Harriet Miers has withdrawn her nomination to the Supreme Court, which is almost certainly for the best. Her statements in the early 1990s, unearthed earlier this week, drove in the final nail. Until then, social conservatives could tell themselves that, although she may not be possessed of a great judicial mind, she would at least be a reliable vote on the Court. But her meanderings about individual choice and the right of the Court to resolve controverted moral questions destroyed that last-ditch defense of the nomination. She has been through a terrible time and should be in our prayers.
Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has greatly influenced my thinking on this unfortunate nomination. He refused to join the posse that was out to get Miers and was pushed only reluctantly, step by step, to publicly make the case for withdrawal.
Politics as a blood sport is way out of bounds, and it is understandable that good people are reluctant to offer themselves up for what a declining number of people can with a straight face call public service. Now let’s hope the President nominates somebody of distinction who persuasively represents a judicial philosophy¯call it strict constructionism, originalism, textualism, or what you will¯that remedies the grave imbalance of the Court and marks the end of the judicial usurpation of politics. Many good candidates are mentioned. My first choice is Michael McConnell, but that is probably because I know him best.
There is no doubt that the president made a big mistake in nominating Ms. Miers. He forgot that he is the leader, not the proprietor, of the conservative cause. His statement suggesting that he accepted her decision because he needed to protect executive privilege is maybe the best that could be done in the circumstances. With a stronger nominee, I expect he could have fought in defense of executive privilege and easily won. So now we wait for the decision on his next choice.
Earlier this year, John Danforth, former Republican senator from Missouri, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times warning about the dangers of the religious right. It hoed to the line of the paper and could as well have been run as an editorial. This week Danforth spoke at the Bill Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. He deplored the fact that the Republican Party has been “taken over by Christian conservatives, the Christian right.” These are the people who think “they understand God’s truth, and they embody it politically.” The great danger of religion in politics is that it is divisive and produces results such as we see in “Iraq, Northern Ireland, and Palestine.”
John Danforth is an ordained Episcopal priest and a good and decent man. It is a pity that he is letting himself be used in this way. Or maybe this is what he really believes. If so, he is more than a little confused. He calls for “people of faith” to involve themselves in politics, but then seems to add the proviso that they must be people who share his understanding of faith. Or, if they have a different understanding, they should not let their faith impinge on their politics.
Of course there are kooks on the right who are as crazy as kooks on the left. I have written extensively on the wrongheadedness of Christian “reconstructionists” and “theonomists” (see, for instance, “Why Wait for the Kingdom? The Theonomist Temptation,” First Things, May 1990). They are marginal and carefully contained. To describe Christian conservatives in general as people who think they know God’s truth and embody it politically is a leftist slur unworthy of John Danforth.
As for his examples of religious “divisiveness,” he surely knows that with Iraq and Palestine we are dealing with a very different religion. Christians in politics represent the religion that provides the foundational ideas of a just and free society¯as in “Render to Caesar . . . ” and “We holds these truths to be self-evident . . . ” The reference to Northern Ireland is egregiously inapt. In terms of tyranny and mayhem, the atavistic tribal thuggery in Northern Ireland is hardly a world-class conflict. Moreover, the violence has been declining for years and only held our attention for so long because it was happening in the Christian West and was so atypical of the way Christians engage one another in political contest. As for Northern Ireland’s relevance to the American scene, Mr. Danforth surely knows that the “Christian conservatives” in this country whom he so unfairly caricatures are evangelical Protestants and Catholics making common cause¯the very parties that are in conflict in Northern Ireland. In short, his example makes a point exactly opposite to what he intends. One might think that Mr. Danforth would rejoice in the growing amity and cooperation between Protestants and Catholics in America.
Again, almost everybody agrees that John Danforth is a decent man who has rendered valuable service to his country. I hope he will think again and not continue on the course of acting as a shill for proponents of a naked public square who would exclude from public life the very “people of faith” whom he encourages to become politically engaged.