True or false: Religious Right defeated Miers?

bush jesusRegular readers of GetReligion may recall one of my tenets for MSM coverage of religion, politics and culture: The Religious Right must lose. Or stated the other way, above all else, the Religious Right must not be allowed to win.

It is easy, if you keep that in mind, to understand why the MSM seems so confused right now in the wake of the Harriet Miers nomination and all that came in its wake.

Did the Religious Right back Miers? Yes.

Did the Religious Right oppose Miers? Yes.

Did the old-guard mainstream right (including some who back abortion rights) back Miers? Yes.

Did the old-guard mainstream right (including some who back abortion rights) oppose Miers? Yes.

Now the question everyone is trying to answer, right now: When she withdrew, did the Religious Right win or lose?

Stay with me for one more question. If the Religious Right won this battle, forcing Miers to withdraw, that means that the Religious Right defeated the team of President George W. Bush and Dr. James Dobson (the living symbol of the Religious Right). Correct? Or perhaps, the Religious Right managed to defeat the evil liberal President Bush when information dug out by the MSM convinced Dobson to turn against Miers?

See how confusing this is?

With all of that in mind, you are ready to read a very confusing piece by Kevin Merida in today’s Washington Post titled “Miers, the Rebellion’s Latest Casualty: Why the Right Never Surrenders, Or Declares Victory.”

This piece gets one thing right. Yes, there are people who are conservatives first and Republicans second. But it seems that Merida waved a white flag when it came time to understanding the role that faith and moral issues have played in the modern “conservative movement” (as if there is only one). He also seems to have no idea that there are some moral and cultural conservatives who are not Republicans at all. They are independents or conservative (often Catholic, Hispanic or African-American) Democrats.

It’s all so confusing, which is why Merida tells us:

Democrats certainly have their noisy scrums — the left is either angry at the center for acting like Republicans or the center is blaming the left for election debacles. But the Republican right seems to have a special, disciplined vigilance when it comes to internal warfare. Where else can you find the ironic spectacle of a House speaker being shown the guillotine by the very crew of conservative revolutionaries he created? That was Newt Gingrich’s fate in 1998, forced to resign after leading Republicans to the first House majority in four decades.

After reneging on his read-my-lips pledge of “no new taxes,” then-President George H.W. Bush found himself hissed and hounded by conservatives and ultimately undermined as he went on to lose his 1992 reelection bid. Even the beloved Ronald Reagan got smacked from time to time by his brethren on the right. An all-star lineup of conservatives went after him over his dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his support of a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, went so far as to call the Gipper a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Three decades later, phoning in from the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, Phillips said: “My loyalty is not to any political personality or any political party.”


My friends, there is a ghost in there — a great big one.

So I will ask one more question, a question that we may or may not know the answer to in a day or so when the tricky President Bush selects another nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. The question is: Is President Bush a cultural conservative or not?

This is a question I have been asking since 2000, when I wrote the following paragraphs. They come from an essay that I wrote in the middle of election day, before the real craziness began. I wrote this for Salon, but the editors turned it down. I guess it was the wrong kind of diversity.

The essay ended up running (wait for it) in World magazine. I guess Marvin Olasky was more open-minded. The headline was “A sad Democrat votes.”

Let me be candid. I didn’t vote for George W. Bush because I am convinced that he is genuinely pro-life. I have no idea whether he will, in fact, spend any of his precious political poker chips, when push comes to shove, to try to stop abortions or to help the women who are ensnared in crisis pregnancies in a society that mainly wishes they would go away.

I also think Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney are going to march to a basically libertarian drum when it comes to other cultural issues. I think they will be in the middle of the road, watching the polling data, when it comes to sexuality. They aren’t going to stomp on gays and lesbians, even though there will be howls from the Lifestyle Left if any efforts are made to withhold the government’s blessings from active support of their causes in the arts, education, and law. I think the Religious Right can prepare to be disappointed, along with the Lifestyle Left.

And I think Mr. Bush’s court appointees will be much like his picks in Texas — country-club conservatives who come out of the mainstream of American law schools. They’ll probably split 50-50 on the divisive moral issues, just like the folks selected by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

So is Bush a cultural conservative or a company man from the country club? Can the MSM admit that this is the ghost haunting the headlines?

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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.

  • Rod Dreher

    On the editorial board where I serve, I argued till I was blue in the face with my colleagues, who wanted to blame the Miers loss on “social conservatives” (read: religious conservative wingnuts like me). The facts — the FACTS — were a lot more complicated. I kept pointing out that the biggest “bad guys” (from the liberal point of view) on the Right — Dobson, Falwell, et alia — were all openly pro-Miers. And conservatives who are social liberals, like the libertarians Roger Pilon and Virginia Postrel, were openly campaigning against the Miers nomination. So how, exactly, did “social conservatives” bring down Harriet Miers all by themselves?

    Nobody had an answer for me, but we sure did blame “social conservatives” in print. When in doubt, it’s always the fault of the Religious Right. That is in the DNA of the MSM. Mind you, as Harriet Miers’ hometown paper, we had been officially enthusiastic about her candidacy, though we were waiting for the hearing before endorsing her (or not). If we had not liked the candidacy from the get-go, I wonder if we would have credited social conservatives for spearheading the withdrawal of an unqualified nominee.

    Actually, I don’t wonder that at all. Of course we wouldn’t have. The Religious Right must lose.

  • Sherry

    Well, you may have been right about Bush overall; we’ll see how it all pans out. But Harriet Miers certainly didn’t fit the description: “country-club conservatives who come out of the mainstream of American law schools.”

  • Beacon

    ‘the wrong kind of diversity’ – love it.

  • Michael

    Are “social conservatives” and “religious conservatives” synonymous?? Rod uses both terms, but I do think there is a distinction. While the Colorado Springs/Hampton Roads crowd gave their “blessing” before ultimately stabbing her in the back, “social conservatives” outside of the CS/HR crowd opposed her the whole time.

    What were the big complaints about Meirs. Abortion and Affirmative Action. Those are two of the pillars of social conservatives, the themes that unite the folks at the National Review and the Weekly Standard with the folks in CS/HR. So while Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol may not be “religious conservatives,” they were definitely sounding like “social conservatives” when going ballistic over the suggestion of hiring goals and lukewarm opposition to abortion.

  • Charlie

    I’ve always thought of Bush as a country-club conservative with a twist — his faith is experiential and he sees it as having transformed his life. Most country-club types see faith as a tradition to be observed, not an experience that touches the places where you live.

    But though he has more in common with evangelicals than his father did, I don’t get the impression that he has immersed himself in the evangelical world. The country club is still the place where he hangs out and finds most of the ideas that inform his judgments.

    I think Miers reflects that disconnect. He thought she’d pass muster with evangelicals because of her faith and her loyalty to the conservative cause. But the evangelical church has been beating the drum of judicial activism for decades and wanted an intellectual conservative, someone who could articulate their concerns and counter-punch against liberal legal philosophy.

    I get the impression that Bush hasn’t paid much attention to those discussions, and I doubt that they’re a hot topic with the country club set. Had he been more immersed in the evangelical world, he might have figured out that to many evangelicals, judges have become more important than elections. Presidents come and go, but Supreme Court judges live (almost) forever. And with all that time on their hands, they just can’t resist tinkering with the machinery of society.

  • DK

    Terry’s as-yet-unpublished article will no doubt remain unpublished or else undergo serious revision, namely in its assumption that political agency ends at the ballot box. Affecting a jaded, worldly-wise Salon-style tone, Terry surmised that Bush would screw his religious and cultural conservative base with his SC picks. Not so with Roberts; maybe Meirs. But look what’s happened now.

    Terry doesn’t doesn’t give enough credit to religious conservatives as people capable of flexing muscles and pushing back. Faced with Meirs–an ambiguous evangelical nominee and a “country-club conservative”–enough of the conservative base, including evangelicals, did not support her and now she has been replaced with the kind of nominess they originally requested.

    As for the MSM’s inability to understand religious conservatives during the Harriet affair, who isn’t confused? Evangelicalism is an amorphous blob even to itself–a walking-talking identity crisis, really. When one of their own (Meirs) gets nominated, they aren’t sure she really is one of their own. It couldn’t be clearer that not only is there more organizational “diversity” than unity among evangelicals, there is also no agreed-upon criteria among them about what Evangelicalism should imply politically. They have no political theology–just a lot of different books (read by few people) arguing that they need one and what it should look like. So when it comes down to practical matters, what Evangelicals want is faithful Catholics to back for the SC congress, maybe even a future president.

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  • tmatt


    I do not think we know how these people will vote until they do. Some think Roberts will NOT vote to overturn Roe, but to weaken it somehow.

    Did you see Krauthammer’s piece making that case?


    Cultural conservatives split on Miers. That was the starting point for my post. I totally agree with you on the vague, foggy reality that is “evangelicalism.” I would argue that Miers was and is an evangelical. But that, alas, means almost nothing in terms of knowing what someone beliefs. See the Barna polls.

  • CS

    Terry, it is true of course that we can’t know for sure until we know for sure. And certainly just the fact that he’s catholic is no guarantee, Krauthammer’s case is little more than a hunch based on judicial temperament. Respect for precedent means very little in the abortion context. In my judgment, it is at least reasonably hopeful to think that with Roberts, his final respect will be for the Constitution, and when given the chance, he will vindicate it and help wipe away the great stain of Roe.

  • GJ

    I was speaking hypothetically of course, but you get the point. Weaken or overturn–the expectations are not that Roberts will support the status quo. A justice could do anything, theoretically, so the best onlookers can do is try to find some basis for a credible sense of where a nominee stands. You can get this from a Catholic justice with an extensive record–divide him from the Cuomo and Kerry kind of chaff, so to speak. With a Protestant like Miers, you have no record or meaningful cultural category for her, so it’s a shot in the dark. There aren’t a lot of potential Evangelical candidates on hand with the legal creds and relatively unambiguous church ties. That doesn’t bode well for the “movement.”

  • Steve Nicoloso

    Like the scare quotes on “conservative movement,” Terry. Heard the phrase this morning, for what I think for me was the first time ever, on NPR, and it was used completely uncritically. Yeah, as if there is only one… or even one… It seems almost inherent in movements that, once they truly become movements, they cease to remain authentically conservative. Neoconservatism is, of course, a movement, but not a very conservative one. Same could be said for Libertarianism, which is merely a tight reading of Enlightenment (Lockean) Liberalism; or Country Club Conservatism, which is essentially united in curtailing unbridled fecundity among people groups darker than themselves…


  • Michael

    If there are “movement conservatives”–a phrase used by conservatives themselves–then doesn’t there have to be “a “conservative movement?”

  • Steve Nicoloso

    Heh! Well I never said that “conservatives” label themselves accurately.