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Not a Religious Fight

May 2, 2005

Will “Justice Sunday” turn out to be a political and religious mistake? I think so. The scheduled April 24 rally and national telecast, sponsored by conservative Christian groups, advertises people I respect, including James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Chuck Colson, the born-again Watergate figure and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. But the decision to hold the event is a woeful tactic based on a false premise.

The premise is that Senate Democrats, by threatening to filibuster several of President Bush’s judicial choices, have attacked religious believers. “Stop the filibuster against people of faith” is the slogan. The nominees “are being blocked because they are people of faith and moral conviction,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a sponsor of Justice Sunday. Pardon me, but this is clearly untrue. The Democrats would be delighted to approve fervently religious nominees, so long as they endorse Roe v. Wade and the party’s general strategy of using the courts as an end run around the legislative process. The obvious is true: The filibuster threat is about abortion politics and left-right polarization, not religion.

Since this column is being written before Justice Sunday, there is no way for me to know how incendiary the rhetoric will be. But I am apprehensive. Consider just the damaging fallout from an event that is meant as a strenuous effort to identify religion with one political party. The sponsors invited individual churches to show the telecast to their congregations, a big mistake. Churches should not be directly involved in politics. As a purely practical matter, churches that endorse a clearly political event (this one was to feature Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) play into the hands of those who like to toss around the word theocrats and who would like to change the subject from filibusters to issues of church and state.

“Slanderers.” Accusing the Democrats of running a jihad against believers clearly implies that people who vote Democratic are either terribly ignorant or simply not good Christians, Jews, or Muslims. This is a surefire recipe for increasing polarization within the churches. One Baptist website complained caustically about “Injustice Sunday,” quoting one minister who said: “There are people of faith on both sides; neither has God in their hip pocket on this issue.” Martin Marty, a liberal Protestant theologian of great stature and fairness, went uncharacteristically ballistic on this point. He said the backers of Justice Sunday “have assaulted and are mobilizing slanderers against millions upon tens of millions of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews (and fellow Evangelicals?) who politically support efforts not to ‘go nuclear’ and hence kill the filibuster potential in the Senate.”

Frist’s agreement to appear on the telecast is an example of how polarization now feeds on itself. I think Frist would have preferred to show some detachment, but the pull of the base is extraordinarily strong in both parties and especially unforgiving with potential presidential candidates who lack the proper militancy.

The advance rhetoric has been extreme. Perkins’s message on the Family Research Council website says, “For years activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the ACLU, have been quietly working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms.” Must we talk this way? I agree with the sentiment about the American Civil Liberties Union. It has degenerated into a pressure group of the left that specializes in stripping the public square of every vestige of religion, from the removal of a tiny mission cross in the seal of the County of Los Angeles to attacks on Christmas trees near city halls. But I don’t understand what it means to work “under the veil of the judiciary” or how the excesses of the ACLU are involved in the issue at hand–the Democrats’ determination not to let the Senate vote on some judges.

Given enough publicity, Justice Sunday seems guaranteed to frighten away secular and non-Christian religious voters who think the courts have gone too far or that simple fairness requires a Senate vote on the judges in question. According to one poll (conducted for an admittedly conservative group, the Judicial Confirmation Network), 82 percent of Americans think that any qualified nominee for the federal bench deserves an up or down vote in the Senate. This number seems too high. But if it is anywhere near accurate, it would indicate resistance to the filibuster that goes far beyond the conservative religious base. Why not reach for this support instead of trying to create an antifaith bias? Framing political issues in purely religious terms is always a big mistake.

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