What kind of Catholic can judge?

x33There are many people on the Religious Right who are tempted to say that the great division in this land — shown by the “pew gap” — is between unbelievers and believers.

This is way, way too simplistic. While there is evidence that a secularist political niche is gaining power, this overlooks the power of what can only be called the religious left. This can be seen, in part, by studying the omnipresent battles in major religious groups over issues linked to sex and marriage. All kinds of people, to paraphrase Maureen Dowd, are having theological battles about Woodstock.

The press needs to understand this, when considering the question of a “religious test” being used on nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question is not whether nominee John Roberts is a Catholic. What the senators want to know is whether he is an Anthony Kennedy Catholic or an Antonin Scalia Catholic. Is he a John F. Kennedy Catholic or a Rick Santorum Catholic? In my opinion, they need to just come out and state this question openly and live with the consequences. Journalists like candid sources. Say what you mean and get quoted.

Politico Manuel Miranda dives straight into this in his latest daily commentary at The Wall Street Journal on the state of the hearings. This man is ticked off and, as a church-state studies guy, I am with him on this particular issue.

Take it away:

Article VI of the Constitution prohibits a religious test from being imposed on nominees to public office. . . . While questioning John Roberts on Tuesday, Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter asked: “Would you say that your views are the same as those expressed by John Kennedy when he was a candidate, and he spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September of 1960: ‘I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.’”

Hours later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California made it worse: “In 1960, there was much debate about President John F. Kennedy’s faith and what role Catholicism would play in his administration. At that time, he pledged to address the issues of conscience out of a focus on the national interests, not out of adherence to the dictates of one’s religion. . . . My question is: Do you?”

How insulting. How offensive. How invidiously ignorant to question someone like Judge Roberts with such apparent presumption and disdain for the religion he practices. The JFK question is not just the camel’s nose of religious intolerance; it is the whole smelly camel.

Later on in the essay, Miranda quotes all kinds of people expressing outrage. Well, that isn’t quite right. He quotes all kinds of people who are — if you dig deep — critics or outright opponents of abortion on demand who are upset about this new form of modernist Catholic religious test. So the Jews that he quotes are not just Jews. They are traditional Jews. They are red-pew Jews and, thus, they are now finding themselves on the other side of the Woodstock gap.

Admit it. Isn’t this what leaps into mind when you read the following?

Representing more than 1,000 synagogues, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations wrote this letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days earlier: “As a community of religious believers committed to full engagement with modern American society, we are deeply troubled by those who have implied that a person of faith cannot serve in a high level government post that may raise issues at odds with his or her personal beliefs.”

Many people are immediately going to think: “Well, that’s the Orthodox. They probably even voted for George W. Bush.” And that’s right. If President Bush nominated a female Orthodox Jew to the U.S. Supreme Court, the very first question she would be asked would be — one way or another — about her views on abortion rights. People would be asking not if she is religious but if she she the right kind of religious person.

It’s the age we live in.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Hm. Were Hoover or Nixon ever asked about whether, as Quakers and therefore ostensibly pacifists, they could perform their duties as commander-in-chief of the armed forces?

  • Michael

    Would president Bush have appointed anyone to the Supreme Court who wasn’t a religious conservative who opposed abortion or couldn’t gain the blessings of religious conservatives? So why–if passing muster with religious conservatives is a litmust test for a nomination–is it wrong to ask about faith.

    The religious left believes in a sharp division between church and state. They don’t believe in having their hands out for faith-based inititiave dollars, school vouchers, and other government goodies. When they take money from the government, they recognize it should come without God-talk and prostyletizing. They believe overt religious symbols and speak should not permeate the public square.

    Sure, there is suspicion of religious conservatives who wear their faith on their sleeves. It’s probably a shortcoming of the religious left that it is uncomfortable with prostyletizing, blurring the line between church and state, being unwililng to evangelize. Quite frankly, the religious left is much too polite.

    I’m uncomfortable with the religious questions asked of Roberts, but I am not surprised. Democrats have watched a political revolution as religious conservatives have taken over the Republican party and have attempted to insert religion into more and more aspects of public life.

  • tmatt


    Like his father?

    The litmus test hasn’t worked very well, has it? I am on record as saying W will, on one of these two, lean toward a business libertarian.

  • Michael

    A business libertarian who is likely a member of an orthodox or evangelical church and can gain the blessing of relgiious conservatives.

    W is much more beholden to religious conservatives and is “one of them.” W was embarrassed by his faith and by religious conservatives, while W embraces them and owes his presidency to them. Huge difference.

  • tmatt


    I stand by my hunch. The RelRite is the labor vote of the GOP. It’s the people you can compromise on because they have nowhere else to go.

    I still think W will stiff them.

  • Meg Q

    “The RelRite is the labor vote of the GOP. It’s the people you can compromise on because they have nowhere else to go.”

    I think that is the truest thing spoken about politics in America since, well, since Tip O’Neill said “all politics is local” (and ain’t that true in the global village). And as GOP volunteer (and daughter of “movement” types who were on the Goldwater campaign) who has been party to many intra-GOP machinations, let me tell you how true it is. That’s why the core (including myself) freaks about Gonzales – I don’t think, in reality, that will happen, but it *could* and it makes the “movement” or “core” people wake up in a cold sweat. Al Gonzales – the Anthony Kennedy of 2027 . . . OTOH, the GOP is way more grassroots-driven than the Democratic Party, so the religious conservatives *do* get a seat at the table, and more.

    People on the left have no problem applying a religious test to a “conservative” and religious Catholic, but they’d never dream of asking, say, a “leftist” and practicing Buddhist how they might rule in a case where, e.g., thousands of cattle had to be put down because of an epidemic flu, or some such – I’m obviously making that up on the fly, but a few moment’s thought would bring up better comparisons. Because we must have absolute, total, no-holds-barred access to abortion at all moments of the pregnancy up to and including the birth of the child, we tend to focus on that . . . but there’s lots of other fish in the sea, legally speakin’ (see: Kelo), and if you wanted to get down to it, I bet we could have lots of fun putting together religious tests if you wanted to.

  • ceemac


    Instead of an east coast biz libertarian might he not go for a Texas style hybrid culcon/bizlib.

    Think Tom Delay with a judicial temprament.

    Texas is full of political types that have pledged loyalty to both James Dobson and Grover Norquist

    Our Governor is a good example though he is not judge material

    These folks are
    No on abortion
    No on gay marriage
    No on taxes
    No on Government regulation of business
    yes on vouchers

  • Michael

    Texas is full of political types that have pledged loyalty to both James Dobson and Grover Norquist

    Just look at the three sisters of doom–the Ediths of the Fifth Circuit and Brown of the D.C. Circuit. They hate abortion, and taxes. They want less government, and more God. They would please both Norquist and the Colorado Springs crowd.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    People on the left have no problem applying a religious test to a “conservative” and religious Catholic, but they’d never dream of asking, say, a “leftist” and practicing Buddhist how they might rule in a case where, e.g., thousands of cattle had to be put down because of an epidemic flu, or some such

    Meg, do you have any proof of that assertion? It’s easy to project speculations onto other people, but can you somehow prove that there’s nobody on the left who’d ask a question like you propose under the conditions you suggest? (That’s a rheotircal question — I’m well aware that you can prove no such thing; that the best you mightbe able to do is come up with a leftist, liberal, or Democratic group that complained at one such occurance, and that can easily be contrasted with this very blog post, in which a right-leaning person is complaining about Roberts’s questioning.)

    As a liberal, I have no problem with asking prospecitve judges how they’d rule on the law, and if they’re members of organizations or movements or adherent to philosophies that have implications for how they’d rule, then it’s fair game to ask about it.

  • Michael

    Avram makes an important point. The irony of the “how dare you ask about me faith” argument is that it comes on the heels of the “we need more religion in the public sphere” argument. If religion is going to play a larger role in pubilc life, why aren’t we permitted to talk about it and ask public officials about how that is all going to play out.

    Part of the anxiety for liberals, and the religious left, is that it wasn’t long ago that religion played a more significant role in pubilc life and liberals don’t look upon it as fondly as conservatives do.

    Liberals remember that a greater role for religion meant race discrimination, slavery, sex discrimination, limited access to contraception, Communist witch-hunts, religious bullying in the schools. Religious conservatives have opposed almost every major civil rights advance of the last two centuries, unless it involved the rights of the religious.

    For those reasons, liberals are skeptical of this increased presence of religion in the public square because of a fear that we will move backwards. We are already having scientific debates on issues that most people believed had been settled decades earlier.

    Shouldn’t increased religiosity of the public sphere mean we should also question the religious intentions of those advocating for it?

  • Michael

    Christians in this country have been the driving force behind every legitimate civil rights initiative.

    Arguably, liberal christians (and Jews) have been the driving force. Jim Crow laws, slavery, miscegination laws, denying access to contraception, opposition the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were all done with the instrumental backing of Southern evangelicals and conservative Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention went on record opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    I have just finished deleting three comments by Max.

    Max, as we make clear in this space, you need to provide a real email address in order to comment.

    Otherwise, your anonymous comments will continue disappearing in as timely a manner as I can manage.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Michael, as much as it would please my atheist heart to lay the blame for everything bad, and nothing good, in American history at the feet of religion, honesty forbids it.

    There were lots of religious Christians involved in the Civil Rights movement (ever heard of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr?) and the anti-slavery movement. The anti-Communist witch-hunts may have had a whiff of religion about them (all that complaining about “godless Communism”), but they struck me as mostly secular political power-grabbing.

    For all of this country’s history, the overwhelming majority of it’s population has been religious, specifically Christian. For each and every major issue that’s divided the nation, most of the people on both sides have been Christians. There just aren’t enough non-Christian Americans to make up anywhere near half the country.

  • Gary McClellan

    I just find it intersting how much people have forgotten how heavily the liberal churches tend to get political on their issues. In particular, Capital Punishment, or if you remember back to the 80′s, the nuclear nonproliferation movement.

    There are times I suspect that it is less a matter of trying to marginalize religion, as marginalize the views you disagree with, and religion becomes merely a convienent excuse.

  • Michael

    I think it’s worthwhile to differentiate between the generic “Christian” and the more polarizing perceptions of the “religious right” and the “relgious left.” Unquestionably, Christians (and other religious folks) have been involved in politics and MLK is a good example. Our current debate, really, is what kind of “Christians” or christianity we will have in the public square.

    While MLK was fighting for civil rights, the Southern Evangelicals were leading the fight against civil rights. The entire civil rights struggle in this country has an overlay of white Evangelicals actively working to slow progress on civil rights. MLK may have prayed like an Evangelical, but his social justice agenda was more like those of the Quakers, Congregrationalists, and Jews (who would now be considered the religious left).

    Elite religious conservatives are not from the MLK tradition. Their roots are much closer to Southern Baptist Convention, which lobbied against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act. It is because of these roots that liberals fear what will happen if they use their power to place faith back into the public square. Remember, they weren’t just opposed to civil rights, they had religious rationales for their opposition to civil rights, just as slavery and miscegination laws were cloaked in religious belief.

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain

    Hi Terry,

    I am actually answering a comment you sent to me a few days ago on another post- I can’t find an email for you so I am doing it this way ;-)

    You said:

    We are always open to reviewing the good and the bad in religion news anywhere on any topic. We all are plagued by busy, busy schedules (for me, parent, professor, columnist, blogger) and we miss way too much. Help us find the stories we need to see!

    Posted by tmatt at 8:39 am on September 9, 2005

    If you aren’t already subscribed, I recommend you sign up for the Bible Society’s “Newswatch” service – gives a quick trawl of the ‘religious’ stories, albeit with a UK bias. The service is available from http://www.biblesociety.org.uk

    …and this week I thought this piece that they quoted from the Guardian was wonderfully encouraging, and asking for a bit of unpacking:


    The role of the Salvation Army as lead provider of disaster relief in the hurricane-hit USA has led a former deputy leader of the Labour party to admit the crucial place of faith in works of charity. Writing in The Guardian, Roy Hattersley notes that a general appeal for 40,000 volunteers by the Red Cross was “virtually ignored” but “almost all” the groups who responded to the disaster “have a religious origin”. “Free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations” who often regard faith “as a positive force for evil” were “notable by their absence”, he writes. Although liberals and atheists like himself have no disapproval for the likes of drug addicts and prostitutes, whose lives lead them into distress, he notes examples of Christians who actually respond to their anguish. Free-thinking “has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army,” he concludes.

    Source: The Guardian (12/9)

    What a gem….


  • francis

    Whatever the past, today it is liberals, religious or not, that not only oppose a major human rights advance, but actually demand even more killings.