Monday, April 11, 2005

The Taliban Next Door

If you think that the Terri Schiavo episode showed the lengths (or the depths) to which the Christian conservative movement will go to get their idea of biblically-inspired government into law, you are in for a nasty surprise. Michelle Goldberg reports in from the conference on Confronting the Judicial War on Faith that was held this past weekend in Washington, D.C.

Having won control of two branches of the federal government, the activists of the religious right have come to see the courts as the intolerable obstacle thwarting their dream of a reborn Christian nation. They believe in a revisionist history, taught in Christian schools and spread through Christian media, which claims biblical law as the source of the Constitution. Thus any ruling that contradicts their theology seems to them to be de facto unconstitutional, and its enforcement tyrannical.

Some believe that the problem can be rectified by replacing liberal judges with conservative ones. Others, noting that even judges appointed by Republicans often rule against them, have become convinced that they must destroy the federal judiciary itself. Thus, ideas offered at the conference ranged from ending the filibuster and impeaching all but the most right-wing judges to abolishing all federal courts below the Supreme Court altogether. At least one panelist dropped coy hints about murder.


The sense that America is on the cusp of chaos was nearly universal at the conference, leading to calls for a radical restructuring of American government. On panel after panel, speakers — including Michael Schwartz, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn’s chief of staff — demanded the impeachment of judges who disagree with the doctrine of Antonin Scalia-style strict constructionism. Several asserted the right of the president and Congress to disregard court decisions they think are unconstitutional. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was excoriated with the kind of venom the right once reserved for Hillary Clinton.

On a Friday panel titled Remedies to Judicial Tyranny, a constitutional lawyer named Edwin Vieira discussed Kennedy’s majority opinion in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down that state’s anti-sodomy law. Vieira accused Kennedy of relying on “Marxist, Leninist, Satanic principals drawn from foreign law” in his jurisprudence.

What to do about communist judges in thrall to Beelzebub? Vieira said, “Here again I draw on the wisdom of Stalin. We’re talking about the greatest political figure of the 20th century…He had a slogan, and it worked very well for him whenever he ran into difficulty. ‘No man, no problem.'”

The audience laughed, and Vieira repeated it. “‘No man, no problem.’ This is not a structural problem we have. This is a problem of personnel.”

As Dana Milbank pointed out on Saturday in the Washington Post, the full Stalin quote is this: “Death solves all problems: no man, no problem.” Milbank suggested that Kennedy would be wise to hire more bodyguards.

Replacing judges is only half of the story. There’s finding the right kind of judge to replace them. Farhad Manjoo reports on the attempts to clone Antonin Scalia.

The day after Terri Schiavo died, Gallup pollsters began calling Americans to ask them how various national figures had acquitted themselves in the operatic debate over whether to remove the terminally ill woman’s feeding tube. The results seem to provide a simple outline of American opinion on the matter. In short, Americans think the Schiavo case was none of their business. The poll, like all other polls on the case, shows that Americans, by an overwhelming majority, don’t think it was the president’s or Congress’ business, either. Asked what issues matter to them, Americans said pretty much the same thing they’ve been saying for months — terrorism, healthcare costs, gas prices and the state of the economy. “Changes to how the federal courts handle moral issues” is an issue deemed “extremely important” by only 20 percent of the nation.

Here’s the troubling thing: That 20 percent is running the country, and they’re now pressing for such changes in the way the courts decide cases. While most Americans are apparently indifferent to the long-term implications of the Schiavo case, many religious conservatives see it as having lasting political utility. Its most important outcome, they say, is in highlighting an unsettling flaw in American governance. They call this flaw “judicial tyranny,” though most of the rest of us know it by a friendlier name, “checks and balances.”

For the politicians representing this minority — which is to say, leaders in the House and Senate, if not the president himself — the Schiavo case presents an opportunity to stem what conservatives frequently call an “out-of-control” judiciary. By “out of control,” they mean out of their control; in the Schiavo case, after all, we saw two branches of the federal government succumb to the will of this savvy minority, while a third branch remained determinedly out of reach. Now that third branch is under attack. It is far from clear that the judiciary will survive unscathed….

This whole situation is causing Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald some worry.

It was about 25 years ago that a magazine article first called to my attention something called the Christian right. The story depicted a movement of religious fundamentalists who sought to radically restructure American life — mandating school prayer, creationism, censorship. I remember thinking the article was a little alarmist.

Actually, it was prescient.

That realization crept over me much as Christian fundamentalism has crept over American life: steadily. The movement — well-organized, well-funded and with true believer zeal — has made itself the primary ideological engine of the Republican Party, climbing to power from school boards to state legislatures to Congress to the White House.

And along the way, books were burned and banned. Religion masquerading as science elbowed its way into classrooms. Legislation requiring recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance became law. Pharmacists, citing religious objections, refused to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. A lawmaker suggested unmarried pregnant women be prohibited from teaching in schools.

And that movement came to seem a scary thing, indeed.

So you will understand the sense of disconnect I felt upon the release of a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll which suggests that people are becoming a little concerned about the power of the Christian right.

The proximate cause of this ripple of anxiety — and it is, statistically speaking, only that — is the fight over removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. The poll found that, by large margins, Americans disapproved of the way Congress and the president intruded upon the ordeal of that brain-damaged Florida woman and her family.

Pollsters also found that Americans believe the GOP — the party of nonintrusive government — is more likely than the folks across the aisle to interfere in citizens’ private lives. And 39 percent of us now say the religious right has too much influence over the Bush administration; 18 percent believe it has too little.

As I said, a ripple. Thirty-nine percent is not exactly a majority. And for the record, another 39 percent think the Christian right has just the right amount of influence. Still, as USA Today points out, the new numbers represent a change from previous polls in which roughly equal numbers thought conservative Christians wielded too much power or too little. Now ”too much” leads ”too little” by 2-1.

I choose to believe it means people are beginning to have their doubts about the new American theocracy. Maybe they are looking at the theocracies of the Middle East and Africa and asking if these are really models to which we should aspire. Maybe they’re realizing that for all its pious moralizing, the fundamentalist movement is less about right than self-righteousness, less about faith than intrusion and less about God than power.

Yes this is, as the fundamentalists are fond of saying, a Christian nation. Thing is, it’s also a Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Hispanic and gay nation.

The only way that works is if we inculcate respect for difference and, more to the point, respect for the laws and customs that protect difference. The Schiavo case offered an up-close and unpretty look at the sort of respect fundamentalists have for difference — in this case, difference of opinion. And it wasn’t hard to imagine yourself in the position of Schiavo’s husband, making a hard, painful and private decision no one should ever be asked to make, only to find yourself intruded upon by an army of religious zealots eager to substitute their judgment for yours. And a government breaking its own rules to empower them.

So a few more of us are wondering, worrying, and saying, hey, wait a minute.

I have just one question for them.

What took you so long?