray a particular persona of faith and piety?  Or are we able to be ourselves in our own skin, trying less to play a role than we are trying to share a message in a compelling yet personal way?  We follow a script, yes, but are we following one that makes room for and gives voice to authenticity in message and in self?  I am reminded of one of my favorite verses from the Bible: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves" (1 Thessalonians 2:8; italics my emphasis).

In his classic, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger offers a commentary on preachers through the observations of a cynical Holden Caulfield.

If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers. The ones they've had at every school I've gone to, they all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don't see why the hell they can't talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (New York: Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback edition, 1991), pg. 100.

How often do we who lead churches try to play the role, speaking in our best "Holy Joe voices" (literally or figuratively) when a good ol' "inside voice" without any bravado or vibrato would do just fine?  And how many people in the pews and in our neighborhoods see right through the phoniness of our clergy and our churches and opt instead for the authenticity of other relationships, communities and causes?

May we who lead churches steer clear of Holy Joe voices and leave faux personas behind.  Instead, may we strive to conduct our ministry authentically, honestly, and faithfully, for in so doing we follow the way of our Lord Jesus, the Word of God, who came not with bluster or grandeur or in any "role," but who came to us in the simplicity and down-to-earth authenticity of a crying baby, truth-telling storyteller, and the suffering of one dying unjustly.

Knick-Knack Jesus OK in VA

I just read Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's opinion regarding the constitutionality of religious displays on public ground during the holidays, including displays of Jesus (pdf document of opinion; Washington Post blogpost on the matter). The sad thing is this: displays of Jesus are allowed on public ground so long as such displays are "not making a religious statement."

Translation: As long as Jesus remains a knick-knack (and not, you know, the Son of God who destroys death, raises up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and inaugurates the Kingdom of God, among other things) He can be displayed on public ground in Virginia, according to the Attorney General.

Truth be told, I'm not picking on Cuccinelli. I just get really annoyed when Jesus is turned into a knick-knack, whether by politicians, marketers, or by fellow Christians who somehow think that a taxpayer-funded "Court House Jesus" is a good idea.

Question: Why would anyone who respects religion want to rob its symbols of meaning just so they could be set on a court house lawn?

After all, the Supreme Court has already ruled that the phrase "In God We Trust" is essentially devoid of religious content and thus perfectly suitable as a national motto.  How sad it is that we are glad to render God language meaningless so that it can be fit for a coin.

Dear Government: Please keep your hands off of religious symbols. Religious communities and individuals can practice their religion just fine without your help.  Thank you.


Church/State issues are a favorite of mine.

Trying to Make Sense of Israel and Gaza and a Lutheran Bishop

Today I had the privilege of attending a briefing at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC for leaders in the faith community regarding Israel's interception of six boats bound for Gaza with humanitarian supplies, an incident that turned deadly on one of the vessels.  A high level officer at the embassy gave a statement for about 10 minutes before opening the floor for discussion among the approximately 25 guests present.

What I heard on today wasn't terribly different or much more informative than what I had learned by reading the Washington Post and listening to reports on National Public Radio, though it was helpful to hear the Israeli position articulated clearly both in a statement and in response to questions and comments sympathetic to different sides of this issue.

In short, Israel is in a state of armed conflict with a Hamas regime in Gaza that seeks Israel's destruction.  Israel's blockade of Gaza is intended to weaken Hamas, particularly its ability to mount attacks on Israel.  Daily over 100 truckloads of humanitarian supplies enter Gaza – food, medicine, etc. – and store shelves are generally well-stocked with daily necessities.

The blockade prohibits the import of all kinds of "dual use" products, such as concrete and other building supplies, that in the hands of civilians would contribute greatly to the economic development of Gaza.  However, such materials could be used by the Hamas regime for the military purposes of constructing bunkers and other military facilities.  I asked the embassy officer if Israel does or would allow the import of such "dual use" products if it had ways to deliver them to international relief or UN agencies working in Gaza, so that the Palestinians living in Gaza could grow their economy and opportunities.  He cited the recent construction of a French hospital as one instance of building materials moving into Gaza, but lamented that Hamas has been known to forcibly seize materials intended for civilian use and put them toward a military purpose.  Thus, Israel is generally reluctant to allow "dual use" materials into Gaza, since it feels it doesn't have an honest broker in the Hamas regime.  Who gets hurt?  The civilians, whose economy continues to spiral downward.

The officer repeated the position of Israel that it will sit at the negotiating table with Hamas as soon as Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist and drops its commitment to armed struggle against Israel.  Until that point, Israel considers itself to be in a continued armed conflict with Hamas, and will continue its blockade to weaken the Hamas regime.  He cited the near-daily instances of rockets being fired into Israel as one indication that this conflict is active, that Hamas is not a partner in peace, and that the blockade's cessation is dependent on Hamas ending hostilities.

Yet, it didn't take a meeting with a high level embassy official to understand this point of view.  By reading news reports and editorial page columns, even someone who is very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people (as I am) can clearly see that Hamas is no partner in peace and that Israel has a right to defend itself.  The flotilla was designed less to deliver aid than it was to draw attention to the blockade and force Israel's hand – and that it did.  The loss of life in the interception of the flotilla was horrible, and Israel should rightly re-examine its tactics – not just the military intervention, but all the diplomatic efforts that preceded the interception – to learn if there were ways this loss of life could have been avoided.  For seizing the boats Israel should not be condemned; for its poor execution of the interception, Israel rightly merits some criticism.  Yet we should be clear that the group behind the flotilla has ties to terrorists and was on a political mission to discredit Israel and its legal, if nonetheless economically crippling, blockade.

In response to this crisis, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a statement expressing sadness and regret at the loss of life, and calling for the the lifting of the blockade of Gaza.  The statement is disappointingly one-sided, failing to mention that Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to ongoing violence against Israel, and that the organizers of the flotilla had political motivations and terrorist ties.  The situation in Israel and Gaza is horrible, but the answer doesn't lie in opening Gaza's borders to trade from Iran, Syria, and other enemies of Israel.  Hamas has not demonstrated that it can be trusted.

Which gets us to the question about how all this ends.  Israel says it will talk with Hamas once Hamas gives up its commitment to violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.  But will Hamas ever agree to this?  Regime change within Gaza seems unlikely.  Hamas has such control over civil society in Gaza that there is little chance at this time for political opposition to mount a serious challenge to Hamas' authority.  So unless Hamas has a change of heart – due to internal or external pressure – it seems that this standoff will continue, and the people of Gaza will continue to suffer.

The official denied that Israel has responsibility for the suffering of the people of Gaza – that's up to Hamas, he said.  And to a large extent, he's right.  Hamas could do much more to improve the quality of life of its residents, but Hamas refuses.  Hamas would rather remain committed to an ideology than seek a better life for Gazans.

But on the other hand, the official's argument is insufficient.  The "Pottery Barn Principle," made famous by Colin Powell, states that "if you broke it, you buy it."  For better or worse, Israel as long-time occupier of Gaza and now blockade enforcer owns this situation and has to deal with it, no matter who is in power in Gaza.  Does Israel have alternatives to its current policy?  I'm not sure.  But saying "it's up to the other guys to make the first step" might not be enough.  While Israel waits for the other guys to make the first step, at its doorstep a failing society with lots of young, increasingly angry and poorly educated young men is descending into ever-increasing dysfunction.

Shut up about Washington, will ya?

I've lived in the DC-area for nearly three years, and "inside the beltway" for 18 months.  If I were to believe everything that politicians would tell me – particularly the anti-incumbent challengers making life difficult for so many established elected leaders, both Republican and Democrat – I should be pretty sleazy by about now. 

You see, many of these politicians run on an anti-Washington platform, claiming that Washington is a noxious warp where reality doesn't really exist, middle class concerns fall on deaf ears, and leaders lose their sense of morality and common sense.  What is needed are some outsiders to clean up the place.

We've heard that before.  Like in 1994.

Dana Milbank notes that at least 20% of the elected leaders who came to office as part of the "Republican Revolution" have since found themselves embroiled in ethical scandals, many including sex.  (Ironically, one of the proposals in GOP's 1994 "Contract with America" was the "Personal Responsibility Act."  Evidently legislating the morality of others is easier than governing your own!)  Writing about Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the latest elected victim of his own unbridled passion, Milbank rightly notes that the scandals that plague Democrats and
Republicans alike have little to do with Washington, and much more to do
with the people that our citizens send here to run the place.

In his hasty farewell, Souder took the well-worn path of blaming his departure on Washington. "In the poisonous environment of Washington, D.C., any personal failing is seized upon, often twisted, for political gain," he complained. "I am resigning rather than put my family through that painful, drawn-out process."

Yet millions of people live in the Washington area, and relatively few of us have adulterous relationships with married subordinates we have hired to assist us in broadcasts for Christian media outlets. That, and not this town's "poisonous environment," is why Souder is resigning.

Perhaps the problem is that lawmakers are spending too little time in Washington. In the old days, they moved their families here; now they jet back and forth and focus on raising campaign money, straining marriages. That reality, combined with the sense of invincibility many lawmakers acquire, has ensnared more than a few of Souder's classmates — most of whom came to town with a "family values" message.

So please, dear politicians – I'm taking to you, Rand Paul, Joe Sestak, Bill Halter, and others – give up the simplistic and unimaginative anti-Washington rhetoric.  It only serves to create a boogeyman that doesn't really exist … until some firebrand, populist politician needs somebody to blame for his own failures.

National Day of Prayer declared unconstitutional

Yesterday the United States District Court in the Western District of Wisconsin declared that the National Day of Prayer is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.  Though I'm generally a big fan of keeping church and state separate, I'll reserve comment on the particulars of this case until I read the ruling (found here, as a pdf).  Until then, here are some links to articles I found helpful:

Howard Friedman's Religion Clause blog: National Day of Prayer Declared Unconstitutional

Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom blog: Judge Rules National Day of Prayer Law Unconstitutional

The Christian Science Monitor: Federal Judge: National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional

Also, I wrote about the National Day of Prayer a few years ago, here: Why I don't like the National Day of Prayer

Church and State and Care for the Poor

Last week Catholic Charities in Washington DC announced that if the DC City Council passes its gay marriage bill – enacting, among other things, a requirement that all contractors doing
business with the District government provide health benefits to same
gender couples – it would have to withdraw from its contracts with the city, for providing such benefits would violate the teachings of the church.  The response has been quite strong and, frankly, quite ugly.

In the Washington Post we read a columnist berate the church for being "uncharitable and cruel."  In that same paper we read a headline characterizing the church's announcement as an "ultimatum," and that one council member has called the church "childish" for its announcement.

I don't write here to defend a certain policy of the Roman Catholic Church.  I don't write as an advocate for "traditional marriage."  (In fact, I supported the actions of my church to welcome gays and lesbians to serve in the ministry, and for congregations to perform blessings for same-gender relationships.)  I don't write to meddle in the affairs of another church.

Rather, I write here today, as I did in a letter published in the Washington Post, to defend religious liberty and the principle of separation of church and state (a topic I've addressed quite often on this blog).  The church has a right to conduct its ministry according to the dictates of its faith, and it saddens me to no end to see the church take a beating in the press. Furthermore, it frightens me to think that society would dictate to the church how it should conduct its ministry.

Much of the outrage stems from a misunderstanding of the distinct roles that church and state play in society.  The state has responsibility for caring for the public good, ensuring good order, public safety, and so forth (see Luther on Government and Psalm 82).  The church, while it has a social mission and a public calling, is primarily responsible to its faith and traditions and, ultimately, to the God in whom it confesses faith.  At times the work of church and state overlaps – both desire to see the poor cared for, for example.  And so, over the years, the state has come to depend on the church to deliver social services, even awarding social service contracts to the church's ministries to carry out the state's responsibilities to care for the poor.

However, society has become so dependent on the church's social ministry organizations – to the extend of providing them with millions of dollars of funding – that some have forgotten that these are not government services, but Christian ministries, driven and shaped by a particular faith and mission in obedient service to God.  So when Catholic Charities objects on the grounds of faith to statutes that would require it to provide health benefits to the partners of gay staff members, some have become outraged, as if the church is backing out on its social contract with society.  From the column by Petula Dvorak:

"I don't get it. What do gay people have to do with the shelters?
They're the Church; that's what they do. They help. That don't make no
sense," the woman said.

That's right.

Actually, that isn't right.  "Shelters" or "help" is not what the church does.  Serving the poor is not what the church does.  First and foremost, what the church does is respond in faith to the call of Jesus to follow him.  And while for many Christians, including Roman Catholics, that call includes serving the poor, the ways in which they serve the poor is just as important as the service in the first place.

Take, for example, the St. Francis Inn in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.  This is a soup kitchen that serves its guests restaurant-style at tables, bringing them meals, napkins, drinks, and utensils.  After the guests eat, the tables are later cleared, just as at a restaurant, by the staff (paid and volunteer) of the St. Francis Inn.  Surely the Inn could provide food cafeteria style, or hand out bags of food from a window.  Such a set-up might be more efficient.  But they don't.  Rather, they offer their guests a dignified meal, a meal shared with love, a meal that reflects the words painted on the Inn's walls: "They recognized him in the breaking of the bread" (from Luke 24).  Not only do they serve in response to the call of Christ, but the way they serve is also shaped by that call.

Few can argue with providing a dignified meal and dining experience to the homeless.  But I would suggest that Catholic Charities' inability to comply with certain provisions in the pending DC gay marriage bill is analogous to the example of the St Francis Inn – that it is not only the delivery of services that is important to the church, but the ways in which those services are delivered is just as important.  The church must provide its services in accordance with the dictates of its faith, and this includes such mundane details as who it hires and what benefits it provides to those employees.  If the DC Council doesn't change the provisions of its bill, it will lose a reliable social service contractor because the church – even as a contractor – must be able to conduct its work in accordance with its faith.

The problem is, however, that many people disagree with the church's teachings about faith and sexuality.  There are many, both within and outside of the church, who support full civil and marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and who find such relationships to be fully compatible with the Gospel.  There is a legitimate and necessary debate on these issues within churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.  But for now the Roman Catholic Church continues to teach a certain "traditional" understanding of sexuality, an understanding that conflicts with the emerging consensus in our society that embraces same-gender relationships just as much as opposite-gender relationships.

Perhaps this case serves as a wake-up call to local and state governments around the nation who depend on faith-based organizations to deliver services on their behalf.  The state either has to respect the limitations of faith-based organizations, or it has to provide for the services they offer in other ways.  As I wrote in my letter to the Washington Post:

So the church has a choice: Accept Caesar's money or not. If it accepts
Caesar's money, then it has to play by Caesar's rules. The District has
a choice, too: Change the proposed law to retain a reliable social
service contractor, or stick to its principles and find a new
contractor to deliver social services.


I'm exploring the term "Judeo-Christian."  Any suggested reading for background and history of this term?

In recent years I have found this term to be problematic.  What exactly is "Judeo-Christian?"  Who uses the term?  What does use of this term mean in the American context for a diverse nation based on laws and freedoms, not ethnic/religious identity?

A few times on this blog I have wondered if use of this term wasn't a form of religious arrogance on the part of Christians:

Do Jews ever speak of "Judeo-Christian" values?  I've only ever hear Christians (conservative Christians, at that) use this term, and I wonder if it represents an attempt by majority Christians to claim a broader mandate for their narrow social agenda.  By using the term "Judeo-Christian" conservative Christians imply that their social agenda is in keeping with the Jewish people today and with the Jewish tradition spanning several thousand years.  This seems terribly arrogant, if not worse.

– quoted from the bottom of this post about an effort by conservative Christians to elect "godly Christians" to office, envisioning "an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority"

For example: it is usually Christians, speaking of a "Judeo-Christian" heritage, who argue for placing the Ten Commandments in public parks or in courthouses.  Rarely have I heard Jews make such arguments.  If it is largely Christians who use the term "Judeo-Christian," does the term truly speak to things shared between Jews and Christians?  And worse, if this term is overwhelmingly used by Christians and not Jews, is its use in any way antisemitic?  Insensitive or arrogant, at least …

From what I can tell this term surfaced a few times in the early 20th century, but didn't become somewhat common until the 1940s, and has been used extensively by Christian conservatives since their political rise starting in the late 1970s.  For one Jewish perspective on this term (and a little bit of history, too), read this: Regarding the Term "Judeo-Christian"

And just on Wednesday I heard another concern about the term "Judeo-Christian" – that within the Abrahamic faiths the term places Judaism and Christianity together in a union, over and against Islam.  From a discussion about Barack Obama's visit to Cairo on public radio:

I find it very disturbing when I hear people, especially in the West – I also hear this in the Arab and Muslim world, but more often in the West – [when] I hear people talking of the "Judeo-Christian heritage."  Look, the Jews lived in Islam and have contributed to Islamic civilization for centuries! And then you get people talking about "the Judeo-Christian," as if, you know, the Jews and the Christians have always been a separate civilization and culture, separate from the civilization and culture of Muslims.

I think that one of the interesting things that could come out of the visit of Barack Obama to the Middle East is perhaps to trigger a debate among Muslims and among Christians and Jews in the West as to what role the Jews have played in Muslim culture and civilization, as opposed to just talking about Muslims over the last several decades being anti-Jewish.

Look, the West does not have to give Muslims lessons about being anti-Jewish.  Muslims didn't have the Holocaust, Muslims didn't have the pogroms that we saw in Europe in the 18th and 19th century.  The anti-Jewish attitude that we have seen, and it does exist, and the anti-Jewish propoganda does exist in the Muslim world, is in large part related to what Obama is now trying to have people debate, a solution to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.

– Abderrahim Foukara, Washington burea chief of Al Jazeera Arabic, on The Diane Rhem Show, Wednesday, June 3 – "President Obama in Cairo"

I don't deny that some things are shared between Christians and Jews, and that there may be an appropriate, narrow usage for the term "Judeo-Christian."  However, I find its wide application to things political, cultural, historical, and moral – interestingly enough, I rarely find the term used by theologians – to be problematic for Jewish-Christian relations and, indeed, for the ways we understand the relationship between the Abrahamic religions and their cultures.

Any thoughts?

Political, but not Partisan

When I returned to blogging a few months after my ordination I vowed to stay away from politics, rather wanting to focus this blog on church, theology, and other matters.  Yet in the past few days I have found myself consumed with the situation surrounding Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, both on this blog and on Facebook.  As Scott asked on an earlier blogpost, "Chris – thought you were done with politics?"  Yes and no.  

Many people speak of being "Spiritual but not religious."  Perhaps some of my posts on this blog could be considered "Political but not partisan."

That is, I have given up blatantly partisan writing … in fact, I have deleted most of my partisan Vote-for-Bob type older posts, and you will not see such posts in the future.  I no longer write on this blog in direct advocacy for politicians or their parties.  However, there are other issues that are "political" in nature that call my attention and on which I do and will continue to employ a few pixels here.

One such issue is the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor … actually, I'm less interested in her particular nomination than I am concerned by the tone of the discussion that has surrounded it.  Both because of some things she has said in the past, and also because of her historic nomination as the first Latina named to the Supreme Court, issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and identity have returned to the national discussion, and to me these are issues of central importance to our nation and its understanding of justice … and are issues to which our Christian faith speaks.  So in my blogpost about Sotomayor's comments (and in my Facebook postings) I have tried to go deeper into the issue … reading and reflecting on her whole speech (rather than responding to one line taken out of context), and thinking about what it means to be a multicultural nation dedicated to justice for all.

(FYI, four years ago I wrote about the nomination of then-Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court, and the concerns about his religious faith that surfaced at that time – Our Discomfort with Faith.  Then, as with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor now, I have tried to look at some of the issues that the nomination brings to the national scene, not necessarily the nomination itself.  By the way, I was generally supportive of the Roberts nomination, as I am of the Sotomayor nomation.)

I know that there are general partisan camps into which many of my perspectives fall, and that many reading this blog will disagree with my perspectives on these "political but not partisan" issues.  That's fine.  There is nothing wrong with having different perspectives and ideas on these matters.  Please leave a comment, and we can have a good conversation.  But my goal is not partisan advocacy … rather, it is to offer reflections on important issues in what I hope is a strong yet thoughtful and honest manner.

Peace to you.

Sonia Sotomayor’s 2001 speech

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her
experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a
white male who hasn't lived that life."

Believe it or not, that line was part of a much longer speech.  The full text of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's controversial speech can be found here, via the New York Times: Lecture: "A Latina Judge's Voice".  Too bad that little attention has been given by the media to the speech, but that instead they have focused only on a single isolated line from it.

Please read the full text to see that this quote, while perhaps overstated, is given at the end of a long speech describing the positive impact that a diverse judiciary has on cases affecting minority groups. In this speech Judge Sotomayor points out that the presence of cultural minorities and women on the bench (and in the legal profession in general) has resulted in greater justice for women and minorities … ie, "better conclusions" (to use her words), better rulings for minorities than have been historically handed down by courts comprised exclusively of white males.

Read the whole speech, and judge for yourself.


“Heritage Shapes Judge’s Perspective”

Much is being made of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's ethnicity and her ocassional comments about the role that her family background and cultural heritage play in her judicial practice.  Heritage Shapes Judge's Perspective was the headline for a front-page piece about Judge Sotomayor in Wednesday's Washington Post, under a smaller topical heading entitled, Ethnic Identity.  The article highlights her ethnic heritage and the influence it has had on her law career.

Question: who is the last white male to be nominated to the Supreme Court to have similar headlines written about his ethnic heritage, to have questions raised about the way his family or cultural background shape his judicial perspectives?  We don't question the ethnic or family influences of a white male, but why not?   Are we to believe that a white, male judge is not influenced by his upbringing in suburbia or private schools, that the manner in which he looks at the law and court cases is not influenced by his experience of being raised by parents who were college educated and well connected?  Of course not!  

Surely the cultural experience of being a white, upper class male shapes how someone looks at the law, just as the cultural experience of being a working class urban latina shapes how Judge Sotomayor might look at the law.  But our society is confortable with the white male middle/upper class perspective on law and governance, and anxious perhaps about the perspective a Bronx-raised Latina might offer to the Court and our nation.  Shame on us.

A Justice Sotomayor might (at times) see in the law in a different light than does a white male justice from a priveleged background.  What makes some anxious (perhaps subconsciously) is that in some way Sotomayor may chip away at the white male hegemony over legal interpretation … that she may contribute in some way to a fresh and legitimate way of looking at the law, a way that appreciates that the law must serve the interests of Americans in the suburbs and the city, that the law must serve the daughters of recent immigrants just as much as it serves the daughters of the American Revolution.  Messing with the status quo is never easy.  But by naming someone whose life story is significantly different than the majority of Justices in the Court's history President Obama is doing precisely that – messing with the status quo.  Good for him.

A legal system that is by the people and for the people can and should be interepreted by a panel of Justices that looks something like the diverse people it serves.  Assuming that the members of that panel are highly qualified – and there is no doubt that Judge Sotomayor is qualified – we should be excited, not anxious, by the increasing diversity of the Court that serves "We the People."