Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Scripture from the State

Matthew Arildsen


August 10, 2012

By Matthew Arildsen 

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the individual mandate specifically and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act generally met with standard responses from both parties. Republicans focused on the Supreme Court’s insistence that the law is permissible under the taxing powers granted by the Constitution; they juxtaposed that interpretation against the Obama Administration’s previous insistence that the law was “not a tax.” Democrats hailed the ruling as a victory for freedom and quickly wrote articles reining in new, liberal enthusiasts for Chief Justice John Roberts.  In a Gallup poll measuring from September to July, approval of the Supreme Court by Republicans dropped 21 points, while approval from Democrats rose 22 points.

But really, so what?

How should Christians evaluate whether this decision was actually right?

Conservatives have attacked the actual constitutionality of the law. Often using an originalist hermeneutic—one that interprets the Constitution as locked in with the authors’ intent—conservatives find no special power given to the government to require the purchase of health care. The introduction to the Supreme Court’s dissent highlights this point: “What is absolutely clear, affirmed by the text of the 1789 Constitution, by the Tenth Amendment ratified in 1791, and by innumerable cases of ours in the 220 years since, is that there are structural limits upon federal power…Whatever may be the conceptual limits upon the Commerce Clause and upon the power to tax and spend, they cannot be such as will enable the Federal Government to regulate all private conduct.” Here conservatives affirm the goodness of the Constitution, but make no mention of the goodness of the law itself; instead, they concentrate on the “mistake” of the court’s interpretation.

Many liberals, including the four on the Supreme Court, rejected the reasoning of the majority opinion. In doing so, like conservatives, they made no reference to the law’s goodness, they affirmed the goodness of the Constitution and, also like conservatives, questioned the Court’s ultimate interpretation.

These two kinds of arguments help highlight the Supreme Court’s fallibility. The justices do not proclaim constitutionality outright; they can only pronounce formal constitutionality. That is, the Court can declare that the government should act as if the law is constitutional, and this is presumably based on the actual constitutionality of the law. The more closely correlated formal and actual constitutionality are, the more procedurally righteous the court system is. In the end, these conservative and liberal arguments are both appealing for greater correlation between the two, as they see it.

From both conservatives and liberals, the message is essentially the same: What is necessary is a good judicial procedure. While these arguments help question the Supreme Court’s authority, they fail to imagine beyond the immediate political horizon. Neither side considers the possibility of a flaw in the Constitution itself.

By neither asserting the necessity for constitutional change nor arguing preemptively in favor of the Constitution’s goodness, this way of thinking transforms the Constitution into an unassailable idol—a political scripture.  The Constitution, which is not “God-breathed,” cannot sustain itself autonomously; it either relies on arguments relating its precepts to God’s norm of justice or stands condemned by the same.

The lesson for Christians is this: The judges are not infallible, the Constitution is not infallible and the law is not infallible. One may point to and fro at traditions, laws, rights and institutional duties, but these may only secure procedural righteousness (which itself is only good because of God’s mandate of integrity). The Word of God is the only true test of political righteousness.

In this way, a judgment on the morality of a particular law must always be split into these two aspects. For Christians, this will often amount to leaving the procedural considerations to constitutional scholars, while testing the measure of political justice against the standard of Scripture, instead of human authorities.

Of course, testing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act against biblical justice is no easy task. Not only is the basic question of government’s relationship to healthcare complex, but important aspects of the law do not have an immediately evident biblical mandate. 

By carefully understanding the different standards, Christians can avoid making ill-informed arguments about procedural righteousness, blindly blurring “unconstitutional” and “despicable.” Likewise, we can detail our actual objections to the law’s morality in an appropriately confessional way.  In this way, Christians will better point legislators and the Court towards true justice and the common good.

—Matthew Arildsen is a rising senior at Wheaton College (IL) studying Political Science, Economics and Philosophy and an intern at the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”