Supreme Court Justices and religion, college admissions and race

You don’t want to miss Mitch Pearlstein’s thought-provoking piece on affirmative action and quotas that was featured on the opinion pages in Sunday’s Star Tribune.  It’s stirred up a great deal of discussion, judging by the 425 and counting comments posted by readers thus far. The article offers a different way of looking at “the proper role of religion and race in politics, education and the law.”

Mitch opens up the door to discussion by focusing on the lack of Protestants on the U.S. Supreme Court and on whether institutions of higher education should consider race and ethnicity in admissions.

It’s certainly not an intrinsically good thing that the current Supreme Court is without any Protestants. Yet at the very same time, it’s keenly admirable that recent presidents, of both parties, haven’t seemed to fixate on the faiths of the respective judges and scholars they have nominated. Also worthy is that no substantial number of citizens, starting with Protestants, have, well, protested, or seemed overly perturbed.

To the core question: Should presidents, in the name of balance, ever favor one faith tradition over another in appointing men and women to federal courts, and particularly the Supreme Court? Heaven’s no. Or make that “hell no.” The constitutional ideal of rejecting religious tests, as well as our instinctive, everyday practice of that principle, are two of America’s greatest virtues and gifts to the world.

Begged here is the why. Why is our hesitation to take religion into account in decisions like these of a different and higher order than our reluctance to take race, ethnicity or gender into consideration? Why would an office-seeker promising to appoint more Baptists or Methodists to Cabinet posts induce more cringing and rebuttal than one who pledged to appoint more women or African-Americans?

An easy but fundamental point about religion’s stand-apart power is that it’s cited in the first sentence of the First Amendment — a sacred idea and admonition at the very top of revered guarantees. To also say that religion is intrinsically different because it runs soul-deep may likewise sound easy and obvious. But enormous numbers of people define themselves more by their faith than by any other facet of their lives.

Which is to say, Americans in the main learn early on that religion is a very big thing, if not necessarily for themselves, then for most fellow citizens. They learn that history is thick with how ugly things have happened when religion has been misused. They learn, in sum, that religion is simply but complexly different, not to be messed with, or in this instance employed and bandied about like common political grist.

Wide respect for such boundaries and traditions is one of our nation’s most impressive traits — as witness, the lack of commotion over a Protestant-free Supreme Court.

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The second tough but revealing issue involves higher-education admissions policies and the long-running debate over whether colleges and universities should ever take applicants’ race and ethnicity into account in awarding seats.

Framing matters roughly: One side over the years has argued that race absolutely needs to be considered, given how African-Americans in particular have been discriminated against for centuries. To expect them, along with Hispanics and a few other groups, to do as well as whites on aptitude tests and other supposedly neutral measures is unreasonable in this view.

The other side, meanwhile, has argued that using race and ethnicity in admissions decisions violates the Constitution, or at least the principle of equal opportunity, divides the country, discriminates against whites, and demeans and actually hurts the intended beneficiaries of “affirmative action.”

But what if using strictly colorblind admissions criteria — especially in terms of test scores — were to lead to a nonwhite minority group winding up with a disproportionate plurality of seats? Say, 40 percent of them, and at the nation’s most competitive institutions? How might that sit, particularly with various supporters of strictly colorblind policies? Might they think matters out of whack if a group comprising only 6 percent of the population wound up filling 2 out of every 5 places in freshman and subsequent classes at Ivy League schools and similar institutions?

You can read Mitch’s complete piece on this issue here.