The photo of the prayer circle is comfortably familiar to me. First, because I can’t even count the number of circles like it that I’ve either convened or participated in during the more than two decades I’ve ministered here in Washington, D.C. The custom of collecting a small group of people to pray together over a very important matter is a quiet habit here in the nation’s capital that goes largely unnoticed. In many an office, conference room, or even courtroom, I’ve motioned for folks to gather around, hold hands, and bow their heads in prayer. It’s always the most important thing I have and ever will do in such a setting.
So, here in my inbox was another moment like that, portrayed in an official White House photo later tweeted out by the President himself. It had been a spontaneous assemblage after Mr. Trump’s televised announcement of his choice to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. There were faces very familiar to me, among them, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen, with whom I have bowed my head more than once over the years. There was also Maureen Scalia, widow to Justice Antonin Scalia. The last time I was with her was at her late husband’s private viewing at a funeral home in Virginia, during which we prayed together in just such a circle. And next to Maureen in this photo was her son, the Reverend Paul Scalia, who had presided at the prayer circle, and along side of whom my own twin brother, Fr. Paul Schenck, had concelebrated the Scalia funeral mass. This was a picture of a very familiar bunch.
The strangers in that circle, though, were people I either didn’t know, or, would likely not have had the occasion to pray with in the past: President Donald Trump’s two sons, Donald, Jr., and Eric; and, of course, the honorees in the circle, the President’s new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, and his wife, Louise. The President was in that circle, too, but I had indeed prayed with him—once—and only at a distance—during an 80th birthday bash for Christian media giant Pat Robertson.
For me, the prayer circle suggested something at once very simple and yet terribly complex. To begin with, prayer meetings have been a fairly consistent practice at the White House for many generations, including recent ones. It may surprise some to know that Barack Obama hosted the largest number of private prayer breakfasts of any president. George W. Bush frequently called for prayer, and Bill Clinton often prayed in the Oval Office with Billy Graham and others. In this case, it appeared the Vice President was leading the prayer, or, at least speaking it in the moment that frame was captured. I would expect that because “Mike,” as I’ve always known him, finds prayer very natural. That Mrs. Scalia and her priest son were there on this occasion was touching, as it was a fitting tribute to the man the President promised to match by his appointment. I appreciated the President solemnly bowing his head in that moment, with his two sons beside him doing the same. It was dignified and respectful to the sublime nature of the exercise.
Notwithstanding all of these more-or-less expected elements in the image of the prayer circle, what captured my attention most was the unusual presence of a Supreme Court nominee. Federal judges are generally very discreet about being seen publicly engaging in religious activity because they don’t want to be accused of being biased when it comes to the sensitive topic of religious identity. Even more so, I was struck by the body language of Judge and Mrs. Gorsuch. I’ve learned, as a minister for more than 35 years, to study people’s literal posturing, as much as their words. Physical behavior, especially during prayer, often tells me a lot about a person’s spiritual condition. For example, open eyes can signal discomfort, shame, or protest; closed eyes can signal security, humility, and sincerity. Neil and Louise Gorsuch were telegraphing the latter in the White House photo. It was obvious this was not simply a case of them being polite. This prayer was important to them.
This would be in keeping with what I’ve come to learn about the Gorsuch family—that they are sincere, mature, and fully engaged Christians. These qualities beg another question, however, and it concerns their choice of church affiliation; the answer to which will be, for some, very unexpected. Judge Gorsuch, his wife, and two daughters are faithful members of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. The Judge has recently served as an usher there, and Mrs. Gorsuch is a “reader,” a prominent, licensed lay ministerial role in the Episcopal denomination. Their daughters have been robed acolytes for the parish, assisting the priests during services. In other words, this is one seriously dedicated Episcopal family.
Based on Judge Gorsuch’s reputation for carefully studying the exact details of every legal question that comes before him, and, even more so, for his precise writing skills, I’m left to conclude that his choice of church affiliation is quite an intentional one. Maybe it’s just “pastoral-me,” but I find this fascinating. When it comes to his actions on the bench, Judge Gorsuch is considered a reliable Scalia-like “orginalist.” The very conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, both of which referred Gorsuch to Trump as a top possible Supreme Court pick, have routinely compared the jurist to the “textualist” Scalia. In contrast, church affiliation is one major point on which the Late Great Scalia would have never found commonality with Gorsuch.
The Episcopal Church is, by every measure, a liberal—read that, “quite liberal”—religious body. It was one of the first denominations to promote birth control, something clearly anathema to Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic and father-of-nine. It was also one of the first ecclesiastical judicatories to ordain female clergy, solemnize same-sex unions before they were legal, and consecrate an openly gay bishop. Any one of these factors would be enough to make Antonin Scalia roll over in his grave.
As I studied the prayer circle photo, I did think that, had this appointment been made under different circumstances and while Scalia was still alive, the Great Textual Orginalist may very well have approved of Judge Gorsuch’s legal sensibilities, but never his religious practices. Just as Scalia did with his colleague Clarence Thomas, the Faithful Latin-Rite Catholic likely would have zeroed in on his new colleague’s church membership with a view toward changing it. For Thomas, that resulted with his leaving the Episcopal Church and, under Scalia’s guidance, returning to his Roman Catholic roots—and, to the most conservative kind.
In my estimation, the Gorsuch church story suggests at the very least that the prospective Supreme Court appointee can get along with a wide swath of people, including social and religious progressives. (That should serve him well in the confirmation process.) More consequentially, it may indicate he has an “open mind” on a number of things; that should relax the anxieties of many of my liberal friends, while doing the opposite for my conservative cohorts. In the end, the fact that the Judge worships at St. John’s says to me he cannot be narrowly stereotyped as a universally predictable, knee-jerk conservative. After all, it’s hard to imagine that an ultra-conservative could serve in a church where “social justice,” “inclusion,” and “Gun Violence Protection” are staples without grinding his molars to pulp.
If I’ve learned anything here in Washington, it’s that anyone aspiring to high office in our Land is—and must be by nature—a complicated personality. It’s no doubt for me that, when it comes to his personal convictions, Judge Gorsuch is a mix of ideas, opinions, and dispositions. From my perspective as a minister of the gospel, I care more about the man’s interior, spiritual life, than his jurisprudential philosophy. I neither support nor oppose Judge Gorsuch or any other appointee to the Supreme Court or lesser federal courts. Once they are confirmed, I try to build a meaningful, pastoral-like relationship to them, and I look forward to doing that with the presumptive “Justice Gorsuch.” In my work at the courts, I’ve found that liberals, conservatives, originalists and “living constitutionalists” share the same, deep, spiritual needs.
We will understand these people much better—and will be able to pray for them much more effectively—if we stop idealizing them and appreciate them for what they are, three-dimensional human beings, just like you and me. Judge Gorsuch is not a two-dimensional cardboard cutout perfectly made to order for our use as a piñata to bash or an icon to venerate. He is what he is, a complicated, God-loved, imperfect creature—and what better place to discover that about him than in church.
Rev. Rob Schenck