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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 10 October 2005

Topic: God and US

Secular Government: Who Believes, and Why?

Much of last weekend's edition of Just Above Sunset seemed to center on the very odd nomination of Harriet Miers, the president's personal attorney, to the Supreme Court. And it seems the controversy will not trail off - it only get more intense.

There seem to be three issues in play.

The first is her competence and ability. She has never been a judge, but others who have not been judges have been confirmed and served, like the last Chief Justice, William Rehnquist. But these others were scholars of the law and had some history of writing and thinking about, and arguing cases about, constitutional law. There's none of that in this woman's background. There's just no record of Miers having ever thought about such things very much. As noted last week, this has conservative opinion leaders upset, and has forced the argument in some pretty basic matters. As noted, shall the senate consider whether she has "the ability to critically ponder complex legal issues and concepts," or is that somehow elitist and should be taken off the table, as the president has said - "I know her character, I know her strength, I know her talent, and I know she's going to be a fine judge." - "It's one thing to say a person can read the law - and that's important ... But what also matters is the intangibles. To me a person's strength of character counts a lot. And as a result of my friendship with Harriet, I know her strength of character."

She has a good heart. Isn't that enough? Of course this is part and parcel of the nature of the most anti-intellectual leader we have ever had - a man who doesn't know much, wants to know even less, and trusts his instincts rather than thinking things through. If fact, he seems contemptuous of people who think things through. And he likes simplicity - and folks who are loyal and not too smart, or at least don't show it.

All this may get him in trouble - and all of us in trouble - but only now are his supporters realizing this is a serious problem. In the popular culture you have Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" saying things like this: "She's never been a judge before. Never served on the bench. This is part of President Bush's strategy of only surrounding himself with people who also in over their heads." And even Fox News, one week out, is forced to report what must be said: Conservative Critics Question Miers' Abilities.

Well, she's a blank slate. Leno again: "Bush's number one choice, Harriet Miers issued a statement today saying that she is getting closer and closer to having an opinion on something."

The second issue is one of cronyism. The man is comfortable with what he knows, and doesn't want to know more. In a parallel way, he is comfortable with the small circle of people he knows, and sees no reason to deal with "new people." Some critics, on the right, see this as arrogance, as in this: "I think this was a pick made out of droit de seigneur - an 'I am the president and this is what I want' arrogance." And there's this: "What people see in this is the Bush of the first debate, the Bad Bush, the peevish rich boy who expects to get his way because it's his way." But those comments seem off the mark.

Choosing to know little, and to know few people, is a kind of willful narrowness. It speaks to what makes you uncomfortable. He's comfortable with the known. And he trusts that attitude resonates with almost all Americans, as we are an insular, xenophobic lot. There is a reason fewer than one in five Americans holds a passport, much less uses it. We don't get around much. We understand. Who would blame him?

The third issue, floating around, is religion. Last week, James Dobson, of Focus on the Family reluctantly said Harriet Miers will make a great Supreme Court justice. He's been telling all his radio listeners, who want abortion banned and gays to go away and America to be solely Christian, that there's something else going on. Don't worry. She's with "us." But he won't say how he knows this. As he told the New York Times here, he'd been to the White House and talked with Karl Rove and the gang, and "some of what I know I am not at liberty to talk about."

The implication was that even though Miers was once a Catholic, she had found Jesus and left "the cult of Mary" at the age of forty. She joined a large evangelical church in Texas, had the full-immersion baptism thing (not a measly few drops of water on the forehead), and Rove told Dobson she would vote the way Dobson and his follows wanted. (Yes, forty was the age at witch George Bush gave up Jim Beam for Jesus.)

That business with Dobson and Rove seemed some sort of secret, backdoor deal - give us your support and we'll guarantee how she votes on your issues.

That just made things worse. As in Senators want to probe possible 'deals' on Miers and White House Denies 'Deal' for Miers - and from the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Specter May Subpoena Dobson on Miers 'Assurances'.

A subpoena? Yipes.

The White House line is that the conservatives should relax. Leno again: "Today President Bush tried to assure conservatives that Harriet Miers was the best choice for the Supreme Court. Bush said 'Twenty years from now she'll be the same person she is today.' Really? Twenty years ago she was a Democrat and Catholic."

When the mainstream comics turn against you, there's trouble. And over at National Review Online, reading "The Corner" - the running commentary of thought on the right - dialogs hosted by Jonah Goldberg where all the big-name pundits have their say in quick snippets - you get John Podhoretz, one of their main guys, saying this: "The White House needs to know this. Really. It's getting worse. Trust me."

The problem seems to be that the Republicans made a commitment to the religious right, the evangelical born-again crowd, that for their support they would throw them a bone now and then. And the religious right felt - after all the years of being mocked and having to endure people arguing "under God" had no place in the Pledge of Allegiance, and being told officers at the Air Force Academy couldn't demand all cadets find Jesus, and they couldn't force all children in public school to mouth their approved prayers every day, and they couldn't have cities and states finance religious displays, and so on - well, this was pay-back time. They'd get this born again church lady or someone like her.

Dobson was telling them he'd gotten the guarantee. And now that isn't working out.

The problem is the Republicans are dealing with a whole bunch of folks who are claiming victim status, and demanding relief. (In these pages see, from May, The Oppressed Minority - Christians in America and Conservative Republicans - one of the few posts here cited in many places, oddly enough.)

As they drive their SUV's to their massive suburban churches every Sunday, with their party controlling the executive, both houses of congress and most of the judiciary, the folks feel aggrieved and resentful. Really. Then they go home and watch Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, with a far larger audience than CNN and all the rest. Go figure.

They're powerless victims? They've been working on it, as explained by David John Marley here:
Pat Robertson was the most visible leader of this new "Christians as a minority" argument. After his campaign for president ended in 1988, he increasingly used the rhetoric of oppression to gain sympathy for his cause. Robertson compared Christians in America to Jewish Holocaust victims during a discussion of the film The Last Temptation of Christ. He claimed, "once you assault what people believe, like Hitler did the Jews in Germany, the next thing you do is go after them. ... that's the first opening shot, if you will, in the war to destroy the Christian population in America and the world."

While Ralph Reed, now a campaign strategist for President George W. Bush, ran the Christian Coalition he explicitly compared the Christian Right to the civil rights movement. Reed's 1994 book Politically Incorrect contained chapter titles like "To The Back of the Bus" and "The New Amos and Andy." He claimed that Christians were constantly "under attack whenever they enter the public arena." While he did not believe, as Robertson did, that Christians were being systematically persecuted, Reed claimed that conservative Christians had been "viewed as less than full citizens."
And now?

Kaye Grogan at Renew America says this:
The liberals want justices legislating from the bench, who will make their own laws favoring their way-out agenda, while the conservatives want justices who will interpret the laws correctly and rule accordingly. And betwixt the two common ground will never be reached. Not only do I find it appalling that Harriet Miers has been attacked by the anti-Christian folks - I take it as a personal attack on all Christians. The anti-Christian groups are "infringing" upon the rights of Christians to worship freely. This is a "blatant" disregard of Amendment I of the "Bill of Rights" where it states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It is also up to congress to protect the religious rights of Americans - but the silence is deafening in the "halls of Congress" as they avoid confronting the abuse of Christians at the hands of the "godless" folks.
Michael J. Gaynor at The Conservative Voice says this:
Would United States Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers have been better received as a nominee if she were a "progressive" Jewish man instead of a conservative evangelical Christian woman?

Is one evangelical Christian Supreme Court nominee since the Herbert Hoover administration (1929-1933) one too many?

... Justice Brandeis was 60 years old when he joined the Supremes. Ms. Miers is 60 years old.

Justice Brandeis had no prior judicial experience. Neither does Ms. Miers.

As a Jew, Justice Brandeis overcame discrimination and stereotypes. As a woman, so did Ms. Miers. The first woman hired by her law firm, she became the head of the firm, the head of the Dallas Bar Association and the head of the Texas Bar Association.

Justice Brandeis went to law school and practiced law privately in Massachusetts. Ms. Miers went to law school and practiced law privately in Texas.

As a American, Justice Brandeis had strong progressive beliefs that appealed to the President who nominated him, Woodrow Wilson, who often consulted him before nominating him. Ms. Miers has strong conservative beliefs that appeal to the President who nominated her, George W. Bush, who regularly consulted with her during his Presidency.

Justice Brandeis was a leader of the American Zionist movement. His political and religious views were not disqualifying. Neither should Ms. Miers' views be disqualifying.
Ah, evangelical Christians - the new Jews.

The always acerbic and perpetually grumpy Christopher Hitchens has a few things to say about all this.

Miers and Brimstone
Let's stop pretending there's no religious test for nominees.
Christopher Hitchens - Posted Monday, Oct. 10, 2005, at 9:21 AM PT SLATE.COM

It's hard to like this guy, but sometimes he's spot-on:
What in God's name - you should forgive the expression - is all this about there being "no religious test" for appointments to high public office? Most particularly in the case of the U.S. Supreme Court, there is the most blatant religious test imaginable. You may not even be considered for the bench unless you have a religion of some kind. Surely no adherent of any version of "originalism" can possibly argue that the Framers of the Constitution intended a spoils system to be awarded among competing clerical sects.
On the previous nominee:
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the man who is now our chief justice. I pointed to unrebutted evidence that, in answer to a direct question from a fellow Catholic (Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.), Roberts had replied that in the case of a conflict between the law and the teaching of the Vatican, he would recuse himself. Since obviously it is impossible to nominate, let alone confirm, anyone who does not answer that the law and the Constitution should control in all cases, I proposed that Roberts ought to be asked the question again and in public. For this, I got exactly what I expected: allegations of anti-Catholic bigotry from the fideists at National Review and then (not just for my benefit) a full-page ad or two in the press, saying that anyone who dared raise such a question would be accused of applying ? "a religious test." Roberts got suavely through his hearings without the inconvenience of the question, had a large Bible with illuminated crucifix in the family photo-op with the president, and now joins his three fellow Catholics on the court.
On the current nominee:
Of the nomination of Harriet Miers, by contrast, it can be said that only her religion has been considered by her conservative fans to be worth mentioning. What else is there to say, in any case, about a middling bureaucrat and yes-woman than that she attends some mediocre place of worship? One could happily make a case that more random civilians, and fewer fucking lawyers, should be on the court. But the only other thing to say about Miers is that she is a fucking lawyer. Her own opinion of herself is somewhat higher: She does not attribute her presence among us to the laws of biology but chooses to regard herself as having a personal and unmediated relationship with the alleged Jesus of Nazareth, who is further alleged to be the son of God. Such modesty! On this basis, the president and his people have felt able to issue assurances of her OK-ness. So, as far as I can determine, she was set, and has passed, a religious test: that of being an "Evangelical" Christian.
Well, that seems good enough for the masses (queue Marx here regarding opiates). And then he lays into the Democrats for putting up with this nonsense. But hey too know where the votes are.

Well, having just published a book on Thomas Jefferson, Hitchens seems to be caught in an earlier version of America. He seems to think we're a secular nation, or at least a nation that leaves matters of religion to the individual, as government is hard enough as it is.

Yeah, the key document, the constitution mentions that, but we have become post-secular. Times change.

But what of this woman? This:
Either Miers takes her faith seriously, in which case it must be her life's mission to redeem those who have not accepted Jesus as their savior, or she does not, in which case she is a vapid and posturing hypocrite. And either she is nominated in order to gratify a political constituency, whose leaders such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family seem to have had advance notice, or she is not, in which case the president could see no further than his own kitchen Cabinet in searching for merit. So, the whole exercise is a disgusting insult.
She cannot be a good Christian and a dispassionate judge at the same time? Perhaps the two are antithetical. Not that is matters. The political constituency she must gratify hardly expects her to check her religious fervor at the door of the court each morning. They rather expect the opposite.

We have not only become post-secular, we have become post-logical, and as "instinctive" and anti-intellectual as the man we finally and clearly chose to lead us. We hate that stuff. As Hitchens puts it -
But what is honest skepticism - and a regard for evidence and logic - when set against the profession of a mere "faith" that neither demands nor offers any evidence of any kind? And this latter "qualification" is now urged upon us with special fervor in the selection of - a judge.
Well, she may soon sit on the bench with this fellow (from January 24, 2005) -
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Saturday that people of faith should not fear being viewed by "educated circles" as "fools for Christ."

The justice - in Baton Rouge to address the Knights of Columbus Council 969 centennial celebration without charging a fee - told a largely Roman Catholic crowd of 350 at the Holiday Inn Select that there's nothing wrong with "traditional Christianity."

"To believe in traditional Christianity is something else," Scalia said. "For the son of God to be born of a virgin? I mean, really. To believe that he rose from the dead and bodily ascended into heaven? How utterly ridiculous. To believe in miracles? Or that those who obey God will rise from the dead and those who do not will burn in hell?

"God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools ... and he has not been disappointed."

... "If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world."
This is our Supreme Court. Dare to be all you can be - be stupid.

Okay. Fine.

Well people need religion, as seen in this email over at Andrew Sullivan's' site, commenting on what Sullivan said on television last week:
As a recovering alcoholic and survivor of rape and childhood sexual abuse, there has been nothing but faith at times that has allowed me to continue living (sober!) in a world I have frequently wished to desert. I discovered a higher power through the 12 steps and continue to know that power in my life; I often come across people who misunderstand, who consider reliance on a higher power to be weak and cowardly, or even stupid...

One thing I have learned through all of my experiences in dealing with matters of the spirit is that the word "God" has meanings attached to it that have undermined it and spoiled it, and that when people use that word, they have one concept in mind, which of course is very limited. One other thing I have learned is that people who have never found themselves in a situation that they could not possibly comprehend or conquer through their own wills and resources (or resources they've been given by others) are the quickest to say that there is no God. Not that I wish them to experience that - okay, maybe sometimes. Anyway, your comments about learning to love and be in this world were so very important for me to hear and truly validated my personal work and the message I carry to other women and those who may be suffering.
A second letter Sullivan received:
After years of being told by people of faith (almost exclusively Christians) that my lack of same must be due to some horrible event in my life, some trauma that convinced me there couldn't possible be a benevolent controlling intelligence behind the universe, I now read from your e-mail correspondent that "people who have never found themselves in a situation that they could not possibly comprehend or conquer through their own wills and resources (or resources they've been given by others) are the quickest to say that there is no God."

So now my lack of faith is apparently down to the absence of trauma, rather than an over-abundance of it. (Could it possibly be that faith or the lack of it is more about the individual and how he or she deals with trauma than it is about traumatic events themselves? Perhaps different people just deal differently.)

I'm not sure why people feel the need to come up with some aberrational explanation for my failure to share their beliefs, but this gratuitous insult - supplemented by the expressed (and rather un-Christian) wish that I one day experience such horror - spoiled what would otherwise have been an affecting account of one person finding a way to deal with the trouble in her life.
Ah, people always spoil things, as in this -
After news broke that local law enforcement officials were investigating complaints that Louis Beres, longtime chairman of the Christian Coalition of Oregon, had molested three female family members when they were pre-teens, The Oregonian in Portland went out and interviewed Beres' family members.

Two told reporters that Beres, indeed, had molested them. All three said they have been interviewed for several hours by detectives.

"I was molested," said one of the women, now in her early 50s. "I was victimized, and I've suffered all my life for it. I'm still afraid to be in the same room with [Beres]."

The coalition led by Beres, 70, champions socially conservative candidates and causes. Its Web site describes the group as "Oregon's leading grassroots organization defending our Godly heritage." The group opposes abortion, gay rights, and stem cell research. It is affiliated with the national Christian Coalition, which was founded in 1989 by television evangelist Pat Robertson.
"How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones." - Samuel Beckett: Winnie, in Happy Days, Act 1 (1961)

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Updated: Tuesday, 11 October 2005 00:12 PDT home

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