Bench Memos

NRO’s home for judicial news and analysis.

The Reluctant Cultural Warrior


Kathryn pastes in a Texas newspaper blurb to the effect that John Roberts is a ray of hope for religious conservatives. The assertion is that Roberts has succeeded within elite institutions with “conservative religious, moral and political values intact.” Indeed he has, at least as far as I can tell. The writer notes, further, that this sort of person “could help bridge the red-state/blue-state cultural divide.” There is reason to wonder. Do the elites who speak for the blue states really want a bridge connected to red-state folks? I mean, then those eerie “values” voters could come on over as they please. NASCAR nuts moving onto our cul de sac? Don’t think that is what Chuck Schumer or People for the American Way are looking for.

More important are questions arising from the apparent separation of Roberts’ moral and religious values from his professional pursuits. Of course I refer to a particular and limited aspect of his modus operandi. Roberts is by all accounts as decent and generous a man as you will ever meet. No doubt these (and other) admirable character traits owe to his religious and moral convictions. But Roberts himself (now famously) has said often that his personal views about matters such as abortion do not affect his professional judgment or even (as far as he could see) his views about applying Roe v. Wade. There is abundant evidence these comments are indebted to a wider view of law which swings free of his beliefs about controversial moral matters. Roberts has been almost impossibly cautious in speaking his mind about burning issues, even in social settings where most people inside the Beltway won’t shut up. He has been a very, very reluctant culture warrior, if there is any sense of thinking of him in those terms at all.

My point is not to criticize John Roberts. My point is that very different ways of thinking and acting in the culture war are just as defensible as are his reticence and his brand of positivism. (Truth be told, I think his positivism is mistaken. As to his reticence, well, let’s say that it does not come naturally to me, and leave it at that.) My point, in other words, is that we should go lightly on the notion that Roberts is somehow a model or norm for our time. Lastly, I do not see how Roberts could be moral conservatives’ bridge over troubled cultural waters. He may surprise us when he gets to the Court, and I hope he does. But to date he seems to me, at least, to be a man who has privatized his morals and religion too much for that.


Subscribe to National Review