Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas. Osler's writing on clemency, sentencing and narcotics policy has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and in law journals at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Georgetown, Ohio State, UNC, and Rutgers.
A former federal prosecutor, he played a role in striking down the mandatory 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine in the federal sentencing guidelines by winning the case of Spears v. United States in the U.S. Supreme Court, with the Court ruling that judges could categorically reject that ratio. Osler's 2009 book Jesus on Death Row (Abingdon Press) critiqued the American death penalty through the lens of Jesus' trial. His second book, Prosecuting Jesus (Westminster/John Knox, 2016) is a memoir of performing the Trial of Jesus in 11 states.
The character of Professor Joe Fisher in the Samuel Goldwyn film American Violet was based on Osler, and he has been the subject of profiles by Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and CBS News. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School.
Posts By This Author
How Trump Perverted Clemency When He Pardoned Arpaio
As President Trump has pointed out, others have made bad use of that same power, favoring cronies (Scooter Libby) and benefactors (Marc Rich.) He is right about that. Both of those made my stomach turn. I was a federal prosecutor when President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, and it was infuriating — rewarding a fugitive cut against everything I worked for. In pardoning former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, though, Trump has done something worse: The president has not only rewarded someone who is unrepentant, but he has celebrated the crime itself. When asked about the pardon, Trump said of Arpaio that “He’s done a great job for the people of Arizona, he’s very strong on borders, very strong on illegal immigration, he is loved in Arizona ...”
The Presidential Pardon’s Roots in Christian Faith
It is striking to come across a spare, sharp, faith-constructed word like mercy in a discussion of the Constitution by those who wrote and shaped it. It shouldn't surprise us, though — despite their deist tendencies, the framers of the Constitution lived in a culture linked by Christianity as a common bond and area of shared knowledge. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall furthered this theme by referring to a pardon as "an act of grace."
The End of Bully Christianity
A tipping point has been reached, not only on the issue of marriage equality, but on the broader political force of bully Christianity, a pernicious brand of the faith that tells people who don't have conservative social and political views that they "aren't Christian." That model has now failed where it used to work reliably; Waterloo has been reached.
To be clear, not all of those who sought to protect traditional man-woman marriage were bullies. Many acted out of a principled and consistent sense of their own faith, and stayed away from defining the faith identity of others. I am fortunate that the same-sex marriage opponents I know best avoided that tactic and amid our disagreement never suggested that I was no longer a part of the diverse and complex body of Christians.
Still, it is undeniable that many advocates for traditional marriage actively used the bullying tactic of asserting that there was only one "Christian" position on this issue, and that the Christian viewpoint rejected marriage equality. Unfortunately, their voices have too often been the loudest, and the ones to which the press is most attracted. That tactic has now been exposed as something worse than unprincipled, politically: It has been shown to be ineffective in the public arena.
Some will see this tipping point as a huge loss for Christianity, but it might instead be the faith's salvation. Bullying was always a terrible form of evangelism.
What We Find On Higher Ground
Here in the Upper Midwest (I live in Minnesota), the importance of higher ground is not just metaphorical, as snowmelt-fed flood waters rise to envelope communities. People, quite literally, are forced to higher ground by floods.
It is interesting, too, what happens when that higher ground, the literal higher ground, is sought. Necessarily, there are more people in a smaller area; that’s the nature of it. Diverse groups are forced together. We know these images from the news: the floating cars, and then the displaced people together in a school gym, talking. The power of that second image is that it shows an unexpected, shared space. People have grabbed what they could and fled to this place, often by walking uphill, and now they find themselves together.
When the metaphorical waters rise and destroy what we know or count on, people do the same thing, but that higher ground is a broad mutual faith that encompasses the belief that there is something greater than ourselves, that there must be a reason for these tragedies; we turn to God. Recently, we have seen this happen in Boston and in West, Texas. At the memorial for the victims of the explosion in West, held at Baylor University, President Barack Obama spoke openly about faith.
Christianity Without Arrogance
Much has been made of the "rise of the nones" — that is, the increasing percentage of Americans who identify with no religion. It is a fascinating and undeniable trend, and one that should catch the attention of religious leaders.
I know quite a few Nones. Few of them were raised in the absence of any faith tradition. Instead, most were part of a Christian denomination at some point, but consciously made the decision to leave. What interests me about their stories is this common thread: The majority left Christianity because of the attitudes of a person, and that person was not Jesus. It was an overbearing parent, or a judgmental minister, or a congregant who told them they did not belong because they were gay or they were questioning or they had conflicted ideas. In many cases, it was a combination of these types of influences.
Something is wrong when we drive so many people away. I think a big part of that something is arrogance.
This raises the question, then, of how to be a public Christian, even an evangelical Christian (which is how I identify myself), without running the risk of arrogance.
I don't embody the ideal I'm about to describe in answer to that question, but I know some people who do. These are the people who made me want to be a Christian. What I see in them are three key attributes: They are authentic, unashamed and honest.
Evangelicals' Answer to Newtown Should Be Evangelism
Facebook is breaking my heart.
As I survey the reactions of my fellow evangelicals to the Newtown tragedy, I have seen three strains of thought, each of which absolve us of any responsibility: (1) It would have been different if the principal or a teacher was armed; (2) If Americans care about the slaughter of innocent children, why don't they care more about abortion?; and (3) The secularization of school and society plays a role in these shootings. A few stray comments about mental illness have also floated around vaguely.
Absent from all of this analysis is any consideration of our own failure to do exactly what evangelicals should be all about: Evangelism, in the form of reaching out and giving meaning to lost souls like the loner kid who became the 20-year-old who committed these murders. If a relationship with God is what gives a young life a connection to community, a sense of humility and service, and a devotion to what is good, that is exactly what Adam Lanza needed.
Christians and Marriage After the Election
Minnesota, famously, has just rejected a proposed constitutional amendment which would have barred same-sex marriage. The battle raged for a year, with Christians on both sides. The Catholic diocese was a primary proponent of the amendment, but many Catholics posted “Another Catholic Voting No” signs on their lawn. Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists were also found on both sides of the battle, in leadership roles and at phone banks. Rarely did the discussion of the amendment stray too far from a discussion of faith issues, because it was faith that drove so many to either reject same-sex marriage or move to embrace it as a part of our larger community.
There were bruises and scars, of course, within congregations, families, and neighbors. To some, on both sides, it was a deeply personal fight.
Now, though, it is done. The amendment failed. Though my side won, the divisions created trouble me. As an Episcopalian working within a Catholic law school, I saw the pain of those on both sides.
Remember the Dangerous Animals
This week, thousands of churches will host a “blessing of the animals” to coincide (more or less) with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I’ve been to several of these, and what I remember best is a lot of barking, bored cats, and uninspired sermons. Most commonly, the sermon follows something like this trajectory: “My Mom/Grandmother/Elderly Friend has sweet little dog. She loves the dog very much. The dog loves her. That dog is the presence of God in her life.” This is followed by a round of not-completely-affirming barks and mews.
The problem is not that this all isn’t true — I’m sure that it is, including the last part. The problem is that it does too little to recognize the complex power of animals in God’s creation, or even in the life of St. Francis. The Saint, after all, engaged the dangerous animals, too, and most famously blessed a wolf.