Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Pope, the Constitution, and other newsmakers--and reasons for hope and charity

Those who follow current events will know that Pope Francis and the US Constitution have been in the news recently, as have what I consider to be deeply troubling statements by certain public figures.

The Pope and Donald Trump

Pope Francis was briefly in the news for criticizing those who propose mass deportation and the building of walls: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel."

Donald Trump, who has proposed building a wall between the US and Mexico, responded that the Pope's comments were "disgraceful," adding that "No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith." Trump's social media director called the Pope's remarks "hypocritical" since there is a wall around the Vatican. (But, it should be noted, there are openings in that wall that allow for easy access to the Vatican.)

The war of words calmed down as Trump said he liked the Pope and the Pope indicated he has been speaking in general terms and was not trying to advise Americans who to vote for.

In defense of the Pope, I would say that he is entitled to express his opinions. Of course, as a public figure and the leader of a large religious group, he ought to exercise care in expressing those opinions. But I don't think he intended to question anyone's religious affiliation. Instead, I believe he was using "not Christian" to describe certain attitudes and behavior that, in his view, are not in harmony with the teachings of Christ. And in this case, I agree with him.

In fact, I believe that religious leaders have an obligation to provide moral guidance. I'm a Latter-day Saint ("Mormon"), and, though I'm glad the leaders of my church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) work hard to maintain partisan neutrality and are sparing in their involvement in political issues, I'm also glad they have taken positions on some issues, encouraging (for instance) a compassionate approach on immigration and undocumented residents.

Speaking of religion, morality, and politics, Mr. Trump made another interesting (and I think appalling) statement just yesterday, suggesting that we might want to follow the (possibly apocryphal) example of General John Pershing, who, according to Trump, while seeking to subdue resistance from Muslims in the Philippines, dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood (eating pig's meat is forbidden by Islamic as well as Jewish law) and then "lined up the 50 people and they shot 49 of those 50 people, and he said to the 50th, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened--and in 25 years there wasn't a problem."

For the Council on American-Islamic Relations, however, there was a problem in Trump's rhetoric, which they said had "crossed the line from spreading hatred to inciting violence." In their view:
By directly stating that the only way to stop terrorism is to murder Muslims in graphic and religiously-offensive ways, he places the millions of innocent, law-abiding citizens in the American Muslim community at risk from rogue vigilantes. He further implies that our nation should adopt a strategy of systematized violence in its engagement with the global Muslim community, a chilling message from a potential leader. We pray that no one who hears this message follows his gospel of hate.
How would religious leaders weigh in on this issue? That depends on the leaders. But I'm confident that Catholic and most mainstream Protestant leaders would find Trump's suggestions offensive, as would leaders of other religious communities. Latter-day Saints leaders have not commented directly on Trump's statement, but they have made statements in favor of tolerance and goodwill among those of different religious traditions and against actions deliberately offensive to others' religious beliefs. For instance, in response to threats made by some Americans to burn the Koran, the Church released a statement saying: “A key tenet of our faith is to accord everyone the freedom to worship as they choose. It is regrettable that anyone would regard the burning of any scriptural text as a legitimate form of protest or disagreement.” (

(For more on Latter-day Saints and Muslims, see a blog I posted over five years ago:

The US Constitution

The US Constitution is often mentioned in political discussions in the United States. Many with widely different views believe that their own views are more in harmony with the Constitution than anyone else's. I believe the the Constitution is an important and even an inspired document. But it obviously shows the signs of human construction, and it can obviously be interpreted in different ways by different (and all imperfect) human beings.

I admire the view of those described as "originalists," who think that modern judges should determine the document's meaning in accordance with the intent of the original authors of the Constitution. But even if I were to accept that view wholeheartedly, I would have to acknowledge that the wording of the Constitution did not mean exactly the same thing to every individual involved in its composition or approval and that the best we can do, given our own limitations and the complexities of historical interpretation, is to approximate what we think was the original authors' intent. Even if the original authors had a single, uniform understanding of every word in the document (which they didn't) and even if we could determine that understanding perfectly (which we can't), I think we could still legitimately consider the possibility that changing circumstances might require us to adjust (even if just slightly) what we take to be the meaning of the words.

Having said that, I think it's interesting that some of those who present themselves as strict constructionists in regard to constitutional interpretation have suggested something that I would (semi-facetiously) describe as revising the meaning of the Constitution without going through the amendment process. What I'm alluding to is the current controversy over whether President Obama should nominate a successor to Antonin Scalia as a member of the US Supreme Court. I believe it's clear that the Constitution indicates he should (that is, not only does he have the option of doing so; he has the duty).

Here's how the relevant wording reads (from Article 2, section 2):
He [the President] . . . by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . . Judges of the supreme Court. . . .
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
By the way, Supreme Court Justices have occasionally been appointed without a vote in the Senate during a recess and then approved when the Senate reconvenes. That, however, is not what is at issue now, simply whether the President should appoint a justice (subject to the Senate's consent) while the Senate is in session or should relinquish that duty and leave it to his successor, who will take office almost a year from now.

The Senate, of course, has the option of approving the President's appointment or rejecting it. Historically, almost all appointments were approved, often by unanimous vote. That changed mainly beginning in the 1960s (with rejection of some nominations by Lyndon Johnson) and especially after the rejection of Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork in the 1980s. Since then, the process of considering and voting on Supreme Court nominations has been increasingly politicized. This is the first time, though, that a strong move has been made to prevent having a President even make a nomination or having the Senate consider the nomination.

Some have suggested that there's a tradition that presidents don't nominate a Supreme Court Justice in the final year of their presidency. That is not true. For one thing, one of President Reagan's nominations was approved in the last year of his presidency.

In any case, I see the delay some are calling for to be a kind of "amending" of the Constitution without going through the amendment process. The new wording (assuming that such a process were to take place) would be something like this:
He [the President] . . . by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . . Judges of the supreme Court during the first three full years of his term. But he shall not make such an appointment during the final full year of his term. . . .
Just to be clear: this is not how the Constitution currently reads. I suppose some would limit the prohibition on a fourth year Supreme Court nomination to a president's second term and allow him to make such nominations during his entire first term. But that seems odd since the fourth year of a first-term president would still be an election year, and the presidential election could still be taken, as some have suggested (but as the Constitution does not), as a referendum on who should fill a vacancy in the court. As for the Constitutional allowance for a recess appointment without (initial) Senate approval, I'm not sure what those pushing for a delay would say.

I'm confident that if Mitt Romney had been elected president, none of those now calling on President Obama to delay making an appointment would argue for a hypothetical "President Romney" to delay. On the other hand, there very well could be Democrats, in such a situation, calling for delay. I hope that I'm independent minded enough that I would still favor following standard constitutional procedure, even if I wasn't sure I would like the outcome.

(Another issue: I have wondered whether a delay in filling a Supreme Court vacancy could theoretically be indefinite. That is, could a president indefinitely delay nominating a justice--including a chief justice--and could the Senate indefinitely delay giving consent, not to mention delay even considering the nominee? Such delays could, of course, in some circumstances lead to a constitutional crisis, as could similar delays in following the provisions of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment about filling the office of vice-president when a vice-president succeeds to the presidency after the death, resignation, or removal from office of a president. I've tried to think through this issue in a separate blog post:

Antonin Scalia

I think it likely that Justice Scalia would NOT have been in favor of a year-long delay in filling a Supreme Court vacancy, even during an election year. Besides being devoted to the letter of the Constitution, Scalia regretted the politicization of the court and was on friendly terms with justices who differed from him ideologically. He was especially good friends with Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan. In fact, he privately (and indirectly) suggested that President Obama consider Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, on the grounds that, knowing the President wouldn't appoint an ideological clone of Scalia, he should nominate "someone smart." Scalia specifically mentioned Kagan, probably for her pragmatism and sense of humor as well as her intellect, and in fact, when she eventually became a member of the court, they struck up a close friendship. (See

Today, a funeral was held for Justice Scalia. The funeral mass held for him is, of course, very different from the funeral that will be held a week from today for my father-in-law Robert Blair, who died yesterday morning. But as I watched part of Scalia's funeral, I saw some connections. This funeral was celebrated by one of Scalia's sons, who is a priest. In his homily that son taught several truths with which I heartily agree. He expressed great love for his father but also acknowledged that he, like all of us, was a sinner. His father was not yet perfect, he said, or rather Christ is not yet perfected in him--and until that happens in any of us, we cannot enter heaven (or what Latter-day Saints call "the celestial kingdom" or the fullness of God's presence). He referred to his father as an imperfect man who needs further cleansing through God's grace.

As I assume most readers are aware, Scalia was Catholic, and this allusion to an intermediate state--sometimes called Purgatory--is a distinctively Catholic doctrine, something strict Protestants don't believe in. (The strictly Protestant view is that everyone goes to either heaven or hell immediately upon death.) Also, the funeral mass included a great deal of praying for the dead--something again that Protestants don't generally do, holding that there is nothing we can do for those who have died. In fact, 500 years ago, these issues were at the root of the Reformation.

Though the Latter-day Saint view isn't exactly like that of Catholics, we differ even more from strict Protestants on these issues. We believe we can do something for those who have died. That in fact is one of the main purposes of temples. There the work of salvation extends to those who have died. It follows that we believe there is an intermediate state between death and final judgment. Joseph Smith taught that "it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave," and a later prophet, Joseph F. Smith, taught (echoing the New Testament teachings of Peter) that the gospel is preached to those who have died that they might prepare to receive the blessings of eternal life. (See 1 Peter 3 & 4 and Doctrine and Covenants 138.)

C. S. Lewis too believed in such an intermediate state, despite the fact that he considered himself an ordinary Anglican, that is, a member of a more or less Protestant church that theoretically rejected the idea of Purgatory. Lewis stated his view in a book titled Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, where he says that he believes in Purgatory and that "Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me." He continues: "Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the 'Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory' as that Romish doctrine had then become." Yet, he says, "Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' - 'Even so, sir.'" Then he says:
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.
I find the language of Joseph F. Smith in Doctrine and Covenants section 138 still more illuminating and more deeply in harmony with the fundamental doctrines of salvation:
29 And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;
 30 But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
 31 And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel.
 32 Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.
 33 These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands,
 34 And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. . . .
 57 I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.
 58 The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,
 59 And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.
The work of salvation is universal, extending to both sides of the veil (by the way, Scalia's son referred to "the veil" being especially "thin" at funerals), extending to the past, present, and future, reaching every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. There is great reason for hope, great reason for charity, even toward those whose words, attitudes, and behavior seem at present something less than fully "Christian." Taken strictly, that would describe all of us.

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