When religion is a litmus test

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On her way to becoming the battered spouse of America's conservative movement, Harriet Miers underwent a litmus test so bizarre it seems possible only in an era when church leaders vet judges and the president lists Jesus Christ among the references on his resume.

The particulars are this. On Oct. 3, President Bush nominated Ms. Miers, the White House counsel, to fill a seat on the Supreme Court being vacated by Sandra Day O'Connor.

Through Karl Rove, the president sent word to Dr. James Dobson, a leader in the Christian right, that Ms. Miers was a foursquare gal who attended the deeply conservative Church of Christ back in Texas. The message Dr. Dobson was invited to take home was that with Justice Miers there would be no O'Connoresque backsliding on abortion, gay rights and school prayer.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, head of the National Clergy Council, a small Christian right group with surprising access to power players in Washington, swung a brief meeting with Ms. Miers. He described it as "pastoral" in nature. Rev. Schenck asked her about her faith, her prayer habits, her beliefs in whether God directly intervenes in this world.

"We just talked generally about prayer," he said. "She said that it was extremely important to her. She asked for our prayers, which I assured her she would have -- and she's had all along. We talked about the importance of her knowing the will of God for her life, for the court, for the nation. She said that was of utmost importance to her."

Were a senator to ask such questions, it would trigger a meltdown at the hearings. Rev. Schenck agrees with this if only because vetting court appointees for religious orthodoxy is his job.

"I've made it clear that religion is off-limits to members of the United States Senate," he said. "It is not in their purview. In fact, it is illegal for them to probe into a nominee's religious sentiments. For us, it's not only legal, it's incumbent upon us, it's required of us. That's how we determine a person's character, their moral fitness and so on."

Thus assured of Ms. Miers' religious orthodoxy, Rev. Schenck did a little more digging. He discovered, after their meeting, Ms. Miers belongs to The Church of Christ back in Texas but, while in Washington, attends St. John's Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House and across the theological divide from the Christian Right.

Rev. Schenck discovered that the church hosted the Rev. Peter Gomes, pastor of The Memorial Church of Harvard University and an openly gay clergyman. Digging deeper, he found St. John's had also received an Episcopal monk from New Jersey whose monastery, Rev. Schenck said, hosts an annual retreat for gay couples titled "Gay and Committed and Christian."

"It was a liberal church in every way," Rev. Schenck said. "The more I probed, the more I discovered the same. We were assured Ms. Miers would not change once in office, but it looked like she had already changed. She is attending a theologically and morally liberal church."

While consorting with Episcopalians is not officialy a crime in the court of the religious right, it was enough to worry Rev. Schenck and many associates. Word, he said, spread quickly through the evangelical right that Harriet Miers was suspect on religious grounds.

"The Church of Christ is very exclusive. When you move from place to place you search out the nearest Church of Christ and there happened to be one in Bethesda, right up the road from the White House," Rev. Schenck said. Possibly, I suggested, Ms. Miers was attending St. John's, which has hosted every president since James Madison, because her boss, nominally a Methodist, attends there on Sundays.

"If one's loyalty is stronger to your boss than to your Lord, that raises big, red flags to us," he said. "Simply because someone bears the label or personal testimony of being an evangelical doesn't mean he or she is informed properly or disposed properly on the issues that are most important to us."

Word spread. Support for Ms. Miers, already mushy among Republicans unaccustomed to the rise of lawyers without high-toned pedigrees, collapsed among the party's hard-line religious.

This story would seem like another inconsequential bit of beltway ephemera but for the fact that Rev. Schenck has reach in two directions. He has attended White House prayer breakfasts, was received well by Republicans at their 2004 convention, and is often called upon as a panelist for talking head shows. Similarly, he can reach out within the religious right, something he did with the sudden discovery that Ms. Miers was questionable.

It is strange to think about how attendance at the "wrong" church suddenly became the tip-off that someone's religious bona fides were sufficiently in doubt to deny her a place on a court established to rule on secular law. But it has reached that point.

Partly to blame is our failure to see a need for subtlety in how we fuse morality, which has a religious component, to law, which is supposed to apply equally to Baptists and Wiccans. The larger blame, though, should reside with a political universe in which politicians, from Nixon to Reagan, have been happy to make guarantees, some subtle, some not, that they will stop abortion, only to take office and simply stop talking about it.

"I think the reason there was such a strong reaction to Harriet Miers is everyone was so fed up with rhetoric," Rev. Schenck said. "Don't placate us. Don't tell us that because someone sings the right hymns on Sunday we should sit down and shut up. We want proof."

In the meantime, as President Bush continues to swim among the righteous, some potential nominees might want to stay home on Sundays. It might be safer.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965.


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