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Notebook Religion

Going by the book

Neil Gorsuch (Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais)


Going by the book

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s constitutional originalism contrasts with his church’s evolving view of the Bible

When new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch heard oral arguments on the high court for the first time in mid-April, he quickly asked a Justice Department attorney, “Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if we just followed the plain text of the statute?”

It was a good question from a justice known as an originalist—a judge aiming to follow the plain text of the law and of the Constitution, as its framers originally wrote it.

A similar question could be helpful for the church Gorsuch attends.

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colo., is known for both political activism and liberal beliefs. Church statements have pressed for action on gun control and climate change. The parish rector, Susan Springer, has defended gay marriage.

On the last point, a modified version of Gorsuch’s question might be useful: Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if we just followed the plain text of the Bible?

But as some judges consider the Constitution “a living document” subject to the whims and wishes of each generation, some religious leaders consider the Bible open to changing interpretations.

The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003 and has endorsed gay marriage, but its slide from Biblical fidelity began years earlier, as some bishops questioned fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith: the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, and the exclusivity of the gospel.

Hundreds of conservative Episcopal churches have left the denomination. Others have stayed.

George Conger is rector of an Episcopal parish in Florida and editor of the church news website Anglican Ink. Conger identifies as conservative, but says Gorsuch’s membership in a liberal parish isn’t inherently alarming.

He says St. John’s attracts people across the theological spectrum, and there’s not always a strong connection between a rector’s views and the views of church members: “Monochrome churches are very rare.”

That dynamic may be confusing for many evangelicals who identify closely with their pastors’ views, but Gorsuch’s own views seem complex.

The justice grew up as an active Catholic, and he attended Catholic schools. At Oxford University he studied under renowned Catholic legal professor John Finnis, known for his work on natural law.

Gorsuch returned from England married to Louise, a British-born Anglican. The couple began attending Episcopal parishes.

Still, on church forms for an Episcopal parish in Virginia, Gorsuch listed his religion as Catholic. His current rector told CNN she doesn’t know whether Gorsuch considers himself Catholic or Episcopalian. Michael Trent, a lifelong friend, told the news agency he believes Gorsuch would consider himself “a Catholic who happens to worship at an Episcopal Church.”

Whatever the views in his parish, Gorsuch’s own writings and rulings ring conservative. In his 2006 book on assisted suicide, Gorsuch wrote that “all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”

The justice has said less publicly about the specifics of his faith, but he has said that his personal beliefs don’t dictate his judicial decisions. During his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch told senators: “I leave my personal views at home. … I believe you should approach the law as you find it.”

That’s a good piece of advice for church leaders who have strayed from the Bible’s plain teaching because they don’t like it as they find it. For centuries, Biblical Christianity has taught the safest place for Christians to live is within the truth of the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God.

Or as Gorsuch put it regarding the ideal approach to man-made law: Follow “what the words on the paper say.”