EARLIER THIS YEAR, when Bill Frist invoked some grainy video footage and his cardiology training to overturn the prevailing medical consensus about Terri Schiavo's brain, we marveled at the specimen housed within the Senate majority leader's own cranium--a mind at once cynical and craven, and with the capacity for ever-greater feats of cravenness and cynicism in his quest for the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination.
Frist has not disappointed. Last Thursday, the venerable Tennessee senator announced that he would participate in an upcoming Family Research Council event called Justice Sunday. The purpose of this wholesome evening of God and good cheer, say its conservative evangelical organizers, is to expose how Senate Democrats are blocking the president's judicial nominees out of prejudice toward their religious beliefs. "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias," reads a flyer promoting the event. "[A]nd it is now being used against people of faith."
The substance of this charge is almost too stupid to rebut. But, as the majority leader has seen fit to lend it his imprimatur, here goes. We begin by noting that Democrats, despite their alleged hostility to believers, have somehow found it within themselves to approve the overwhelming majority of the president's judicial nominees--over 200 confirmed; ten blocked-- even though a similarly overwhelming majority of nominees would probably term themselves God-fearing Christians. What's more, we can say with some confidence that, to the extent that a tiny handful of judges is indeed anathema to Senate Democrats, it is the nominees' extreme judicial and ideological views, not their religious ones, that makes them so. Many have the kind of contempt for settled precedent--particularly when it comes to abortion--to qualify them as "activist judges," to borrow a phrase. Others have invoked radical legal theories in their efforts to overturn common-sense environmental regulations and family leave laws.
Leveling the anti-faith charge against Democrats is, at heart, simply an exercise in the crudest form of identity politics--the idea that questioning a person's views is tantamount to discriminating against that person's identity group. It's the exact same kind of argument conservatives rightly rejected when African American liberals embraced it in the 1980s and 1990s. It is no more compelling now that the right is embracing it today.
Frist's cry of religious bigotry is particularly ironic: What could be more religiously bigoted than claiming that anyone who disagrees with you must not be a true person of faith? How audacious--and repugnant--of Frist to claim that his political constituents have a monopoly on devotion to God. Many Senate Democrats are themselves devout Christians. And Democrats routinely win the votes of about half the nation's Catholics, over half of its religious Jews, and nearly one-third of its evangelical Christians.
Why would an ostensibly intelligent man like Frist embrace such an obviously ludicrous argument? Our hunch is that it has to do with a dynamic that has plagued the GOP since last fall's election. Religious conservatives believe--and the press has constantly reminded them--that they provided the margin of victory for Bush's reelection. Indeed, these conservatives now see themselves as the most powerful constituency of the country's dominant political party. And yet, for all their supposed political power, gay marriage and abortion are still constitutional; prayer in school and public displays of religious paraphernalia are, for the most part, not.
Faced with this set of facts, fundamentalist conservatives can conclude one of two things: that they have been duped--which is to say, the GOP never intended to enact their agenda; it simply used them to win reelection--or that some insidious external force has intervened to block that agenda. The GOP leadership, which would prefer not to anger the James Dobsons of the world, has a strong interest in promoting the latter explanation. And so Americans are treated to an ever-expanding list of all-powerful bogeymen. To the list of golden oldies like activist judges, the liberal press, Hollywood elites, Manhattan elites, Berkeley elites, et cetera, conservatives have recently added the likes of George Soros, Michael Schiavo, and, of course, those chronically filibustering, anti-religious Senate Democrats.
One can only guess at what manner of liberal ogre Bill Frist will have to invent if all his pandering eventually lands him in the White House. But there is one thing about which we are certain: Should the need arise, the good doctor will be up to the task.