A limited response to Washington Post 2016 Mar 10 article “What would a Hindu justice mean for the Supreme Court?”

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(A small note on the timing: This response-piece was written in the second week of March, 2016 and published on Blog.com. The site Blog.com however, seems not to be dysfunctional and hence this response-piece is now added here)

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I recently read an article (dated 2016 Mar 10) in Washington Post (Matter of Faith section) with the title “What would a Hindu Justice mean for the Supreme Court?” 

The title caught my eye (perhaps because of the word “Hindu” in it) and it did make me wonder: what, indeed, might it mean “for the Supreme court” of the United States, if it were to have a Justice who is a Hindu?

Naturally (or so it seems to me at least), I read the article in search of an answer to the title-question: an answer from representative/s of “the Supreme Court” (the institution specified in the title), about what it might mean “for the Supreme Court”, to have a Hindu Justice.

After having read the articles a few times, I am still searching for that answer, without success.

Instead, what I did find in the article, could perhaps be summarized (without accounting for hyperlinks included) broadly as:

Sentences within double quotesComments, not from any representative of the Supreme Court, but from 4 individuals (broadly on some aspects “Hinduism”, “Hindu”, “American-Hindu”) described in the article as:

  1. “an expert on Hinduism in America who teaches at the University of Florida” – Vasudha Narayanan
  2. “a Carleton College instructor who wrote her dissertation on Hindus outside of India” – Shana Sippy
  3. “a religion professor at Wabash College” – Raymond Williams
  4. “the President of the Hindu Temple of Metropolitan Washington” – Vikkan Chopra

Sentences without double quotes – 19 of them (reproduced below in italics), presumably penned by the author, of which 11 (#1-6 and #14-18) can be said to be related to Sri Srinivasan (as either his name features in these sentences or is implied (as in #1)) and of the remaining 8, 6 of them (#7,8,10,11,13,14) can be said to be related broadly to “Hinduism” or “Hindu” and 2 of them (#9,12), broadly to Christianity.

  1. President Obama has narrowed his list of potential Supreme Court nominees to about six names, our colleagues on The Post politics staff report.
  2. One jurist in the running, whose name has been floated for the Supreme Court starting almost immediately after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, would make history: Sri Srinivasan would be the first Hindu justice ever to serve on the Supreme Court.
  3. On a judicial body whose members’ faiths have often been discussed by observers trying to understand their rulings, Srinivasan would bring a different experience.
  4. He was sworn in on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book, when he started his current job on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “Hindus Laud Judge Srinivasan for Taking Oath on Gita,” the Hindu American Foundation’s news release read at the time.
  5. In what way would a hypothetical Justice Srinivasan bring Hindu tradition to bear when making decisions about religiously charged issues like abortion and gay rights? What do Hindus believe about contraception or the death penalty?
  6. Srinivasan did not respond to a request for comment about his own religious beliefs, and his prior judicial record gives few clues.
  7. Hinduism, the faith of less than 1 percent of the American public, includes many gods and a belief in reincarnation. While it is distinctly different from the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths of prior Supreme Court justices, several religious leaders and academic experts say that the religion might be well-suited to the high court — because it is a highly pluralistic faith, with no dogmatic guidelines that every Hindu community agrees on.
  8. Yes, Hindu holy texts offer judgments about topics like homosexual relationships and capital punishment.
  9. But there is no central figure, like the Catholic pope, who offers interpretation of those texts for all Hindus. 
  10. And across the vast spectrum of sects among the world’s 1 billion Hindus, even the texts themselves vary.
  11. In a Pew poll, only 12 percent of American Hindus said that their scriptures should be taken literally, and 60 percent said scripture is not the word of God.
  12. Christian judges in America — including Scalia, whose son praised the justice in his eulogy for bringing his deep Catholic faith to bear on his decisions — have frequently discussed their beliefs.
  13. Hindus in America — 91 percent of whom are Asian, mostly of Indian descent, and 87 percent of whom are immigrants, according to a 2014 Pew research study — do have distinct political beliefs. They tend to be wealthier and more highly educated than most religious groups, and more than 60 percent lean Democrat while just 13 percent lean Republican. 
  14. In the same poll, significant majorities said they favored gay marriage and legal abortion.
  15. As for Srinivasan — it’s impossible to say where he falls. And that might be just what Obama is looking for. With Republicans in the Senate vowing not to approve anybody, Obama’s strategy seems to be to pick a nominee with a moderate, unobjectionable record, whom the White House can pressure Republicans to say yes to.
  16. Srinivasan, like most of the others on the shortlist, has not staked out any positions on the hot-button issues the Supreme Court is likely to take up.
  17. When he was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I do not have an overarching, grand, unified judicial philosophy that I would bring with me to the bench if I were lucky enough to be confirmed.” He said he had written only two published pieces in the past 20 years.
  18. The Senate approved Srinivasan’s appointment to the prominent D.C. appeals court in 2013 by a vote of 97 to 0, so senators may be hard-pressed to say why they would vote against him this time around.
  19. Srinivasan, who was born in India and immigrated to Kansas with his family as a child, would be not only the first Hindu but also the first Asian American on the court.

Let us start with the statements not within double quotes, i.e., presumably of the author’s.

Of the 19 statements, Statement #12, “Christian judges in America — including Scalia, whose son praised the justice in his eulogy for bringing his deep Catholic faith to bear on his decisions — have frequently discussed their beliefs.”, appears unique as it appears to be the only statement actually concerning someone from “the Supreme Court” (remember the title of the article?) – Antonio Scalia, a widely respected Justice who died recently.

“In what way would a real Justice Scalia bring Christian-Roman-Catholic tradition to bear when making decisions about religiously charged issues like abortion…?” is merely a modified version of #5 above, where “real” replaces “hypothetical”, “Scalia” replaces “Srinivasan” and “Christian-Roman-Catholic” replaces “Hindu”.

Justice Scalia is on record, to have made the following statements in 2010:

Source 1:I don’t think there’s such a thing as a Catholic justice. There’s a justice who happens to be Catholic and there are some Catholic justices who have been on the other side of the abortion thing…If I genuinely thought the Constitution guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion, I would be on the other way,” said Scalia, who has held that abortion is not guaranteed in the Constitution. “It would do nothing with my religion. It has to do with my being a lawyer.”

He is also on record have made the following statement:

Source 2: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a Catholic judge…There are good judges and bad judges…The only article in faith that plays any part in my judging is the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Lie.’”

While statement #12 purports that Justice Scalia’s son “praised the justice in his eulogy for bringing his deep Catholic faith to bear on his decisions”, should the reader not wonder and decide for oneself, whether that is consistent with Justice Scalia’s own statements “The only article in faith that plays any part in my judging is the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Lie.’” and “…it would do nothing with my religion. It has to do with my being a lawyer”?

If the author is indeed interested to know what anything might mean “for the Supreme Court”, surely Justice Scalia’s statement should matter, at least as much as his son’s and should it not be a logical thing to wonder, why Justice Scalia’s own position was not included in this article? In light of Justice Scalia’s statements above, would one not wonder about the relevance of the title-question: “What would a Hindu Justice mean for the Supreme Court?” Is a religious test required as a qualification for a Justice? Should religion of the Justice even matter?

Article VI of United States Constitution contains a statement that may well be, at least part of the answer to one of the questions immediately above: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Clearly, this article is not only about one significant part of the title of the article, i.e., what matters “for the Supreme court” as it fails to include facts that relate to actual stakeholders of the Supreme court and the Constitution.

Which brings us to the other key word in the title “Hindu”. As for the “without quotes” statements about Hindus, American-Hindus and Hinduism, many of what are provided as facts are based on a 2014 PEW survey of American-Hindus, a survey with sample size of 199 so-called Hindus – 199, really?

And given that the PEW survey is being used by the author, will the author be willing to highlight the fact that, as per responses to the survey by the same organization (PEW), there appear to be American-Catholics, atleast 144 of them, who “do not believe in God”?

Would the author be open to propagating a statement, even if as a comment, that there is no one God that all Catholics believe in, based on the opinion of 144 so-called Catholics? Should this inform people about Catholicism as a whole?

Would the author first compare the existence of whether or not Protestants have a central figure similar to the Roman Catholic Pope? If they don’t, does that make Protestants any less Christians or American-Protestants any lesser than American-Catholics?

On the Catholic Pope himself, would views of a few Catholic conservatives – for instance views such as “Conservatives worry that behind the gentle facade lies a dangerous reformer who is diluting Catholic teaching on moral issues like homosexuality and divorce…”, and more specifically, views of four Vatican officials (2 cardinals and 2 archbishops) who fear that the Pope “Francis’ “words and deeds may eventually rupture the 1.2 billion member Church” – would such views of four individuals be sufficient to insinuate the Pope of “moral relativism” vis-à-vis his predecessors, with regard to homosexuality and divorce?

If the answer to the question immediately above is “no” would not limited comments of just four individuals (included in the author), irrespective of their expertise, be similarly insufficient to insinuate (albeit not explicitly stated in the article) close to a billion followers of Hinduism (“Santana Dharma” to be more precise) of “moral relativism”, if intended/attempted?

Real “Insiders” of Santana Dharma, familiar with scriptural details as well as a lived-experience, would see a difference between uninformed “moral relativism” (which is perhaps no crime by itself when harmless) and scripturally-informed “Contextual Ethics” (see Malhotra, Being Different, p191). To instantiate “Contextual Ethics” without being too academic, let us consider one of the situations enlisted in the article – that of abortion. If a mother is willingly condemned to death by a doctor simply because abortion is deemed a crime by the society/law, would that not be as much a crime against humanity as would have been the case if the abortion had taken place? Is the context to abortion merely only to do with the life of an unborn child or should the context include the life of a mother as well? Would a recommendation that includes into consideration, the life of a mother as part of the context of abortion, be “moral relativism” vis-à-vis a recommendation that limits the context to include only the life of the unborn child? Which context is more complete?

Scriptures of Sanatana Dharma, while containing clear positions condemning “abortion” (when just a matter of individual choice) as being opposed to the value of “ahimsa” (non-violence), make an exception when the context includes another “ahimsa” – that of willfully condemning a mother to death. When the context of an abortion is not merely a decision of choosing between “death (of unborn) vs choice (of parent)” but a decision of choosing between  “death (of unborn) vs death (of parent), is legislating as simple as saying “abortion is illegal – period!”? (Read about Death of Savita Hallapanavar in Ireland).

Clearly, a 2014 PEW study with a sample set of 199 so-called Hindus, limited comments  from four individuals about Hinduism in their individual (respectable) capacities, a religious son’s statement (that appears to contradict the stated position of his religious but Justice father, in the domain of the father!) cannot mean anything of serious consequence to anyone, least of all, to “the Supreme Court”, can it? You decide!

As for Sri Srinivasan, in matters of legislation, should it not just matter whether or not he delivers on whatever oath/s he takes? And in the future, if  (a hypothetical Justice) Sri Srinivasan were to ever actually himself attribute a Hindu particularity as the reason for better performance of his duty as a Justice, and if both the cause (Hindu particularity) and effect (better performance of duty) can be proven without doubt, would that Hindu particularity not be an asset “for the Supreme court”?

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