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The view from the bench

Clarence Thomas


The view from the bench

A biography of Clarence Thomas

Myron Magnet’s Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution (Encounter, 2019) combines a biography of a brave Supreme Court justice with analysis of his most important decisions and dissents. Magnet portrays Thomas as not just a solid justice but a great one, “one of a handful of honest and brave iconoclasts who love liberty, especially the freedom to think for oneself.”

Two passages particularly got to me. Magnet shows how Woodrow Wilson believed a Constitution modeled on a Newtonian understanding of checks and balances had to give way to government operated “under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. … No living thing can have its organs offset against each other. … Living political constitutions must be Darwinian,” evolving as political scientists dictate.

That thinking underlay the Supreme Court’s extraordinary Roe v. Wade stretch in 1973. Thomas, to his everlasting credit, has fought that for three decades, most notably in his Stenberg v. Carhart dissent in 2000. He wrote that the court majority had decided “states cannot constitutionally prohibit a method of abortion that millions find hard to distinguish from infanticide and that the Court hesitates even to describe”—because describing it, in a society even half-civilized, leads to opposing it.

Was “hesitates even to describe” an exaggeration? The following is not for children to read, but you might give nurse Brenda Shafer’s description of an abortionist murdering a 16-week-old unborn baby to an undecided neighbor. (Thomas quoted it in his dissent.)

Here goes: “The baby’s little fingers were clasping and unclasping, and his little feet were kicking. Then the doctor stuck the scissors in the back of his head, and the baby’s arms jerked out, like a startle reaction … like a baby does when he thinks he is going to fall. The doctor opened up the scissors, stuck a high-powered suction tube into the opening, and sucked the baby’s brains out. Now the baby went completely limp.”


Bobby Duffy’s Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything (Basic, 2019) shows how most Americans greatly underestimate the percentages of those who are overweight or say they are happy. We overestimate the percentage of those who live with their parents, have lots of sex, give birth, are immigrants, are Muslims, are unemployed, have a Facebook account, or have diabetes. We also overestimate the percentage of people living in extreme poverty. 

Changing Places: The Science and Art of New Urban Planning (Princeton, 2019) deals with material parts of urbanism and offers innovative ideas about green spaces and cul-de-sacs. Together for the City: How Collaborative Church Planting Leads to Citywide Movements (IVP, 2019) looks at the spiritual part. Authors Neil Powell and John James, pastors in Birmingham, U.K., offer their experiences and insights.

Eric Mason’s Woke Church (Moody, 2018) laments church prejudices and tendencies to downplay the Biblical connection between justice and righteousness. He lists initiatives of his Epiphany Fellowship regarding crisis pregnancies, school-to-prison pipelines, and technology training programs. The aspirations are good, and I’m looking forward to seeing how all that works out at street level.

Mason’s book title, though, indicates the problem of trying to get ahead of the curve. Mason says he wants to redeem the word woke. That’s a good thing to do with Biblical words like compassion, but why try to redeem a non-Biblical word that Saturday Night Live in 2017 had already mocked? (See its funny “Levi’s Wokes” on YouTube.) When evangelicals look as if our goal is to be cool, we end up looking like Christian bands trying to “sound like” whatever was hot last year.

Adrian Goldsworthy writes in his succinct Cannae: Hannibal’s Greatest Victory that Rome’s greatest years came after its army suffered a great defeat in 216 b.c. After that it had centuries of victories, as Goldsworthy shows in another book, Roman Warfare. The books, models of readable scholarship originally published in 2000 and 2001, are now out in new Basic Books editions. —M.O.


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  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 09/15/2019 06:12 pm

    The idea of abortion is so reprehensible.  God have mercy on us for how our ethical moorings have become so untethered from this reality.