On this date in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued the Dred Scott decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Taney stated the issue this way:
“The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution....”
The court’s answer was, “no.” “Negroes,” cannot have rights under the constitution.
When President Barack Obama took the Oath of Office at his inauguration, he placed his hand on the same Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his inauguration in 1861. The Lincoln Bible had not been used at an inauguration since that time. Ironically, the Chief Justice who administered the Oath to Lincoln was Roger Taney.
The Bible provides a symbolic connection to Lincoln, but it also gives a symbolic connection to Taney. And in that double connection, there is something that is profoundly and appropriately unsettling.
The battle over slavery was also a battle over the Bible. Lincoln, who was a deep theological thinker and a student of the Bible, was appalled that pro-slavery Christians believed that the biblical statements which accepted slavery as a fact of ancient life could be taken to mean that it was God’s intention that one race could hold another race in bondage. The literal texts supported the pro-slavery side, but the great sweep of the Bible and the over-arching themes of liberation and freedom said that slavery was a great moral wrong.
Do we piece together a Christian ethic by choosing a verse here and another there? Or do we look for a coherent argument that runs consistently through the great themes of the Bible?
Today the California Supreme Court is considering an appeal of Proposition Eight, the voter initiative that overturned a previous court decision that had made Gay Marriage legal. The appeal contends that the denial of rights in marriage is such a great change to the equal protections granted in the state constitution that it should be decided by a two-thirds vote of the legislature, rather than by 52% of the popular vote.
Behind the legal battle there is the biblical battle.
Do we collect the six passages that condemn homosexuality, and call that a Christian ethic? Or do we look at the great over-arching themes that run from beginning to end?