What value system should American judges support from the bench? It depends on whom you ask.
An AP article carried by the Waco Trib yesterday says that “A group of conservative attorneys say they are on a mission from God to unseat four California judges.” One of the candidates, Craig Candelore, is quoted as saying:
We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values. Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary.
And in response, “Any organization that wants judges to subscribe to a certain political party or certain value system or certain way of ruling to me threatens the independence of the judiciary,” San Diego County’s District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.
Is it really a matter of “Christian values” versus no “certain value system”? Well, no. In fact, these two options share a common story that we should keep in mind whether we claim we should “get back to Christian values” or we should “avoid any particular value system.”
First off, here is the easy one. The claim that judges should hold “no particular value system” is itself from a particular value system. The Great American Myth, as Stanley Hauerwas as put so succinctly, is “the story that we had no story until we choose the story that we had no story.”
To paraphrase, then, the “American value system,” if there is one, is the value system that says there is no value system.
Another name for the value system on which our justice system is based is the Rule of Law, but even that concept is historically rather young. Whereas the story of the Rule of Law is usually told as though it is the pursuit of fair and equitable law that serves as the foundation of civil society, any society that believes it has struck foundation has done so within the story of that particular society.
In America, the society within which the Rule of Law bedrock was found was a broadly (or generically) Christian one.
This means, to be fair, that the notion that judges should not “subscribe … to a certain value system” arose from within a broadly Christian value system.
To continue being fair, this broadly Christian value system is not the value system of today’s Religious Right. Rather, the motivation to seek to be value free in value systems arose from society’s growing realization that all values come from somewhere, and thus have a history, and thus, more often than not, overlooked someone or oppressed someone.
For example, the truth held as “self-evident” that “all men were created equal” by the American Founding Fathers was really only that all white men who owned property were equal. These, at least, were the only ones afforded the right to vote.
There are not too many Americans today who would support the vote for only white property-owning men. At the time, however, from the context in which this nation arose, what the Founders put together was admirable. Much of what we have developed legally in the 200+ years since then has been improvements on this admirable beginning.
I thought, as I started this post, that I was going to write about the Rule of Law being a value system. It got a little outside those lines, but I hope you can follow my point. Controversies like that over the California judge elections are happening all over our land. When these disagreements boil over past the point of civility neither side is right or “Christian.”
May we each take some time today to consider the story of where our values have come from, and look earnestly at where they are taking us.