President Bush will probably recover from the debacle that was the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination, but the episode unfortunately left a stain upon his one constituency that as a group largely supported her: evangelical Christians.
By no means were they unified behind Miers — Concerned Women for America and the legal group Liberty Counsel were exceptions — but almost all her recognizable backers were evangelicals. They included Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Prison Fellowship Ministry’s Chuck Colson, radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, and former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
Why the “stain”? In a February 1993 Washington Post article reporter Michael Weiskopf described varying strains of evangelical Christians as “poor, uneducated and easy to command” — a lazy characterization that the Post later said it regretted. But it illustrated in many ways a wide perception that most evangelicals are intellectual lightweights, which in recent years began to get demythologized by sharp minds like Hewitt, Colson, and World magazine’s Marvin Olasky.
Christian support for the Miers nomination, however, was a setback for that reputation reversal. Upon President Bush’s announcement of her as his choice, Dobson was among the first to embrace Karl Rove’s “take my word for it” justification, because he said Miers aligned with evangelicals’ views against abortion. Jay Sekulow, who leads the American Center for Law and Justice, endorsed Miers as a legal mind in the “conservative mainstream” who is “an excellent choice with an extraordinary record of service in the legal community and is certain to approach her work on the high court with a firm commitment to follow the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Glittering but empty reviews and meaningless endorsements aside, Miers presented a barge-load of doubts for her many conservative skeptics, who begged repeatedly for her supporters to show evidence of her legal philosophical heft. They got none.
Instead her evangelical backers disengaged their minds in feeble attempts to justify her nomination. As the doubters cited several possible candidates whose significant jurisprudential backgrounds were demonstrable, the Christians emphasized Miers’s humility and servant’s heart at her church. When critics begged for her advocates to show them just one — one — attribute that showed Miers was qualified for the Court, they quietly assured everybody that she would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Perhaps most disappointingly, Hewitt — an influential blogger whose star as an evangelical thinker has enjoyed a (well-earned) meteoric rise — turned the whole Miers defense into what amounted to a “stop picking on the poor lady” campaign. He even went so far as to identify his side the “anti-anti-Miers” caucus; a turnabout against her critics instead of what should have been an effective advocacy effort for her. That’s what happens when your candidate’s record on constitutional analysis is thinner than phyllo.
With the absence of firepower on behalf of their nominee, the counteroffensive against Miers’s critics was vigorous. Her evangelical defenders were particularly incensed at comments made by the Washington Post‘s George Will, whose Oct. 23 column alleged that Miers’s defenders were degrading themselves, in part because they cited her piety as a good reason to support her.
“The crude people who crudely invoked (her piety) probably were sending a crude signal to conservatives who, the invokers evidently believe, are so crudely obsessed with abortion that they have an anti-constitutional willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade with an unreasoned act of judicial willfulness as raw as the 1973 decision itself,” Will wrote.
Sure, the Post‘s best wordsmith took an obvious shot at Miers’s Christian defenders, but their blind faith in hope of a simplistic Roe reversal made them a plump target. As Will argued, her supporters failed to understand that an ability to make a constitutional argument to reach that result is as important, if not more important, than the result itself. To raise your hand and vote “aye” or “nay” is insufficient. They abandoned their Berean scrupulousness when it came to the political issue most important to them, because they wanted to take a shortcut.
The result was ugly, with frustrated evangelicals claiming that Miers at least deserved a Senate hearing and an up-or-down vote. They suggested that the uproarious objections from her opponents derailed the traditional process that a president’s nominees should be heard.
But there is no such entitlement. The business of politics is all about applying pressure with the resources you have (like money or punditry) in order to effect the change you want. Court candidates aren’t the only kind of political dropouts when they see hopeless prospects.
This time the bullhorns of most conservatives easily overwhelmed the evangelicals’ squawky Mr. Microphones. The fallout is that those Christians are, at least for now, perceived publicly as one-noters with little depth — even among their other conservative friends.
Here’s hoping that they regain their “A” game in time for the president’s second chance. I think we’re going to need them.
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