An atheist, supreme

Marc Cooper of the Nation magazine writes an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times:

As President Obama considers nominees to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a debate bubbles as to whether religion should play a role in his choice.

This is a no-brainer. The religious views of the next justice of the high court must absolutely be a decisive factor.

Though the court without Stevens will be left with six Catholics and two Jews, the open seat should not go to either domination. Nor should it go to a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Muslim or even a Zoroastrian. If it did, that would make nine people who all have one religious principle in common: a belief in religion.

Clearly, the next person to take the bench should be an atheist.

While few sitting politicians have the political courage to name a declared nonbeliever, it is something that Thomas Jefferson (and several others among the founders) might well have done.

In an 1823 letter to John Adams, Jefferson was forthright about his views of religion, and Christianity specifically. “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter,” Jefferson wrote. “But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.”

In other words, Jefferson liked what Jesus, the man, stood for, but could definitely do without the rest of the bunk.

That’s right. Bunk. There aren’t a lot of us, but something like one out of six Americans calls himself a nonbeliever. Holy moly! That means we would still be underrepresented with just one justice. But those of us who refuse to subscribe to any religious hocus-pocus would be happy to take what we can get in a country where seemingly no politician, from either party, can resist the temptation of ending a speech with the empty phrase “God bless America.”

Read the rest here.

Of course, the chances of an open atheist being nominated to the Supreme Court today are slim to none. The cultural and political climate isn’t right, at least not yet: Jefferson was a long time ago, and his antagonistic stance toward religion was quite obviously a major reason why the conservative Texas Board of Education has removed him from a list of influential Enlightenment thinkers. But if there’s any American politician who might be favorably inclined — at least personally if not publicly — toward nominating a nonbeliever, it would be Barack Obama, who has paid tribute to his own mother as an unabashed freethinker. It’s still unlikely that he’ll select an atheist, but what a courageous act it would be if he did.

In any case, it’s invigorating to see Cooper declaring his atheism in a major newspaper, and insisting that atheism be recognized as an important voice in America’s national conversation on values. More like this, please.

Update, 5/10:

It’s to be Elena Kagan. Kagan is Jewish, which means that if the Senate confirms her

the Supreme Court for the first time will have no Protestant members. In that case, the court would be composed of six justices who are Catholic and three who are Jewish. It also would mean that every member of the court had studied law at Harvard or Yale.

Hardly representative of American society in terms of religion, but certainly moving towards a more balanced male-female ratio (Kagan’s appointment would mean three women sitting concurrently in the Supreme Court, the highest number ever).

The NY Times article on Kagan’s career is a fascinating read. She certainly doesn’t seem to be afraid to tussle with religious authority:

The young Ms. Kagan was independent and strong-willed. [Former law partner Bill J.] Lubic recalls her bat mitzvah — or bas mitzvah, as it was then called — in a conservative synagogue, where Elena clashed with the rabbi over some aspect of the ceremony.

“She had strong opinions about what a bas mitzvah should be like, which didn’t parallel the wishes of the rabbi,” he said. “But they finally worked it out. She negotiated with the rabbi and came to a conclusion that satisfied everybody.”

Sounds like she’d make an impressively effective Justice. Good luck to her.

(Image via the USDOJ)


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