The Wages of Choosing an Intolerant Justice
Conservative Christians, who suffered as a religious minority themselves, should remember why we need an independent judiciary.
BY: Marci A. Hamilton
The immediate reaction to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation was so strident from both sides that the president has asked everyone to tone it down. Senate leaders are also asking groups to be more cordial. The problem with silence, though, is that we need to know what agendas are out there, and, as I argue in my book, "God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law," one of the cardinal problems in American politics is that too many times religious political pressure happens behind closed doors.
Before the calls for civility, though, plenty of groups were able to show their hands in this emotional debate over who to choose to replace Justice O'Connor, a moderate and Goldwater Republican. Litmus tests abound, with conservative evangelical Christians claiming an entitlement to have a Supreme Court appointee who reflects their singular religious values. In the end, the President simply cannot choose a Justice based on their religious criteria.
This country was not founded on a single religious viewpoint, as the far right would have it, but rather on a wide diversity of religious beliefs. The current far right believers are reminiscent of the Puritans who settled what would become Massachusetts and who established their religion as the religion of the colony (and then the state). The Puritans believed in the right to believe whatever one wanted, so long as dissenters left their cities and communities. They believed in a religious culture controlled by the majority. Rhode Island was founded because of the Puritans' rank intolerance.
Many of the dissenting Christians in Massachusetts were Baptists, whose charismatic preachers, including the Revs. Isaac Backus and John Leland, preached the separation of church and state. Backus declared that the "notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever" while Leland called established religions, "all of them, anti-Christocracies."
Yet far-right Christians today, many of them Baptists, have no respect for disestablishment principles. They are intent on removing barriers between government and religion, and, in fact, making government the servant to religion. They want their religious messages on courthouse walls, their theology in the science classrooms, their prayers in public schools, and their values to mandate constitutional policy. They even argue that Protestants are a majority and therefore have the right to have the government deliver their religious messages. This is their agenda for the next Supreme Court Justice.
Not only are they opposed to the separation of church and state, they are also opposed to a balanced government. Right now, they are insistent that they have a right to dominate not just the Congress (witness the Terri Schiavo bill) and the President (he's harder to dominate, but he persistently plays to them), but also the Supreme Court. They say they are entitled to take the third branch.
Moreover, their primary criterion for a good justice is one where they can predict how that justice will vote on every issue that matters to them. In other words, they don't think too much of the independent judiciary, either. If they could, they would place an automaton in the Supreme Court that could be controlled by remote control. I wish that were an exaggeration, but their rhetoric is not terribly opaque.
I'm a conservative, a Republican, and a Christian, and I must say that I find this Christian triumphalism scary. Good for the liberals that are finally speaking up and saying that their Christianity is just as legitimate as arch-conservative Christianity. The voices we need next in the public square are the many silent conservative Christians who find it offensive that any religious group would attempt to control the federal government solely by its religious lights.
The far right has said repeatedly in recent years that it would like this country to return to its religious roots and to judging according to original intent. One can only hope that this president, who is not nearly as doctrinaire as his so-called "base," understands that the roots of this current movement are considerably closer to the Puritans than the Baptists at the time of the framing.