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Dobson's choice: Values voting or evangelical identity politics

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 31, 2005

The withdrawal of Harriet Miers spared some of President Bush's strongest supporters from having to make a fateful decision: stand by their president or sit out a dubious Supreme Court nomination.

For some of Bush's constituents, however, the underlying dilemma still remains. This is particularly true for evangelical Christians. For them, the debate over Miers raised a question: Is evangelical political involvement primarily about issues or influence?

According to the Pew Research Center, four out of five white evangelicals voted to reelect the president in 2004. Representing nearly one-third of his total support, they are the largest Bush bloc.

Evangelicals are a diverse lot, but many of them organized and entered the political process due to the same set of issues: abortion, religion in the public square, family cohesion and concerns about homosexuality. By the 1980s, they and other voters who shared these motivations were commonly called the Christian Right.

Despite all the attention that the Christian Right has generated over the years, including allegations that it has taken over the Republican Party, it is hard to see where it has made much progress. Abortion is still broadly legal; prayer is still banished from the public schools; the gay-rights movement proceeds apace, with same-sex marriage already legal in one state. Ten years ago, writing in The New Republic, David Frum asked, "If the Christian Right is so well organized and powerful, why does it nearly always lose?"

That question still stands today. Some of these losses are no doubt attributable to the shortcomings of evangelical leaders and political organizations. But perhaps the biggest brake on the Christian Right's efficacy has been the courts. Most of the issues that drive conservative evangelicals were removed from the legislative decision-making process by the federal judiciary.

Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court rulings established the right to legal abortion, allowing Congress and the states only to nibble at the margins of the issue. School prayer and even some public displays of the Ten Commandments are forbidden under the Court's interpretation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. Such recent decisions as Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas raise the specter of a future ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

No voting bloc in America cares more about the composition of the federal courts than religious conservatives. When President Bush promised to name judges in the mold of Thomas and Scalia who "won't legislate from the bench," he was talking less to Federalist Society members than voters who attend Wednesday evening prayer services.

When it came time to shift the Court's swing seat from Sandra Day O'Connor – who more often than not frustrated social-conservative goals – to a Scalia-Thomas jurist, the president's initial pick was a blank slate. There were scant signs of constitutionalism in Harriet Miers' record; the strongest evidence of cultural conservatism was that she signed an unequivocal pro-life statement in 1989. But even that came crashing down the week before her withdrawal with the release of a 1993 speech in which she used language that was clearly favorable to the central logic of Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Yet as the evidence gathered that Miers was likely to be another O'Connor if not another David Souter, evangelicals split. They noted Miers' Christian commitment and attendance at an evangelical church. The White House's frequent invocations of her faith and the president's assurances that he knows her heart were aimed squarely at the Christian Right.

For many evangelical leaders, this was good enough. James Dobson was an early supporter, telling Fox News, "There has not been an appointee to the Supreme Court who is an evangelical Christian to my knowledge in decades," a prospect he found "refreshing."

World magazine editor Marvin Olasky swatted away the objections of more secular conservative Miers critics, arguing, "If she is really centered on Christ, then that's even more important than not caring what Ivy League law schools think about her." Pat Robertson rebuked the right's Miers skeptics, alleging they had no electoral base, and warned Republican senators not to "turn against a Christian who is a conservative picked by a conservative President." Chuck Colson and Jerry Falwell were also on board.

Surely, not all Christian conservatives were convinced. Janet LaRue of Concerned Women for America argued, "Jimmy Carter claims to be an Evangelical and I wouldn't want him on the Supreme Court." The night before Miers was withdrawn, that organization came out against the nomination. The Family Research Council was on the fence. One poll found that half as many evangelicals "felt strongly" about her confirmation as felt the same way about Chief Justice John Roberts.

But a critical mass of evangelicals was satisfied by White House telephone calls and testimonies about Miers' faith. They were the conservatives most likely to support the nomination even though they were the right's largest voting bloc invested in the outcome of a Supreme Court nomination fight.

At issue is not just the effectiveness of evangelical activism – although the fact some Christian Right leaders are such an easy sell may explain why only two of the seven Republican-appointed justices are solidly anti-Roe – but its central purpose. Are evangelicals values voters or just another group practicing identity politics?

Christian conservative leaders are about to get another chance. By the time this appears, the president will have selected another, perhaps stronger, nominee. But the day of reckoning has only been delayed. In this and other debates, evangelicals must ask the activists who speak on their behalf whether they place their principles, rooted in faith, above their access to Washington power-brokers.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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