Silent Artillery of Time

Michael Metzger

Is leaking the Supreme Court draft on abortion another round of “the silent artillery of time?”

Last Monday Politico published a draft majority opinion that it had obtained striking down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Many called it unprecedented, but according to Jonathan Peters, a law professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, the New York Tribune reported the outcome of an 1852 case 10 days before the court issued the decision.

That’s why many court watchers blasted the leak as a rare if not unprecedented occurrence. I’d agree. It’s rare—and revealing. I fear it’s another round of what Abraham Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time.” That’s a powerful metaphor, but what does it mean?

We have to go back to our country’s revolution. It was a fight for liberty. We won, meaning we then had to order our liberty. We did this in our Constitution (1787), establishing three branches of political institutions—executive, legislative, judiciary. “The establishment of our new Government,” wrote George Washington, “seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.”

This is why America is called “the great experiment” in self-government. Can a free people be self-governed? Fifty years in, Abraham Lincoln had his doubts.

Lincoln knew history. He knew nations fall from external threats. He knew they fall from internal collapse. But he recognized our experiment in self-government faced a third threat. He introduced it in 1838, at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The subject of his address was the perpetuation of our political institutions. Lincoln feared “the scenes of the revolution” had faded over 50 years, that our political institutions were at risk of being slowly destroyed by “the silent artillery of time.”

That’s a biblical metaphor. Collapse rarely occur suddenly. It’s more often slow and steady, unnoticed by most. This describes most Americans, including Christians, since most are not students of history. They don’t see the Supreme Court leak undermines trust in our political institutions.

Yes, the Supreme Court is a political institution. The world politics comes from the Greek polis, for city, a city-state and also citizenship and a body of citizens. Augustine said Christians ought to be “the best of citizens.” America’s Christians ought to recognize politics is inherently good and necessary for our nation’s experiment in self-government.

Leaking the Supreme Court draft on abortion is an instance of politicization, idolizing a particular party as the end-all for culture-change. Politicization undermines trust in our political institutions, including the Supreme Court. It’s like a pastor leaking a confidential conversation with a parishioner. Say so long to confidence in the church. In publishing this draft majority opinion, Politico is doing the same thing, undermining the perpetuation of our political institutions. Politicization is another round of the silent artillery of time.

America’s Christians ought to also recognize that self-government requires an educated electorate, one that recognizes rights are best secured gradually, in a process that includes state legislatures. Even former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who supported abortion rights, recognized this. In 2013, she said, “My criticism of Roe is that it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change.” She would’ve preferred that abortion be decided by state legislatures instead of by nine unelected officials. Overturning Roe v. Wade would be good for our experiment in self-government as it returns the issue to the states.

If this happens this summer, I have two suggestions.

First, I urge Christians who oppose abortion (that includes me) to reframe this contentious issue in images and language accessible to all. Over the last 30 years I’ve written several columns on abortion, including this brief piece from 2006. I hope it helps you lovingly reframe this issue for friends who support abortion rights.

Second, I urge Christians to become the best of citizens—political, not politicized. Here’s a good resource for learning about America’s Great Experiment. It’ll help you hear how this leak of the Supreme Court draft is yet another round of the silent artillery of time. We have to stop the bombing before our experiment in self-government is obliterated.

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4 Comments

  1. Mike, I am touched by your care and thoughtfulness in framing our focus on the issues. Your 2006 piece has the right touch of humility. I’m not particularly impressed by Noonan’s expectations for state by state decisions to be made: “and that is as close to resolving the dilemma as we, as human beings in a huge and varied nation, will get.” Texas being a case in point: I think we’re about to see more violence than ever before and more politicization in Texas churches than ever before. I’m not a Texan, nor ever lived there, but I think it could be a literal battle ground: I wouldn’t run for office there without a bullet-proof vest and a bullet-proof helmet.

    The circumstances that gave us a loaded court came from a dubious at best in everything he did “appointer in chief.” I’d take a Vegas bet that if the Supreme Court flipped again, the law would too: again. This is the trouble with “faith in men” or “faith in government.” To return to your thoughtful framing of the issue, the artillary of time is replacing self-governing (personal restraint amidst personal freedom) with “let me give up all my freedoms, govern me and these people, we’re too lazy to govern our sexual selves personally.”

  2. Mike-
    Great post. I read Peggy Noonan’s article a while ago and thought it was a very insightful look at how overturning RvW could actually help national politics become more rational. I deeply appreciate your insights. Thanks for what you are doing with the Clapham Institute. It was many years ago now that you invited me to attend a series of discussions you were doing for the Falls Church Fellows program and those sessions significantly changed my life and how I see the gospel. I share the 4 chapter gospel in high definition when God gives me opportunities.

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