Bush Reversal on Religion Assures Some, Enrages Others

By Feuerherd, Joe | National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Bush Reversal on Religion Assures Some, Enrages Others


Feuerherd, Joe, National Catholic Reporter


In selling Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers to the public, and to the 100 senators who will decide whether she joins the high court, the administration of the nation's first MBA president is offering a case study in confused marketing, and religion is at the core of the botched effort.

It's not simply a case of mixed messages, but a 180-degree flip-flop from the not-so-distant days when the administration and its supporters argued that any consideration of a judicial nominee's religious affiliation was out of bounds. Today, facing growing opposition to the Miers nomination from its conservative base, White House operatives fill in the blanks of Miers' resume with a none-too-subtle sectarian appeal: She's one of us. Republican National Committee "Catholic Outreach" chair Leonard Leo, for example, told participants on an Oct. 6 White House conference call to grass-roots activists that Miers is a devout Christian, while Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, noted that she would be the first evangelical on the court since the 1930s.

Prior to the formal announcement of Miers' nomination, Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson, an influential figure on the religious right, received private assurances from top White House aides that Miers attended a conservative evangelical church whose membership was overwhelmingly pro-life. Dobson endorsed the Miers nomination.

Then, on Oct. 12, President Bush abandoned any pretense that religion was out-of-bounds. "People ask me why I picked Harriet Miers," Bush told reporters. "They want to know Harriet Miers' background, they want to know as much as they possibility can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion."

The use of religion is a tactic that enrages some conservatives who believed the pre-Miers party line that religion should not matter in judicial appointments. "We're really surprised and disappointed that they led with this bizarre approach to kick-off a nomination," says Joseph Cella, president of Fidelis, a conservative organization committed to removing discussion of a nominee's personal faith from the judicial approval process. The president's endorsement, Cella told NCR, has "derailed an elevated conversation" about the judiciary and the role of religion "that should have and could have happened."

"It is both troubling and hypocritical for the supporters of Harriet Miers to promote her strong evangelical faith to garner support among religious conservatives," said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. "You cannot have it both ways. Groups and leaders cannot say religion is off-limits during the confirmation hearings for new Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' confirmation and then promote religion during the Miers confirmation for the sole purpose of political gain."

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Early in the Bush administration, a carefully calibrated strategy related to judicial appointments was implemented. The president would nominate judges who would not "legislate from the bench" and would respect "the rule of law." Any discussion of a nominee's "deeply held beliefs"--seen by conservatives as code designed to ferret out a nominee's view of Roe v. Wade--was deemed an unconstitutional religious test and, in some cases, an example of anti-Catholic bigotry.

In the Senate, conservatives Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, took up the case. Democrats opposed to the nomination of antiabortion Catholic William Pryor to the federal bench were signaling that nominees with conservative religious beliefs were unacceptable candidates for the court, Sessions and Hatch charged at the 2003 hearings. …

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