Miers: Faithful to Whom?

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

One of the things that commends Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court is her religion. So said President Bush, who has made no bones about his own religion and its importance in his life. But if, as he said, "part of Harriet Miers's life is her religion" and his important aide Karl Rove attested to her bona fides to at least one Christian conservative leader (James Dobson), then can she be rejected on the same account? Simply put, if Dobson is assured, why should I not be scared to death?

After all, the assurances offered by Bush and Rove are not to the religious community at large -- to my knowledge no calls were made to liberal Protestant, Catholic or Jewish leaders, for instance, or imams be they Shiite or Sunni -- but just to conservative Christians, which usually means fundamentalist Protestants. Whatever they are -- and they are all sorts of things -- they often have secular positions that are antithetical to those of other Americans.

Miers was born a Roman Catholic but became an evangelical Protestant in 1979. She was guided in that voyage by a good friend and then-colleague at their law firm, Nathan L. Hecht. "One evening she called me to her office and said she was ready to make a commitment," Hecht has said. He took her to his own church, the Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, where she was baptized -- born again. Since then, she has been an active and important member of the church.

Normally a Supreme Court nominee's religious beliefs would be of little interest and no significance -- but this is not your normal nomination. When, for instance, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew to sit on the Supreme Court, the polite formulation that he "happened to be Jewish" made sense. His religious identity was hardly as important as his formidable intellect, his writings and his activism. They didn't name a university after him for no reason.

It's unlikely that there will ever be a Miers U. She already lacks the sort of career that suggests greatness -- or, to be perfectly truthful, anything at all. The only thing that commends her at the moment is a touching fealty to the extended Bush family and what Bush mentioned: her religion. But this is a narrow recommendation. After all, to say someone's a Catholic tells you virtually nothing about him. Is he a Ted Kennedy Catholic or a Rick Santorum Catholic? To point to a specific church, as Rove did with Dobson, is a different matter entirely. This was a conversation in code: She's one of us. In other words, she shares our politics because, in this case, politics and religion amount to the same thing.

Whatever one might feel about religion, one can nevertheless see it as, in general, a force for good. In our own country in recent times, liberal and mainstream clergymen helped propel the civil rights movement. This was a progressive effort to apply religious teachings to what is often called the real world. When ministers placed themselves in the front ranks of civil rights marches, they were truly putting themselves on the line.

The theology that Miers represents can hardly be called progressive. It is one that entails all sorts of conservative political positions and says something about the believer. For instance, when Rove offered his oral wink to Dobson, was he saying that Miers is opposed to stem cell research and abortion under (almost) any circumstance? Was he saying that she opposes the teaching of evolution in public schools or "balancing" it with "intelligent design"? Was Rove telling Dobson that Miers thinks this is a Christian nation, that religious symbols can be and ought to be in the schools or other public places? Can the government fund churches? Can military chaplains proselytize the unchurched? Should gays be "reprogrammed," and should the government recommend only abstinence as a way to avoid teenage pregnancy? These are all positions taken by many fundamentalist religious leaders. Are they Miers's? Is anyone going to ask?

This is dicey stuff, and it crosses a line that probably should not be crossed. But the president has stupidly opened a Pandora's box -- and all sorts of ugly questions may pop out. Can Miers set her beliefs aside? Will the law take precedence? When it comes time to argue a case, will she simply say "I believe what I believe -- and that's all there is to it." I kind of doubt it, but I would like to be reassured. Bush has done his nominee no favor -- especially to suggest that one closed mind has recommended another.


A clarification: A number of readers, some of them formerly of the CIA, got the impression from my last column that I don't consider the outing of a covert employee a serious matter. I do.


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