Miers: Not the first evangelical justice

Born-again Christians say they're unrepresented. But Clarence Thomas was an evangelical when he joined the court.

Published October 7, 2005 12:30AM (EDT)

When George W. Bush announced that Harriet Miers was his next nominee for the Supreme Court, her selection was met with near-universal grumbling by conservatives, who complained that she either wasn't qualified or wasn't conservative enough for the position. The one, perhaps surprising, exception was the evangelical community. Within hours, the word went out that Miers was an evangelical pick, chosen partly to ease the concern among some evangelicals that they are unrepresented on a court dominated by Catholic and Jewish justices.

Citing Miers' conversion and involvement with a nondenominational church in Texas, evangelical heavyweights like Marvin Olasky and Chuck Colson gave her their early thumbs-up. Focus on the Family's James Dobson went on Fox News to enthuse, "There has not been an appointee to the Supreme Court who is an evangelical Christian to my knowledge in decades. It is refreshing that one could even be considered." Conservative evangelical legal activist Jay Sekulow crowed, "This is a big opportunity for those of us ... that share an evangelical faith in Christianity, to see someone with our positions put on the court." And half the newspapers in the country repeated the New York Times' assertion that, if confirmed, Miers "would be the first evangelical Protestant on the court since the 1930s."

Somewhere, Clarence Thomas had to be feeling a bit ignored.

Although it went entirely unnoticed by the national press -- what with the attention he received for being a black nominee (and the minor matter of Anita Hill's testimony) -- Thomas was an involved member of an evangelical church when he joined the Supreme Court in the fall of 1991.

Conservatives might be tempted to dismiss this. When breakdowns of exit polls are reported, they insist that black evangelical Protestants "don't count" in the evangelical category, arguing that such voters are motivated more by political and racial factors than religion. (The rule seems to be that religion isn't an influence on black political behavior unless it can be used to pick them off over issues like gay marriage or to appeal to black ministers through faith-based initiatives.) But the church Thomas attended -- Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Va. -- is a predominantly white evangelical church in which you're unlikely to hear any gospel music but you just might run into Oliver North, another longtime member.

Still, some conservative evangelicals protest to me that Episcopalians aren't "really" evangelical, leaving Miers' claim to fame secure. This claim is undercut by the fact that one of the most popular and vibrant Washington-area churches for the conservative power set is the evangelical Falls Church Episcopal, where on a typical Sunday you can find Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, CIA director Porter Goss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, and dozens of other conservatives with legitimate evangelical credentials.

Thomas, who grew up attending Catholic school and joined the Catholic Church in second grade, began attending Mass again a few years ago. But for the first five years of his tenure on the high court, he was undeniably an active member of a conservative evangelical church. Terry Eastland, publisher of the Weekly Standard, told me that when it comes to evangelicals who have served on the court, Miers has to be considered "the second ... other than Thomas."

This would all just be a matter of mildly interesting theological quibbling if not for the specific political strategy an "evangelical seat" plays into. For at least the past decade, leading conservative evangelicals have painted their community as a persecuted, underrepresented minority group that deserves special protection and treatment, as well as affirmative action to allow their voices to be heard. Just last week, Richard Thompson, a defense lawyer in the Pennsylvania intelligent design trial, told reports that "even though Christians are 86 percent of the population, they have become second-class citizens."

In a country where the White House, Justice Department, Senate, and House of Representatives are all led by evangelicals, it takes some amount of chutzpah to continue insisting that evangelicals are being kept down by the secular Man. So it helped that the Supreme Court seemed to be an evangelical-free zone that could be targeted for change. The fact that Clarence Thomas already broke through this "barrier" is inconvenient enough to be avoided.

So far, the right-wing tempest over the Miers nomination has been portrayed as a struggle between the Republican religious base and intellectual conservatives in Washington. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg is typical of this latter group when he bemoans a "new conservative tokenism" and charges that Bush "is playing a bit of identity politics on the sly."

But evangelicals themselves should be worried about Miers' nomination if they are asked to take it on faith alone. Faith in God may be rooted in "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see," but faith in politicians requires a bit more pragmatism. The first and best example of this is Jimmy Carter, the nation's first born-again president, whose 1976 presidential campaign was supported by evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson. Of course, once Carter took office, those evangelicals discovered to their dismay that shared religious beliefs do not always translate into shared political or policy positions. Since then, they have hedged their bets almost exclusively with Republican evangelical candidates.

Even this, though, has not always worked out. In 2000, Bush proved he knew the shibboleth when he spoke about how Jesus had changed his heart -- it answered evangelical doubts about the Texas governor, and religious conservatives abandoned their first choice, John Ashcroft, in favor of Bush. Knowing Bush's heart -- so the thinking went -- told you all you needed to know about the positions he would take as president. But while Bush has undoubtedly proved a friend to evangelical conservatives on many fronts, he has never said that he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, he has taken a much more moderate position on stem-cell research than they would like, he has not pushed for a ban on gay marriage, and for all of his talk about faith-based initiatives, that program has turned out to be little more than a political outreach tool, underfunded and largely ignored within the White House.

And now he says conservatives can trust Miers because she, too, is an evangelical. Says Focus on the Family judicial analyst Bruce Hausknecht: "That gives us a level of comfort that we wouldn't otherwise have. It tells us her view of the Constitution will be the correct one." That's a leap of faith James Dobson and Chuck Colson are willing to make. But they may regret it.

By Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is an editor at the Washington Monthly.

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