Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh begin tomorrow. Few Americans will pay close attention. Fewer still will pay attention to the larger story.
Supreme Court nominee hearings have become more show than substance. Republicans will “coach up” Kavanaugh to stay on message. Democrats will play a game of gotcha.
Can’t blame folks for not paying attention to this. But there’s a larger story playing out here. British Parliamentarian Lord Moulton described it at the Authors’ Club in London in 1912. His impromptu speech was later titled “Law And Manners.”
Moulton described what makes for flourishing societies. Imagine a society as a horizontal oval with three competing domains. On one end is “Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.” That’s politics. On the opposite end is Free Choice. This is the right of individuals to be free to choose.
But Moulton felt “the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization,” is measured by the extent of the middle domain, what he called, “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” The wider this domain, the more a nation flourishes. Moulton warned that the side domains of choice and politics seek to encroach on the middle, shrinking it to irrelevance.
This is happening right before our eyes—in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Yet few see it. Few are paying attention. Few even know what proper attention looks like. Simone Weil did. The French philosopher who came to Christ late in life wrote that paying attention is seeing sacramentally. It is seeing how the entirety of life is sacred for God is present in the entirety of creation.
If you’re an evangelical (I am), seeing sacramentally is not our strong suit. Our tradition has stressed the absence of God in some (or much) of the world. God is in the sacred (e.g., Christian schools) but not in secular things (e.g., public schools). This is why we tend to pay attention to life through the two outer domains—free choice or politics. As they encroach on the middle domain, they become idols. Two books will tell us why.
The first is Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California, 1996) by Robert Bellah and his team of researchers. The French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “habits of the heart” as a metaphor for cultures. As he toured America in the early 1800s, he noted American culture was becoming individualistic. The outer domain of individual choice was enlarging to individualism, which is idolatry. Bellah’s research revealed that the American faith tradition most deeply infected by individualism is evangelicalism. Tim Keller had made the same observation.
Individualism causes Christians to not pay attention to confirmation hearings. The hearings are secular. God is absent. The hearings have little impact on my life.
The second book is To Change The World (Oxford University Press, 2010) by James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. The book has three parts. In part two, Hunter describes a shift in American society that began in the 1930s. Many Americans became politicized, which is also idolatry for it overexpands the domain of Law and politics. Many evangelicals became politicized.
Politicization causes Christians to pay the wrong kind of attention to the hearings. They see God as absent from the other party. Our candidate must win.
All this confirms how American culture is demonstrably left-brained. The two hemispheres simply represent two ways we pay attention to the world. One is not better than the other. The left is narrowly focused on individual things. The right is broadly vigilant, big picture. When they work collaboratively, we respect liberty and law. We see how individualism and politicization are idols encroaching on the middle domain. We recognize how expanding “Obedience to the Unenforceable” makes for human flourishing. This is the larger story playing out this week in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But we’d have to pay attention to see it.
 Simone Weil, Waiting for God (HarperPerennial, 1950)