There was a column in the NYT the other day by Stanley Fish comparing the controversy surrounding the Burris appointment to the Donatist Controversy. While the government is not a religious institution, I believe if St. Augustine were an influential person in today’s American politics, his judgment would be that Burris should be seated, barring any legal bombshells. Augustine’s position on the Donatist Controversy was that authority is ex opere operato: from the work having been worked, rather than the worker. So a person’s authority is derived from the legitimacy of the institution itself, and not the qualities of the person. Augustine did not believe the church was made up of only saints.

The Donatists in the Senate are starting to see the same wisdom. If Burris is denied his seat, the Burris Controversy could set a precedent for arguing against the legitimacy of any appointment. How clean does one’s record have to be to appoint someone? And how far does one have to travel down the line of succession to have sufficiently verified one’s credentials?