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Former BUFF driver; self-styled military historian; paid (a lot) to write about beating plowshares into swords; NOT Foamy the Squirrel, contrary to all appearances. Wesleyan Jihadi Name: Sibling Railgun of Reasoned Discourse

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Faith and Filibusters

Catching up with a few correspondents' posts submitted before or during the Great Purge. This one is not yet OBE, since the filibuster issue has not yet been resolved. Chefjef leads off; my comments are at the end
-- Monk


[Last] week Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist appeared on "Justice Sunday," a telecast hosted by Christian conservative organizations to promote the "nuclear option" to rid the Senate of Rule 22, which would essentially eliminate the filibuster. By lending the prestige of the Senate to a telecast from a church that will mobilize Christians behind his effort to destroy the filibuster, the Republican Party is continuing a long strategy of dividing the nation along religious lines and empowering the radical right with a control of legislative action that is uninhibited by the Constitution’s checks and balance system and its separation of church and state.

Pundits on the telecast stated that the Democratic filibusters against a dozen of President Bush’s judicial nominees represent an ongoing assault by “radicals’ on “people of faith.” They went on to rant and rave that many of President Bush’s judicial nominees have been blocked because they are people of faith and moral values; that they are “objectionable” because they believe abortion and gay marriage is a sin and is wrong.

This is an outright lie. First, 95% of all of Bush’s nominees have been approved. That is a higher number than Clinton’s approval rating of his judicial nominees. Furthermore, Bush’s nominees weren’t filibustered because of their religious faith. I am ambivalent about the filibuster. While It is a useful tool in a republican democracy, particularly as a tool of the minority to defend itself against a majority that has been co-opted by what Madison called “faction,” as an African-American writer recently stated, “[the filibuster]was the secret weapon instituted by Southern segregationists to block civil rights legislation for nearly a century. Moreover, both parties have attempted to lessen its effectiveness while in the majority.”

But back to the “lies’ of the broadcast. Let’s take two overturned nominees who received copious amounts of attention in the media. First, Carolyn Kuhl of California is a right-wing judicial activist who continuously sought to overturn most existing environmental and consumer protections in cases that came before her bar. As an attorney in the Reagan Justice Department, Ms. Kuhl wrote a memo urging the government to reverse longstanding BIPARTISAN policy by renewing the federal tax exemption of the renowned, sexist, racist Bob Jones University. As a judge in Los Angeles, she dismissed a lawsuit brought by a cancer patient whose doctor allowed her breast examination to be observed in his office by a drug company representative - WITHOUT the patient’s consent.

Second was Priscilla Owen of Texas. We’ll put aside the fact that she rendered favorable decisions, as a Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, on several occasions that favored corporations – most notably Dow chemicals and Enron - that had previously contributed to her judicial campaigns. Instead, since many of my conservative friends have written so favorably about the legal acumen and expertise of Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s new U.S. Attorney General, it is more persuasive to learn that Alberto Gonzales, as a fellow Justice of Ms. Owen on the Texas high court, repeatedly –- and I mean repeatedly -– harshly criticized her extreme opinions.

How does opposition to these people offend religious faith, particularly when Senate Democrats have approved conservative, faith-professing nominees, some of whom were publicly disapproved of by liberal groups? Such approved nominees included John Roberts, an abortion opponent who argued that public schools should be allowed to hold religious graduation ceremonies, Timothy Tymkovich, an anti-gay former Attorney General of Colorado who attempted to stop Medicaid funding of abortion in cases of rape and incest.

The organizations that sponsored this "Justice Sunday" event are clearly exploiting religion to advance a personal agenda that has nothing to do with Christianity or spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nor did it have anything to do with keeping a “watchful eye” on government in an attempt to keep it on the straight and narrow, so to speak. It had nothing to do with true Christianity at all, and thus morphed into exactly what Madison feared would happen without a separation of church and state, that is that "[T]he settled opinion here is that religion is essentially distinct from Civil Govt. and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurous [sic] to both" [James Madison, letter to Edward Everett, March 19, 1823].

It should be noted that Madison also had this concern:

[W]ho does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other Christian sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
[James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785.]

Okay, so then what role should religion play? Should it reflect our public consciousness? Should it function as a special interest? During the past week a conservative Christians have pointed out that the phrase "separation between church and state" does not appear in the Constitution. Of course, neither do the words "God," "Christian" or "Jesus," which does not seem to bother the religious Right, although it should concern them as much as it did many of our Christian, Anti-Federalist forefathers who opposed ratification of the Constitution. But that’s an issue for another time.

At any rate, while the phrase may not appear, the concept is hardly revisionist history recently adapted by a band of left-wing atheists. In previous posts I have quoted some Founders on their expressions of a distrust of the meddling of organized religion in governmental affairs. I offer more. In a letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions." He added, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

In Jefferson’s original version, which he edited, he also stated that,

Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised [sic]only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect
[Jefferson, 1 Jan. 1802.]

Jefferson understood that one's privately held morality – religious origins, or lack thereof aside - cannot be the sole basis for legislative action. Pandering is not an exclusive enterprise. Whether they be Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, whatever -- most elected officials pander as a (seemingly) necessary accoutrement of obtaining and maintaining political office. But organized religion should hold itself to a higher standard. As another writer put it this week,

I hold religion to a higher standard. If religion can only criticize one political party because it is beholden to another, then it has effectively lost its usefulness in the public square, making it just another special interest group.

I’ll end with Madison:

For it is known that this Religion [Chrisitianity] both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence. Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits….. the Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.



Excellent article! I append only a few brief comments:

First of all, the debate is not about ending the filibuster, but in allowing a simple majority to end one used specifically to block judicial nominations. This is just good politics--The Republicans will be a minority party again someday; it would hardly do to eliminate the filibuster altogether. And the Republicans were much more effective at blocking Clinton's nominations by means short of filibuster when they were still the minority party. Allowing a simple majority the right to end debate and force a vote on a nominee is not exactly ploughing up the constitution or dynamiting the "wall of separation."

Next, I think the contention that "Republicans are continuing a long strategy of dividing the nation along religious lines" is tendentious. Both sides of the political fence have slung enough mud to go around on this issue. I concede that Frist and other Republicans are posturing and pandering--that's what they do. I also agree that certain elements of the extreme Right are using this as a lever to gain positional advantage in their war on the general culture. However, Republicans are just cashing in on a divide that already existed, and was largely created as a reaction to the rise and dominance of the secular humanist religion in the general culture. Many Christians and other "people of faith" feel disenfranchised and even persecuted by what they see as a hostile culture that controls the "intellectual means of production," to put it in Marxist terms. I can sympathize with this.

Most Republicans are not from this demographic slice of America--they are old-line, big-money, pro-business types who could care less about the social aspects of conservatism as long as their pet corporations are cared for. They are just being forced by grassroots pressure to pander a little ("represent," as its otherwise known) a few of their constituents' concerns. When this current tempest-in-a-teapot-dome blows over, they'll go back to sipping martinis with their collegial buds on the other side of the aisle and generally acting as comptrollers for the Nanny State, as they've done for well over fifty years now.

I have no particular opinions on the relative merits of either of the judges in question. I do, however, think it's smart for the Republicans to break the back of this kind of oppostion now, before Bush puts forth a nominee to the Supremes. The are "shaping the battlespace," as they say in my profession, as well they should. It won't matter who the Republicans put forward--it could be John Marshall reincarnated and the Democrats would still fight it like a rabid wolverine backed into a corner.

I do agree with you and the founders on the dangers of establishing a state church, both for the nation as a poltical entity and for the church itself. You woun't find any more convinced believer than I am on the dangers of corrupting the church with worldly concerns. Theocracy is always an attempt to immanetize the eschaton and always results in fundamental corruption, which is one of the main reasons islam is pernicious and which is testified to in the history of the Catholic church (and why I am a reformed Protestant).

Having said that, I believe that the situation Christianity finds itself in the US today is one of an increasingly persecuted monority sect set upon by a successor religion that derives much of its internal legitimacy by opposing its predecessors. Christianity did this to Judaism after becoming the Empire's official religion. Islam did it to both Christianity and Judaism, albiet rather humanely for the time. Fascism, communism, nationalsim (a la Turkey under Attaturk) and other manifestations of modernist reltativism have brutally persecuted all other religions in this manner. I have said before that relativism is a religion and all its manfiestations are just denominations. I say now that in its latest incarnation--a sort of hedonistic, consumerist, internationalist relativistic humanism--it forms a de facto state church in America already. I think many Christians realize this intuitively, even if many have not articulated it in such terms.

Vis the danger of Right-wing Christians imposing a theocracy in America, I am reminded of Screwtape: The Devil always warns us of the sins we're least likely to commit. It's not gonna happen--the greatest threat to Christianity today comes from the Left, not the Right.


Powerline refutes Chefjef's contention that Alberto Gonzales "repeatedly...harshly criticised her extreme opinions." The "criticism" in question arose from one instance cited by the liberal press, and that was a deliberate misrepresentation.


jpe of l'Esprit d'Escalier comments:

Take Powerline's "refutation" with a grain of salt. The standard line - that Owens's dissent was crazed activism - is correct in this instance (if asked, I'll go into the nitty-gritty).

Persecution: it's difficult to swallow that the religion of the majority is being persecuted. What is in dispute currently isn't the religion itself, but the role religion should play in the public realm. Should America be a de facto Christian nation with all the trappings that entails? The courts generally say no, but it's hard to see how my inability to, say, rename the local courthouse as the "Jesus Christ Center for Biblical Truth" constitutes persecution.


Oops! following In the Agora, I think I goofed on the Owens thing. I may have been confusing dissents of hers (one of which really is hideously bad - I probably assumed that the one getting the coverage was the awful one I found. That's what I get for trusting the judgment of the media, I s'pose).

In the main, I agree with your first statement, but I can't make a very informed judgement on Owens, since I'm not really familiar with the details. I just tend to trust others like Reynolds, the Powerline boys, and Volokh on such matters, their expertise being much greater than my own. Perhaps a mistake in this case--Owens may have produced some real howlers, but there seems enough posturing going around on both sides right now.

The role of religion in the public realm is the real issue, as you say. I certainly don't want any form of Christianity established as part of the state apparatus, and not because I fear corruption of the state--rather, I fear fundamental corruption of the church. In other words, I agree with Madison and Chefjef, great statesment both, on this. Christianity doesn't need the state's help and such help will be pernicious if accepted. That said, I am concerned with the extent to which a rival religion/philosophy--relativism, humanism, modernism, call it what you will--is getting itself installed as part of the state's implicit ethos under the guise of "secular" fairmindedness. I only wish the state to provide a level playing field and that implies, I think, some tolerance for the presentation of all the "playas" in the marketplace of ideas.


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