Welcome to How Harriet Got Religion Day

VV Exterior2Oh what a glorious day for the politicos. Can’t you hear the clickity-click of fundraising consultants over at NOW and People for the American Way (SaveTheCourt.org), not to mention Concerned Women for America and Focus on the Family? You can hear the cheers on both sides of the Church-State Sanctuary aisle, can’t you?

Let a thousand conspiracy theories bloom. This has got to be the least boring, most GetReligion-friendly story to come down the pike since, well, Mel Gibson was on a roll. This story is everywhere today, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.

If you read the waves of MSM coverage today about Harriet “Born-Again Pro-Lifer” Miers, you can’t help but hear the journalistic wheels turning. Let’s spin out a few theories.

* President Bush thought he could quietly sneak through a theocrat. But he wasn’t counting on honest Christian friends talking about her back in Dallas.

* Sen. Harry Reid suckered the White House into naming a less-qualified nominee and, now, he gets to shoot her down (that’s a bonus).

* Bush named an under-qualified crony and and that put the conservative intellectual elites in an uproar. But now he gets to play the God card and whip up the right-wing-base bonfires — just like Karl Rove wanted — that would have been ignited if he had nominated a true-blue conservative legal star in the first place! Maybe she slips in now anyway and you get both (that’s a bonus).

* She really is a mild-mannered sort-of Justice Souter, only one that goes mainline evangelical instead of old-line Protestant. Gotcha!

You can go on and on. I imagine that, any minute now, Ted Olsen and the gang at Christianity Today‘s weblog will put out Part I of what will be a 1,000-URL tsunami of news and opinion on the whole matter. So I will not even attempt to go there. (Hey, I had to write a Scripps Howard column today about the whole Catholic seminary visitation story. Cut me some slack.) But we can take a look at a few of the How Harriet Got Religion at Valley View Christian Church (pictured) stories that spread like wildfire this morning across the big front pages from coast to coast.

Where does one begin in the New York Times piece? Once again, the key source is Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, the sometimes Miers suitor (sorry, bad pun) who is the connection between the nominee’s legal and spiritual lives. Without Hecht, the MSM is lost on this story.

This Times story by Edward Wyatt and Simon Romero is simply jammed with stuff that will make Maureen Dowd giggle. The story is low-key and not soaked in elite condescension, but the writers do not seem to have an instinct for how faith may have touched other parts of her life — other than abortion. But here is the money quote, for me. This has that Rove talking-points touch that Times readers will love to hate.

Some evangelical Protestants were heralding the possibility that one of their own would have a seat on the court after decades of complaining that their brand of Christianity met condescension and exclusion from the American establishment.

In an interview Tuesday on the televangelist Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the Christian conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said Ms. Miers would be the first evangelical Protestant on the court since the 1930′s. “So this is a big opportunity for those of us who have a conviction, that share an evangelical faith in Christianity, to see someone with our positions put on the court,” Mr. Sekulow said.

It is interesting to contrast the pieces in The Washington Post and The Washington Times.

Clearly, Michael Grunwald, Jo Becker and John Pomfret at the Post went straight for the political jugular. Once again, the smoking-gun source is Hecht and the symbolic-detail lead flows out of his vivid memories of a long-ago talk by Paul Brand, the author of the bestseller Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, which focuses on God and the human body.

When the lecture was over, Miers said words Hecht had never heard from her before. “I’m convinced that life begins at conception,” Hecht recalled her saying. According to Hecht, now a Texas Supreme Court justice, Miers has believed ever since that abortion is “taking a life.” . . .

Hecht and other confidants of Miers all pledge that if the Senate confirms her nomination to the Supreme Court, her judicial values will be guided by the law and the Constitution. But they say her personal values have been shaped by her abiding faith in Jesus, and by her membership in the massive red-brick Valley View Christian Church, where she was baptized as an adult, served on the missions committee and taught religious classes. At Valley View, pastors preach that abortion is murder, that the Bible is the literal word of God and that homosexuality is a sin — although they also preach that God loves everybody.

Supreme Court 01As you would expect with a professional religion reporter, Julia Duin at The Washington Times has the religious facts down straight. Reading between the lines of class and church, it is also interesting to note that Miers was raised Catholic, converted into a very congregational, nondenominational brand of Protestantism (the so-called independent Christian churches) and yet her family is now attending an Episcopal parish. Anyone who speaks Episcopal lingo will find interesting zig-zag content in these facts dug up by Duin.

Miss Miers also attends several Episcopal congregations, including her family’s parish, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. When in Washington, she usually attends the 9 a.m. service across the street from the White House at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which Mr. Bush frequently attends. Justice Hecht said he also occasionally accompanies her to services at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria.

An Arlington resident, Miss Miers has contributed to the Falls Episcopal Church in nearby Falls Church. She went there at least once in 2001, administrator Bill Deiss said. The Falls Church, a passionately evangelical congregation, is very similar to Valley View.

The Los Angeles Times really sticks to politics and gets its killer quote from a source on the cultural left (one previously tapped by The Dallas Morning News).

Lorlee Bartos, who was Miers’ campaign manager in her race for the Dallas City Council in 1989, recalled that she was surprised to learn her candidate was opposed to abortion rights. “I wanted her to meet with a group of pro-choice women, and she said she wasn’t pro-choice,” Bartos said. “She said she had been pro-choice but had changed her view.”

If you want the dry, bloodless, God-talk-thin version of the story of the day — L.A. is for you.

Or you can try the Baltimore Sun, where the duo of Robert Little and Jonathan D. Rockoff note that Miers and Hecht have recently left Valley View to go to a more sedate, highly traditional, even less rock & roll congregation that has split off (a split within the church leadership is in there too) on its own. In addition to this Worship Wars angle, this story also includes a strong quote from a previously untapped source on the Texas Supreme Court, who says of Miers:

“She is a born-again Christian woman who brings that worldview, and I think it’s impossible to ask her — or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a nonbeliever or an atheist — to leave all of her spiritual views aside. It’s foolhardy to expect that,” said Raul A. Gonzalez, a longtime acquaintance and retired Texas Supreme Court justice. “The question is whether that is a disqualifier for being on the U.S. Supreme Court, and it certainly is not.”

This is a totally shocking quote, isn’t it? I mean, it’s so sane and logical. The folks writing the fundraising letters will need to avoid this quotation.

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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.

  • Michael

    I’m fascinated by the story behind these stories. Who was peddling these stories to the major papers and what was their agenda? Why was Judge Hecht so willing to talk about his “friend’s” religious experience? What is his motivation?

    I’m also curious why she attends all the “A” list/celebrity, conservative Episcopal churches in Washington. Practically ever well-known, white Episcopalian who is a movement conservative goes to one of these churches.

    And finally, what do Jay Sekulow and James Dobson know about her that no other elite movement conservative knows?

  • ceemac

    For a local account of the impact of Meir’s religion on he run for city council see this article in this week’s Dallas Observer.


    The author has been reporting on Dallas politics for a long times.

  • Michael

    That’s a fascinating article, ceemac. Thanks.

  • Brad

    That is an interesting article! She comes off sounding rather complex and hard to peg (kind of like the person she’s replacing).


  • Micah Weedman

    I think an interesting aspect of this story is the fact that she is a female. Salon has an interesting take on the Bush administration’s attitude towards women here:

    I find this also interesting because, by way of disclosure, I am a 6th generation member of the “so-called” (there’s some scare quotes for you) independant Christian churches (ICC). In some ICC circles, she’s getting press becuase of her nomination and involvement in one of the flagship mega-churches of the ICCs. What no one seems to know, though, is that at VVCC, Miers would not be considered fit to be an elder becuase she is a woman. No good theological reason for this like in some traditions, just poor biblical interpretation. So, while many hope she fights the good fight in the world, they also would have to admit that she couldn’t lead a church if she wanted to.

    This is significant, becuase I think its indicative of a larger issue with evangelicals that few people in press-related discussions seem to grasp; namely, that evangelicals have no real political theology (which, basically, means no good theology). Its not that the politics of the church and the politics of the world are at odds with one another, but that there is no politics of the church. So, Miers may be fit to interpet the constitution for Americans, and hopefully do so in a way that advances the gospel and this thing called the “culture of life,” but God forbid that she help a local congregation interpret the Scriptures or the Gospel of Life.

    So, these two things (the salon story, and my own observation, brought to my attention by my wife, of course) give what I think is the real crux of the issue: who is this *woman*? Everyone is obsessed with whether or not a person can drop her spiritual convictions at the door. This is the wrong question, I think. Perhaps we should ask: how might a woman, who experienced a religious re-birth in a tradition that boldly claims that woman are not capable of leadership the same way men are, go about leading the entire country, especially given this administration’s attitudes towards women?

    Maybe lots of people are writing about this, but I ‘ve seen little of it.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    This is much better and more fun reading than a comprehensive roundup. Terry at his best!

    Interesting stuff Micah, but is there really anything there? Other than the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, all Protestant churches that significantly curtail female leadership have no good theological basis for it, but they do it as a matter of custom, often without much trouble. In many cases it is a kind of front; women are not allowed in certain positions, but through others they can be leaders in overt and more covert (but not unnoticed) ways. Nothing really new in that. It’s like standing jokes about how in Muslim societies that the matriarchs run everything. I doubt there is any culture where this isn’t said.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    >Other than the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, all
    >Protestant churches that significantly curtail
    >female leadership have no good theological basis
    >for it, but they do it as a matter of custom, often
    >without much trouble.

    I think I’ve traced it back to some wacko named Paul, who fancied himself a theologian.

  • tmatt

    Micah is a former student and he knows me well. He also knows that my scare quotes around the “so-called” independant Christian churches is based on my experience that these nondenominational churches are some of the most denominationally defined churches I have ever been around. They are, in many ways, more denominational than the Catholic church in the North America context. Another famous quote about these churches: “We don’t have bishops. We have editors.”

    And Micah is noting that, lacking tradition with a big T, Protestants are pretty much free to fight each other to the death (or show of hands votes in budget meetings) about what St. Paul meant.

    The lines blur.

    In my own Tradition, ancient Eastern Orthodoxy, Harriet Miers could not be a priest. She could, however, be a theologian and almost certainly would end up as head of the parish council….

  • ceemac

    A while back tmatt was predicting that Bush would name a business libertarian and not a cultural conservative with this pick for the court.

    I offered the suggestion that in Texas we had a breed of folks who lived in both camps. They pledge loyalty to both Grover Norquist and Focus on the Family. I thought Bush might nominate one of those folks.

    Meirs is a big time Dallas corporate lawyer and an active member of a conservative church. Don’t knwo if she has taken a pledge to Grover and Focus but she seems to be the sort of person I was talking about.

  • Karen B.

    Re Michael’s comment above:

    I’m also curious why she attends all the “A” list/celebrity, conservative Episcopal churches in Washington. Practically ever well-known, white Episcopalian who is a movement conservative goes to one of these churches.

    Michael, obviously you DON’T “speak Episcopal.” Your comment is so inaccurate as to be laughable. Christ Church = “A-list conservative”?!?! No way.

    What made that list of Episcopal churches she is associated with so fascinating to those of us who are Episcopalians is that those churches are so VERY diverse. Falls Church is, as you acknowledge, known as something of an evangelical mega-church type place which has many prominent political conservatives in attendance.

    Christ Church in Alexandria is a VERY different church altogether. It may have a lot of movers and shakers, but it is not considered “conservative” in Episcopal circles.

    Here’s the mission statements taken from their webpages:

    Christ Church:

    Christ Church embodies God’s unbounded love by embracing, liberating, and empowering people, whoever they are and wherever they find themselves on their journeys of faith.

    Falls Church:

    Who We Are — We are welcoming family, hungering for more of God, wholeheartedly following Jesus Christ. [...] In the Evangelical Tradition – we are committed to Biblical authority and preaching and to doing the work of evangelism.

    What We Are Called To [...] Reach God’s World with the Love of Christ – we want to share the Good News of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring the lost to new life in Jesus Christ, and to show compassion to the poor and those in need.

    I write about these two churches because I’ve known people who attended both and can speak from some personal experience. Michael, next time please avoid jumping to conclusions based on one piece of data. Just because Falls Church is famous (infamous?) as an evangelical Episcopal mega-church, doesn’t mean the others listed are similar!

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  • Michael

    Christ Church is unquestionably “A” list, as is Falls and St. Johns. While Christ Church may be more liberal than Falls and St. Johns, all three are known for their networking ability and “who is in the pews.”

  • http://megquinn.blogspot.com/ Meg Q

    I just think it’s (sort of) interesting that she was supposed to have been raised Catholic, yet her family is now attending “the” “high-church” Episcopalian parish in the Dallas Episcopal diocese (Incarnation). So clearly, also, her family has been on some kind of faith journey.

    However, to be honest, right now I don’t care if she is a righteous woman or an incanting Wiccan, I just think that, for the Supreme Court, she is a terrible, terrible pick. That has nothing to do with her religious belief or practice.

  • Karen B.

    Michael, true all those parishes are A-list. Many if not most of the Episcopal parishes in the DC-area are. You know, the “denomination of presidents” or “the Republican Party at prayer” stereotypes.

    But there really are huge theological differences between Falls and Christ Church Alexandria that your original comment glosses over.

    And since so much of the Harriet Miers religion angle is focused on whether she’s an evangelical and what her beliefs might be re: abortion, etc., it is important to distinguish between the radically different theology in different wings of the Episcopal church.

    To me it sounds like she might appreciate the beauty of the liturgy and good music and thus is drawn to Episcopal churches which focus on that (As I understand Incarnation, St. Johns and Christ Church Alexandria all do).

    I’m guessing she may be theologically closer to Falls Church given its similarlities to Valley View, but as it sounds like she has only visited their infrequently, perhaps she is turned off by its style of churchmanship.

  • Micah Weedman

    I’m certainly not out to decide whether evangelicals know how to read Paul or not (though I clearly have my thoughts), nor debate the difference between priesthood in hierarchical churches vs. eldership in free churches. What I think is there is that churches that have a history of disdaining the leadership of women are all to happy for them to lead in the “secular” (there’s my contribution to the scare quote quota) sphere, but to do so in a way that (hopefully) advances the mission of the gospel. In other words, we send a woman out to do gospel work in a secular context, while not allowing her to do, as tmatt has rightly alluded to, business-model work in the church. It just seems odd, and if VVCC is really at the heart of her religious covictions, I’m just curious how it is that she might have been formed by that.
    Of course, if she’s just an Episopalian, its a different discussion. And certainly a lot of folks don’t think she’s qualified from a “secular” point of view.
    But as one who knows this “nondenomination” intimately, I find it ironic (and have expressed as much to the Christian Standard, the “NYT of the Independant Christian churches.”