Why It's Right to Ask About Roberts's Faith

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Is it wrong to question Judge John Roberts on how his Catholic faith might affect his decisions as a Supreme Court justice? Or is it wrong not to?

Few topics arouse more hypocrisy and inconsistency than the relationship between religion and politics. Standard practice is to welcome religion into politics when it helps your side and to denounce religious voices when they help the other side.

Conservatives typically praise religious activism on abortion and homosexuality but dismiss liberal clerics who offer theological insights on economics or social spending. Liberals love preachers to speak out for civil rights and economic justice. But they see "a church-state problem" the instant anyone in the clergy speaks out for vouchers or against abortion and stem cell research.

In the case of Roberts, Republicans appreciate the intense lobbying on his behalf by conservative Christian groups and see the nominee's faith as part of his appealing personality. But when Sen. Richard Durbin took Roberts's religious commitments seriously enough to ask him how they might affect the judge's court rulings, the Illinois Democrat was accused of . . . dragging religion into politics.

"We have no religious tests for public office in this country," declared an indignant Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). "And I think anyone would find that sort of inquiry, if it were actually made, offensive. And so I hope we don't go down that road."

But just four days earlier, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was unabashed in hoping that Roberts's religious convictions would influence his decisions on the court. Coburn told reporters he and Roberts had discussed the nominee's faith. "If you have somebody first of all who has that connection with their personal faith and their allegiance to the law, you don't get into the Roe v. Wade situation," Coburn said, according to the Associated Press. "I am looking for somebody who is not going to make that mistake again in any other area of life."

It cannot be wrong for Durbin to raise the religious issue but just fine for Coburn to do the same thing. I'm inclined to defend both senators because I respect Roberts as someone who takes his faith seriously. As an intellectually engaged believer, Roberts must have given considerable thought to Catholic teaching on public issues. Why is it wrong to ask him to share his reflections with the public?

Yes, any inquiry related to a nominee's religion risks being seen as a form of bigotry, and of course there should be no "religious tests." This nomination will properly be settled on other issues, particularly Roberts's views on the court's right to void economic, labor and environmental laws. Most Democrats will, in any event, run far away from any religious questions.

But why are we so afraid of acknowledging the obvious? At this moment in our history, religion is playing an important part in our public debates. If Roberts's religious views are important to him, why should they be off-limits to honest discussion?

It's also disingenuous for Republicans who have profited from the rise of issues related to religion and "moral values" to discover a sudden squeamishness about even mentioning them. Recall John Kerry's battle during the 2004 campaign with conservative bishops who proposed to deny him Communion because of his stand on abortion rights. If there was a mass movement of Republican politicians insisting that Kerry's religion should not be part of the public debate, I must have missed it.

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo is, like Kerry, a Catholic Democrat who has tangled with his church's leaders on the politics of abortion. Cuomo wondered during a recent phone conversation how those bishops who tormented Kerry would react if Roberts said that his religious views would not affect his rulings on abortion cases. To defend such a stance by Roberts, Cuomo said, "the bishops who went after Kerry would have to say that it's different for a judge, but that would be very hard to explain." Indeed.

Conservatives have long argued, correctly, that religiously inspired voices have a legitimate place in the public square. Limiting religion to the private sphere relegates it to what the theologian David Tracy has called the "harmless reservations of the spirit."

But if religion is to play a serious role in politics, believers have to accept the obligation to explain themselves publicly. That's why it would be helpful if Roberts gave an account of how (and whether) his religious convictions would affect his decisions as a justice. President Bush has spoken about the political implications of his faith. His nominee should not be afraid to do the same.


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