Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid blames the disintegration of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination on "extremists," the "radical right," unthinking conservatives who demand "rigid ideologues on the court." But the cause of her nomination's collapse is a lot more complicated than that, and should suggest to the political left that the "radical" and "religious" right isn't the simpleminded creature it assumes. What the Miers episode has revealed more than anything else is that conservatives, many of them Protestant and Catholic, are not content to accept political choices on faith alone, and will not roll over simply because a religious bone is thrown to them.

The White House's strategy of building Miers up as an "evangelical"-Bush at one point even suggested he selected her in part because she went to church-backfired, alienating not only Catholics whose tradition emphasizes the reconciliation of faith and reason, but also evangelicals in Washington, D.C. who felt patronized. While the White House's approach persuaded Focus on the Family's James Dobson (albeit with a weaker voice as the nomination slumped) and the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land (who offered a spirited defense of Miers on "Meet the Press") to promote Miers vigorously, it did not by and large persuade activist evangelicals in D.C.

Through conversations with activists in conservative Protestant circles in D.C., I learned that the support-her-because-she-goes-to-church pitch had left evangelicals here either cold or upset. That groups with evangelicals driving them like Concerned Women for American ultimately called for Miers' withdrawal confirmed what I had been hearing for two weeks. It is also worth noting that the Family Research Council, affiliated with Dobson, approached the nomination very circumspectly, in effect opposing the nomination through a telling silence.

The truth is that Miers' conspicuous lack of intellectual qualifications--her speeches and writings were demonstrably threadbare--grated on many religious conservatives. They did not merely want a vaguely religious representative on the Supreme Court but a committed originalist scholar who could serve as an unflinching intellectual counterweight to the activists on the court. John Roberts, a Catholic who demonstrated that he knew constitutional law inside and out, satisfied that requirement.

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  • And the proximity of that scholarly selection only made Bush's new pitch that Miers somehow had the right feelings about issues like Roe v. Wade--and was a welcome novice and "good woman" outside the "judicial monastery"--even more insulting and unpersuasive to conservatives. They wanted "another Scalia"-that is, a figure who embodies religion and reason, a convinced conservative and student of the law who finds liberal jurisprudence not simply distasteful but intellectually indefensible.

    In other words, in some small way, the conservative resistance to Miers reflected the perennial Judeo-Christian craving for a rational account of the moral order some religious followers accept on faith alone. It reflected a rejection of a modern sensibility, alien to that tradition's synthesis of faith and reason, which reduces conservatism to a mere opinion or feeling. Catholicism and conservatism (and Catholicism and conservative Protestantism), increasingly in America, are entwined, and the conservative movement's emphasis on philosophical rigor-showing that morality and just government rest on truths accessible to human reason-reflects that relation.

    The drift between Bush, whose faith is more felt than philosophized, and a philosophical conservative movement is due in part to Bush's instinctual approach to politics. Journalist Tucker Carlson once asked Bush to name an activity at which he didn't excel. Bush responded: reading a "book of philosophy." This aphilosophical approach to politics, as well as to religion, caught up with him in the Miers nomination. He thought that he could tell conservatives to "trust him" in spite of their reason, not appreciating that conservatives, including religious conservatives, enter politics not to surrender their critical faculties but to use them.

    What Harry Reid dismisses as a moment of mindless extremism is actually a moment of conservative philosophical resurgence, an indication that what Democrats regard as the "Religious Right" is growing if anything more thoughtful not less, and that conservatives intend to defend their Judeo-Christian convictions protected under the Constitution on explicitly intellectual grounds.

    The days of casting religious conservatives as "easily led" followers of Pat Robertson (who by the way supported the Miers nomination strongly and issued ineffective warnings to conservative politicians) are over. Conservatism is a movement of philosophy, not raw religious feelings. The left ignores this at its own political peril.
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