The [Only] Methodist on the Court

Remembering Justice Blackmun

Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) wrote the Supreme Court opinion for Roe v Wade, the 7-2 decision that established the right to an abortion, a right that was taken away last week. He was also a faithful, life-long Methodist who was the only member of The United Methodist Church to serve on the Supreme Court. (Four Methodists served prior to the merger in 1968: John McLean [1830-61], Lucius Q.C. Lamar [1888-93], Frederick Vinson [1946-53]; and Charles Whittaker [1957-62]).

I got to know Harry and Dottie Blackmun when their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter became part of St. Luke’s UMC. It marked a turning point in all of their lives. Susie wrote:

“When Dad and I knelt together at the communion rail -a meeting place I never, ever would have envisioned -and he clenched my hand while tears streamed down his face, I knew how much this meant to him.

The old wounds, from battles that had raged ever since I’d reached puberty, were at last beginning to heal. We were a family again.” (You can read Susie’s story here.)

We welcomed Justice Blackmun as the preacher on Laity Sunday in 1990. We visited together in our home and in his chambers at the Court. I was with the family for his memorial service at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church and his burial at Arlington where, at his request, he was laid to rest beside Justice Thurgood Marshall.

In the service, The Rev. Dr. William A. Holmes spoke on “The Churchmanship of Harry Blackmun.” He described a man whose “theory of Constitutional interpretation was the same as his theory of biblical interpretation: a theory grounded in compassion.” It would be hard to be more Methodist than that! John Wesley consistently centered his interpretation of scripture in the love of God which was revealed in Jesus Christ.

In Moral Ambition: The Sermons of Harry A. Blackmun, Dena S. Davis concluded:

Justice Blackmun clearly saw it as his job, within the confines of Constitutional jurisprudence, to help to make the Constitution “more perfect.” What that meant, among other things, was to interpret the document as compassionately as possible, and as inclusively as possible. Whether the petitioner was an alien lately come to America or a young child completely dependent on the state for the most basic protections, deciding cases in a way that made the Constitution more responsive to their moral claims was, in the Justice’s eyes, taking the Constitution and therefore our nation, a little further down the road toward perfection.

That vision of “perfection” is imbedded in the Preamble to the Constitution, but it’s also the language of Methodists who are always “going on to perfection.”

The Road to Roe … and Beyond

I’ve been re-reading Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey by Linda Greenhouse. In wrestling with the decision which Justice Alito now declared to be “egregiously wrong from the start,” the Court worked to balance two “important and distinct” interests within the Constitutional “guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy” (based on fourteen precedents). These were identified as protecting the health of the woman and “the potentiality of human life.”

Blackmun wrote that while the right to privacy “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy … the right is not absolute. There is a point at which the balance of interests tipped in favor of state regulation.” Growing out of his long-term relationship with the Mayo Clinic, he recommended the end of the first trimester. The 7-2 vote reflected the nationwide consensus with 64% of the America people agreed that the decision should be left to the woman and her physician.

The Methodist Middle

Justice Blackmun is gone, but The United Methodist Church continues to represent the balance of these interests in our official position on abortion.

The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.

We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion …

We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy

We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.

As a pastor, I’ve been with faithful people who, for a variety of reasons, decided to terminate a pregnancy. It’s never easy. I’ve never been able to offer a simple answer. We have an adopted grand-daughter who would not be in our family if her birth mother had chosen abortion. But I know that none of these people, the physicians, nor the people who drove them to the clinic are criminals. Based on scripture interpreted through reason, tradition and experience along with my respect for the Constitution, I believe the Court was “egregiously wrong” in reversing Roe.

Just the Beginning?

Justice Thomas made it clear that this is just the beginning. He wants the Court to reconsider other rights that are based in the Constitutional right to privacy. He named contraception (Griswold vs. Connecticut), private sexual practices (Lawerence v. Texas) and same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges), all of which are based on the same right of privacy. He conveniently left out the right to interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia).

I have no idea where all this will take us, but I wish we had another Methodist on the Court!

Grace and peace,

Jim

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24 thoughts on “The [Only] Methodist on the Court

  1. Thanks Jim. So insightful. Mirrors your faith, caring nature and deep intellect.

  2. Marvelous, just incredibly wonderful as all your writing is. I should be writing you every week to tell you that what you say just keeps me going in this world that seems to be imploding around us. Thank you! Thank you ! Love to you and Martha, Susan and Warren

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. Wonderfully said, Jim. May I borrow from it for an article in our local paper? I promise not to take the whole thing, & I’ll credit your article for inspiring mine. This needs saying widely.

    Charles

    1. Please feel free to use it in any way that would be helpful to you!

  4. And is that our mutual friend Bill Lawrence in the photo? He was at Met. before Duke. He’s our speaker for our Retired Pastors & Spouses Beach Retreat this fall that I’ve chaired the past 5 years. As a former President of our Judicial Council he’s speaking on UMC’s future.

    Charles

    1. Thanks for the compliment of identifying me with Bill Lawrence, but it’s just me…just younger in 1990!

  5. Carolyn Linder June 29, 2022 — 3:15 pm

    I wish you were another voice on the Supreme Court! Thanks, Jim, for sharing this information.

  6. So helpful; I will send it on to several folks, assuming that’s ok with you. L

    Sent from my iPad

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    1. Of course. Happy to have you share it.

  7. Jim Thanks! Well stated and most helpful. I hope you and Martha are having a great summer. We are. Although we are heading to Jane’s youngest sister’s funeral in NC on Saturday, I had a minimal risk diagnosis on a recent prostate biopsy and although they not know why I am having TIAs most recent test at TGH eliminated several concerns. I am about done with all of this and looking forward to a “walk-about” soon. Have a great weekend and hope you are able to gather with your family. SHALOM, Tom Mc

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    1. Good to hear from you! We’ll be remember Jane’s family in this time of loss. I’m glad to hear you are improving. Keep on keeping on!

  8. Thanks for this Jim. I especially appreciate the notion of interpreting the Constitution through the lens of compassion. That seems like a good Prime Directive.

    I am a Methodist but embarassed to say I had not read the Methodist Church’s statement on abortion, which I am glad to know and to agree with.

    Marc

  9. I have always had ambiguous feelings on the subject if abortion but only find in the Binle references to God breatinto s person the “breath of life” which might indicate that the soul enters the body eith the first breath. This would mean, at least for me, that the time during which the body develops is preparation for the receiving if the soul.

  10. Hey Jim,
    I am so grateful you didn’t stop thinking – and sharing your thoughts – when you retired!
    Keep it up Brother; we need you!
    Ken

    1. Thanks for always being an encourager! We need you!

  11. Cheryl Beckner June 30, 2022 — 7:39 pm

    Amen! Totally agree, Jim. Miss you and Marsha!

    Sent from my iPad

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  12. Thanks very much, Jim….. Well done!!!!

    Archie & Carolyn

  13. I read your thoughtful blog. I must take issue with the line in your first paragraph stating the right to abortion was taken away. No, it was returned to the states. Some states will restrict abortion rights while others won’t.
    Also, after reading the official statement from the Methodist Church, I see it as the mushy middle. Yes, it’s a difficult subject, but this statement reads like it’s trying to appease all sides.

  14. Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth July 6, 2022 — 9:56 pm

    In 1973, Roe moved governmental response to abortion from state legislatures to the United States Supreme Court. The results have been deeply tragic: over 60 million abortions, political polarization, and cultural contention. Since government is guided by the goal of justice for all, these realities should be admitted in any commentary about abortion in America. Since the Church is guided by the gift of grace, we should be dedicated to offering the Gospel of forgiveness to all — the pro-choice, the pro-live, and the undecided.

  15. Betty Armstrong July 7, 2022 — 9:50 am

    Thank you for addressing this subject in such a meaningful way. As a United Methodist I have never been quite clear about our position on abortion until I read your post. I have always been thankful to call myself Methodist and now even more so.

    I always learn from your posts but my intention to let you know that falls by the wayside as good intentions often do but this was too important to let it go.

    I look forward to more of your inspiring and insightful posts.

    Betty Armstrong Appomattox, VA

    1. Thanks for your encouraging response. By the way, if you follow the link on the UMC statement on abortion you’ll find a lot more information there. I just quoted the key parts. God bless!

  16. Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth July 7, 2022 — 5:56 pm

    Jim, I would enjoy a telephone conversation with you. Having failed to locate your number, I invite you to call me at 252.640.2755. Thanks.
    In Christ,
    Paul T. Stallsworth

  17. Jeffrey Howard July 9, 2022 — 8:53 pm

    New to your writings, I must tell you how clear and helpful your writing is as we all try to align our personal feelings with the stance of our denomination. While I agree with one of the earlier comments that the UMC stance is a bit “loose,” this topic is so complex that I appreciate the flexibility that the framers have built in. Where can we find some future Blackmun’s for the court?

  18. Sam always does well with tributes & prayers. Beautifully said. cms

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