Scholar Michael W. McConnell mixes law, religion

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Twenty-one years ago Michael W. McConnell was an up-and-coming professor at the University of Chicago Law School writing a complicated article about the legal meaning of "free exercise of religion" for the Harvard Law Review. During the revision process a law review student editor left such an impression on McConnell that he convinced Chicago Law School to grant the student a faculty fellowship upon graduation.

"He was an unusually good editor," McConnell recalls. "He entered into the project in a way that I think helped me to make it a better article from the point of view of what I wanted it to be. He had some very intelligent organizational suggestions and was just very impressive."

The Harvard Law Review editor who caught McConnell's eye was Barack Obama.

"We had the opportunity of chatting quite a bit, and I knew he was planning to return to the south side of Chicago," McConnell said. "It just seemed like a natural (fit) to connect him with the law school."

In a vacuum, McConnell's interaction with Obama could seem somewhat extraordinary. But playing an integral role in the ascension of a future president of the United States cannot be considered mere coincidence when placed within the greater context of McConnell's career. Rather it's indicative of a pattern in the life of the former University of Utah professor, because time and again McConnell has demonstrated a propensity for gravitating toward interesting assignments and compelling individuals.

McConnell has held jobs in which he reported directly to superiors such as Rex Lee, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and for two years he even held top-secret military clearance. In 2001 George W. Bush nominated McConnell to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (one of a handful of appellate courts just below the U.S. Supreme Court), and after seven years on the bench he stepped away from the 10th Circuit to assume the prestigious directorship of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, a key position at one of the best law schools in the country. On two separate occasions in 2005 he was on the short list of candidates for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and throughout his career he has argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court about issues like freedoms of religion and speech.

Along the way, McConnell, who is one of America's most important conservative thinkers, laid down deep roots in Utah. His family lived in Salt Lake City from 1996-2009; he taught at the U full-time from 1997-2002 and part-time thereafter until leaving for Stanford.

"When Michael left we lost one of our great intellects at the law school," said Paul Cassell, a professor at Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law and a former federal judge. "We have other (great intellects) as well, but Michael had a national reputation as one of the leading constitutional scholars in the country."

Faith dominates the intellectual landscape of McConnell's life. A devout Christian belonging to a Presbyterian congregation, he chooses from among five different translations of the Bible depending on the purpose of his study. He co-edited "Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought," published by Yale University Press.

As a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory board, McConnell brings judicial experience and razor-sharp legal expertise from a conservative, faith-based perspective that is nationally respected and sought after.

"I think that the greatest divide in American culture is not the difference between faithful members of one religion and another," McConnell said. "But rather, (it's) between all believers and those who are either indifferent or hostile."

The story of Michael McConnell begins in suburban Louisville as the younger of two children. His father was a chemical engineer, his mother a homemaker. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout and actively participated in his Christian church. During high school he propelled his debate team to a state championship and wrote for the school newspaper.

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