In the first of this series, I noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison begins with a 1943 essay titled “After Ten Years,” written the year before he was imprisoned by the Nazis. In it, the German theologian/preacher/teacher asked, “Who stands fast?” after a decade of National Socialism in Germany, declaring: “The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to any brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.”
Bonhoeffer then identified specific ways in which “standing fast” on ethical and gospel precepts seemed lost on many segments of German society.
First, he insisted that the “reasonable” people’s failure was “obvious,” since “in their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved.” Sound familiar in 2020?
Second, “still more pitiable is the total collapse of moral fanaticism,” persons who believe that their “single-minded principles” qualify them to confront social evils, but who then “get entangled in non-essentials,” entrapped by “the cleverer people.” Anybody done that in 2020?
Third, those individuals “with a conscience” fought courageously “against heavy odds in situations that call for a decision.” Yet the “scale of the conflicts” involving evil “in so many respectable and seductive disguises” tore them to pieces, so they lied to their consciences “to avoid despair.” Reality, 2020.
No, the USA 2020 is not Germany 1943, yet Bonhoeffer’s description of those moral failures sounds strangely familiar in the land of the free and the home of the politically expedient, especially in matters of conscience.
Supreme Court nomination is symptomatic
Amid the many crises of conscience that confront us, none seems more symptomatic than the fast-tracked appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States, a lifetime position based on what seemed a 15-minute examination process. (That’s a slightly hyperbolic exaggeration.)
My concerns here are not immediately related to inevitable decisions that are apt to come from a rightward-packed Supreme Court majority. Currently, I’m compelled to confess (with Jesus) that “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Today, the process by which this appointment transpired is evidence enough of our vacuous national conscience and our acceptance of hypocrisy as merely “the nature of politics.” Worse yet, that the newly appointed justice, in spite of her unashamed declarations of Christian commitment, willingly participated in such a hypocritical process suggests that her conscience is sadly compromised even before she renders a judicial opinion.
Senate Republicans took supposedly “normative” political hypocrisy to a new low with the Barrett appointment, contradicting their refusal four years ago even to consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the court, insisting that an eight-month distance from a presidential election undermined the “will of the people” in selecting a new justice.
Who can (or should) forget Sen. Lindsey Graham’s 2016 televised confession of faith: “If an opening (on the Court) comes in the last year of President Trump’s term and the primary process has started, we’ll wait to the next election.” “You’re on the record,” the television host observed of Graham’s “public profession.” “Yes,” the South Carolina senator replied, “hold the tape,” orally signing a senatorial Decision Card.
“GOP senators excused the rapidity of that lifetime appointment with a casuistry that would send a medieval Jesuit to confession.”
Yet four years later, on Sept. 26, 2020, a week after the death of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and within only five weeks of Nov. 3, Barrett was nominated for the Supreme Court. Her resulting confirmation occurred on Oct. 28, exactly eight days before the 2020 presidential election. GOP senators excused the rapidity of that lifetime appointment with a casuistry that would send a medieval Jesuit to confession, attempting to cover their unoriginal sin of hypocrisy with the fig leaf of a Republican presidency and a Senate majority.
Our Bonhoeffer moment
Then there’s the rest of us, often too quick to substitute cynicism for conscience (“What did you expect? They’re all hypocrites!”); deference for dissent (“Well, they have the majority.”); or acquiescence for accountability (“That’s just how it is.”)
No, it isn’t, or shouldn’t be.
Our own Bonhoeffer moment requires us to acknowledge that we, like the “reasonable people” of Bonhoeffer’s Germany, can become so cynical, so defeatist in the face of national hypocrisy that we “want to do justice to all sides, and so conflicting forces wear (us) down with nothing achieved.”
Egregious hypocrisy (as opposed to the everyday kind), unconfronted in politics or religion, is hypocrisy perpetuated. Yes, the Democrats have their share of it, but that doesn’t excuse the Republicans here and now. “Today’s trouble is enough for today. Tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” (That’s Jesus doing the talking.) We’ll deal with Democratic hypocrisy when they’re the Senate majority.
Barrett’s Bonhoeffer moment
Which brings us back to conscience and the new justice. Some 200 of Judge Barrett’s female and male Notre Dame faculty colleagues signed letters issued on Oct. 10 and 14 appealing to conscience in her participation in the high court process, given its rapidity and proximity to the election.
The Oct. 10 epistle explained: “The politics of your nomination, as you surely understand, will further inflame our civic wounds, undermine confidence in the court, and deepen the divide among ordinary citizens, especially if you are seated by a Republican Senate weeks before the election of a Democratic president and congress. You have the opportunity to offer an alternative to all that by demanding that your nomination be suspended until after the election. We implore you to take that step.”
It concluded: “We’re asking a lot, we know. Should Vice President Biden be elected, your seat on the court will almost certainly be lost. That would be painful, surely. Yet there is much to be gained in risking your seat. You would earn the respect of fair-minded people everywhere. You would provide a model of civic selflessness. And you might well inspire Americans of different beliefs toward a renewed commitment to the common good.”
Judge Barrett’s Bonhoeffer moment ended eight days before Nov. 3.
Reflecting on the hearings and the new justice, Thomas Frank, Wake Forest Professor and Methodist minister, observed insightfully: “Judge Barrett is driven to be correct about all things law. At times she looked put upon to have to answer the Democrats’ questions. She appears to believe that her correctness is all that matters. She has no apparent conscience about the unprecedented politics of her nomination.”
Conscience and hypocrisy
“The Barrett appointment is another case study in our collective Bonhoeffer moment, clear evidence that when conscience fails, hypocrisy prevails.”
For me, the Barrett appointment is another case study in our collective Bonhoeffer moment, clear evidence that when conscience fails, hypocrisy prevails.
Judge Barrett surely knows the law, but as an “originalist” with little sense of history. Although bounded by Christian conscience on many matters, she manifested no qualms about receiving the nomination from one of the most ethically compromised presidents in American history, who readily urged her appointment as a safeguard should court approval be required for his reelection.
Is she willing to serve for decades under the stigma of such a nomination and nominator? Did her participation in this process imply her acquiescence to four years of blatant hypocrisy by Senate Republicans extending from Merrick Garland to herself?
As Baptist, I wish she’d been asked not only about judicial opinions regarding religious liberty, but her own definitions of terms applied to it — separationist, accommodationist, establishmentarian, Christian nationalism — since I fear she’ll be co-opted by the rising new-establishmentarian effort to privilege certain religious views and communities over others, a dire threat ahead.
Judge Barrett and Senate Republicans, confronted by their own Bonhoeffer moment, failed miserably. Given that failure, the rest of us must keep recalling Jesus: “Tomorrow will have worries of its own.” And prepare our consciences accordingly.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.