Playing the Faith Card

An ugly new chapter in the religious wars


The perennial battle over judicial nominations is escalating into a religious war. On April 24, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist took part in a "Justice Sunday" telecast at which America's most prominent evangelical leaders lambasted the Democrats who are blocking conservative Bush nominees for federal judicial posts. A flier for the event, organized by the Family Research Council, decried "the filibuster against people of faith," accusing Democrats of an anti-religious bigotry comparable to "racial bias."

If there's anything good to be said of this grotesque religio-political circus, it's that the right is open to learning strategy lessons from the left. In this case, how to score political points and rally the troops by crying bigotry.

This is not the first time Republicans have made this charge. Two years ago, Senate Democrats blocked the nomination of Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr., an orthodox Catholic with strong anti-abortion views who had described Roe v. Wade as an "abomination," to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Conservative activists complained of anti-Christian bigotry and ran an ad showing a "Catholics need not apply" sign over a courthouse door.

Of course, the issue isn't simply "faith," but a nominee's views on public policy issues. A pro-abortion-rights litmus test for federal judges may be wrong, but it's preposterous to claim, as some conservatives have, that it amounts to a religious test that disqualifies "serious" Catholics and evangelical Protestants from public office. Surely, it would apply just as much to atheists or agnostics who oppose abortion on secular grounds.

What if the issue were not abortion? Let's say that a Democratic president had nominated to the federal bench a judge known for passionate, Christian-based hostility to capital punishment. Would it be "anti-Christian" for Republicans to oppose the nomination? To take an even more ridiculous example: Would it be "religious bigotry" to oppose the presidential candidacy of a devout Quaker who declared that his policies would be rooted in his religious belief that all use of military force is wrong?

The conservatives' stance eerily mirrors the left-wing shibboleth that opposition to race-based preferences in hiring or education is racist and opposition to radical feminist orthodoxy is anti-female. Suppose Senate Republicans were blocking the judicial nomination of a feminist legal scholar who had argued that in rape cases, the accused should be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Not many conservatives would be impressed with the argument that this is a sexist attempt to keep women off the federal bench. And I can imagine the glee on the right if, say, Hillary Clinton jumped on the bandwagon of such a complaint.

Like sexism and racism, anti-religious prejudice really exists (though the notion that Christians in America are persecuted rivals in absurdity the notion that women in America are oppressed). But some conservatives are now using it as their ticket in the victimhood sweepstakes. The left has the race card and the gender card; the right has the "faith card."

This right-wing political correctness is noxious for many reasons. It is an insult to religious believers who don't hold conservative views on abortion, homosexuality, and other social issues—including Republicans like Rudy Giuliani or Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is also blatantly hypocritical, since conservatives have repeatedly used a "religious test" to suggest that the non-religious or even the not-religious-enough are unfit for office. President Bush himself has said that "we need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God." (For true religious bigotry, look at Ron Forster, a high-ranking Republican legislator in Georgia, who opined in 2003 that judges or public officials who don't believe in God are "more likely to be corrupt.")

Conservatives often decry the left's double standards for religion in the public arena: the tendency to see religious values as a less legitimate source for political beliefs than secular moral principles, or to frown on faith-based activism on the right but not on the left. They have an excellent point. But a level playing field should be truly level. If faith-based ideas deserve equal opportunity in the public arena, they must be equally open to criticism and rejection.

Otherwise, all we'll have is a new, pernicious double standard.