2016-07-27
The U.S. Senate showdown over judicial appointees and filibuster rules converged in my e-mail in-box last week in an apocalyptic stew of messages.

A relative sent me an e-mail from a liberal advocacy group warning that I must act immediately to prevent "radical right-wing Republicans from seizing absolute power to appoint far-right judges." A friend forwarded an e-mail from a conservative advocacy group warning that "people of faith and conservative values are being discriminated against by far left liberal advocacy groups intent on undermining the Constitution." An editor sent me a piece arguing that America was turning into a theocracy along the lines of Iran. Another sent a cartoon of the judges being held "hostage" by the seven dwarves with Grumpy holding a bullwhip.

This judicial fracas is testing everyone's nerves. Most incensed of all seem to be my more liberal family, friends, and editors who are flailing about trying to understand why conservative Christian political activists are so up in arms about the fate of a few judges awaiting confirmation votes in the Senate. They seem to think that this is all part of a grand conspiracy to create a new Christian theocracy.

My friends and acquaintances with blue-state sensibilities aren't sure how, but they know that the minimum wage, gay rights, abortion rights, a woman's right to vote, clean air, and our oceans are all threatened by conservative Christian political activism. Events like "Justice Sunday"--when evangelical leaders linked churches via video conference to decry Democratic "discrimination" against "people of faith and conservative values" and urge Christians to contact their elected representatives about the need to control a "runaway judiciary"--heighten their angst. Though they don't know how, they are pretty confident John Ashcroft is secretly involved. The rants of many columnists, lots of liberal talking heads, and the liberal interest-group direct mail convey an unprecedented level of hysteria.

Their anxiety is almost understandable. This country is deeply divided politically in the aftermath of the 2004 election. And blue-staters still harbor a tremendous amount of suspicion about these people called the "religious right." Who are these people who have taken the White House and the Congress, and what exactly do they want next? Why are they lobbying Senators about changing procedural rules? To gain control of the courts? Are conservative Christians' real views even represented by their leaders or are their leaders just using Jesus' name to advance their own political ends? Is this really just about raw electoral politics, or is there something substantive at stake here?

These are questions for books, seminars, college courses, documentaries, and maybe a TV mini-series or two. Nevertheless, some observations from someone raised in a politically diverse family, on a diet of tofu and grits, who has also experienced politics from both sides of the aisle, might be helpful in quelling the prevailing fears.

Conservative Christians have been smacked by the courts way too many times.
Judicial activism was one of the primary motivators for renewed conservative Christian political activism in the 1970s. After enduring a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s and '70s that removed prayer from public schools, and liberalized and then enshrined abortion laws, Christian political activists drew the proverbial line and said, "No more."

So a bunch of kids can't pray in school, ask blue-state friends. So what? Pray before school. Pray at home. Pray to yourselves. Pray at lunch. After all, the prayer itself was a pretty insipid, "Dear God, thank you for America and our classroom and our families. Amen." No one was converted by these prayers. If anything, kids were taught that talking to God was boring.

All those things may be true. But those aren't the real issues. The problem was the perception by conservative Christians that America was simultaneously turning away from God and turning its back on people who believed in God. For many conservative Christians, the idea of America being "One nation under God" isn't about a particular set of moral laws or rules. It is about the nation acknowledging the Divine. That was turned on its head.


After these school prayer decisions, people of faith felt themselves increasingly marginalized from the American mainstream. They heard themselves described by others as "Holy Rollers" or "Jesus Freaks" or even in the unforgettable words of the Washington Post, "poor, uneducated, and easy to command." Whether accurate or not, to many Christians it seemed like a lot of this ridicule in the media began with the Supreme Court decisions themselves, which helped establish a certain national perspective about God and about Christians.

In much the same way, Roe v Wade (1973) wasn't just about abortion, it was about the value placed on life. After all, in the majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that "the word 'person', as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn." One leader expressed his anguish about it this way: "What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually? It is that question, the question of our attitude, our value system, and our mind-set with regard to the nature and worth of life itself that is the central question confronting mankind. Failure to answer that question affirmatively may leave us with a hell right here on earth." The leader was the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1977. A lot of people still share that perspective and resent being mocked for holding it.

"Judicial activism" that led to rulings like school prayer, Roe, and recent gay marriage decisions was undemocratic.
Much of the passion displayed today in demands for an "up or down" vote on President Bush's judicial nominees comes from the pent-up frustration of decades of "unaccountable" judicial decisions. From their perspective, it is extraordinary that there was never a national vote on abortion, on gay rights, on prayer in schools. Like citizens of the puppet states the Soviet Union established in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, conservative Christians viewed these edicts from on high as matters beyond their control. Even more troubling was the fact that it was judges appointed by presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who explicitly upheld Roe in the late 1990s.

Then came President George W. Bush. He was one of them--an evangelical, a conservative, for prayer, and against abortion. Bush was going to appoint "good" judges who would "right" the past wrongs. But during his first term, Democrats consistently held up his nominees to judicial posts in obvious hope that he wouldn't be re-elected and these conservatives wouldn't find their way to permanent power.

In fact, although Bush's overall judicial confirmation rate was higher than that of the three previous presidents, his first-term appellate confirmation rate was the lowest in modern times. Democrats who didn't use the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork used it to block well-qualified judges (as determined by the ABA, not Focus on the Family) nominated by President Bush.

Politics matters a lot.
Conservatives and liberals are fighting for the same thing in this struggle: higher ground from which to wage the impending Supreme Court nomination battle(s). With no disrespect meant for any of the judges at the center of the current wrangling, this isn't really about them. In all likelihood, at least one of the justices will retire in the next 60 days. That means that the first Republican nominee for the Supreme Court since Clarence Thomas was confirmed in 1991 will be up for consideration. Enough said.

And let's not forget that in two-and-a-half years, the first Republican presidential primaries will be held. Eighteen months from now, candidates will make formal announcements. Appealing to evangelical political leadership is vitally important because of their influence over voters in the primaries.

There isn't a lot of high ground left in a swamp.
Pat Robertson's recent statement suggesting liberal judges are a greater overall threat to America than radical Islamic terrorists freaks me out no more than MoveOn.org's stock language labeling conservative Christians in the political process as "radical Christian extremists"-the same phrasing commonly used to describe "radical Islamic extremists" who hatch plots to destroy America. Both liberals and the conservatives are engaged in an overheated war of words, threats, and impending doom akin to Chicken Little channeling Rush Limbaugh.

Whenever it began-Watergate? Bork? Thomas? School prayer? Roe? Clinton? Christian Coalition? Gingrich? ACLU? People for the American Way? Hamilton? Burr?-politics seems to have gotten away from us. At times it feels like democracy-or maybe just manners and sanity-itself may be applying for temporary leave to greener, quieter pastures. We don't discuss issues or policies or philosophies anymore. There isn't a word about the historic role of "advice and consent" or judicial interpretation versus judicial activism.

Like teenagers, our leaders don't think, they just react. Nike got it right after all, "Just do it" is the political slogan of our times. It is all about power. Republicans are seeking to create a "permanent Republican majority," while Democrats are seeking any majority at all.

In the midst of the fray, America hears self-appointed "Christian activists" declare that Jesus' was way into Social Security reform, judicial activism, and abortion. A smaller, quieter number of liberal Christian political activists correct the conservatives and say that Jesus was actually into block grants, welfare, and hybrid fuel vehicles.

None of this feels remotely like anything the Jesus who sat with prostitutes and even tax collectors would be getting jiggy about. I'm guessing he'd want us all to sit down together and maybe even share some tofu and grits.

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