Anyone unfamiliar with the marriage between politics and religion—more specifically to this review, the current plight of certain members of the church to make America a Christian nation, as denoted in Frederick Lane’s subtitle, The Religious Right’s Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court—need only to have watched the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on Saturday, 16 August. Watching pastor Rick Warren posit the same questions to Barack Obama and John McCain and, more importantly, watching their responses and the crowd’s reactions, was a perfect primer for anyone ignorant of just how entwined the two remain.
Credit freelance journalist Lane for an exceptional, insightful work illuminating both the history of America’s civil courts, and for showing how their evolution has brought us to where we are today—a country, he suggests, in danger of losing much of what we have stood for in terms of democracy and civil rights due to an ideological mindset perpetuated by a fringe culture that has been gathering increasing prominence and influence in the political arena.
When Warren put forth the question regarding which justice each candidate would not have nominated for the Supreme Court, the messages embedded inside every page of The Court and The Cross were brought to light. Obama initially suggested he would not have nominated Clarence Thomas, and then admitted Justice Antonin Scalia was not high on his list, either. Warren then asked about John Roberts, which may have hinted at an agenda to put Obama in a bad light in evangelical eyes. This is an important point: appointed Chief Justice by George Bush when William Rehnquist died of thyroid cancer in 2005, Roberts never sat well with the Christian Right, who, as Lane points out again and again, has made it a point in influencing our political leaders to beef up the Supreme Court with judges willing to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
Warren never asked McCain his feelings on Roberts, though, and here is why: McCain declares he would not have nominated Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Souter, and Stevens, four liberal members of the court. If any one of them should be replaced with a pro-life judge, it is feared that the possibility of Roe vs. Wade could be overturned—an issue McCain knows well, as he never tried to deny his stance, stating that birth starts at the moment of conception. To really show you how relevant a point this is to the Right, when asked another question by Warren, McCain returned to the bench, asking, “Are we going to get back to the importance of Supreme Court justices? When we speak of the issue of the rights of the unborn, we need to speak about judges.”
While this is not nearly the only issue Lane points out in his well-researched book, it serves as a timely example of just how influential the evangelical Christian movement (which Warren’s church is) has become over the past 40 years in America. That Warren was even given the opportunity to interview the presidential candidates on national television is proof enough. It was inviting Obama into the lion’s den, where he knew he would not fare well. (The next day newspapers were flooded with stories about the race being closer than Democrats had thought.) More sadly, it conveyed the same sort of marketing angle that McCain criticized his opponent of during Obama’s recent speeches in Europe, when he released a commercial essentially comparing his “star” status with Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton. Only on this night, McCain was the star, under the guise of the Right.
It’s enough to make your head spin, as is Lane’s book. Both Obama and McCain gave lip service to the “original” intentions of what they perceived the founders of the Constitution to have meant in defining democracy (and later, the Supreme Court), but Lane gives an actual history of the process of our court system—back to the mosquito-filled days when most judges would not want to be involved. He breaks it down by century, noting first the growing influence of this court in American politics, and subsequently the growing economic, political, and popular appeal of fundamentalist religious thought; and no, those three factors are in no way separate. From 20th Century Fox’s Christian-oriented studio Fox Faith to the specific training of college students to become politicians bent on upholding Christian virtues first and foremost, the very nature of democracy is in real, legal trouble.
Diving into the topic of faith-based organizations (another platform of Warren), Lane discusses the $2.1 billion dollars given to FBO’s by the federal government—under a program started by Bush—in 2005 alone. We already know our president named Jesus Christ the most influential political figure in his life, and that he declared creationist theory should be offered in schools as an “alternative idea” to evolution, obviously never recognizing that, as Daniel Dennett noted, most Americans do not realize that evolution is as scientifically valid as the fact that water is H20.
Lane wraps up the discussion with yet another pressing issue: stem cell research. (You bet Warren brought it up.) Lane makes an important distinction between moralism and science when pointing out that in the 17 years since in vitro fertilization clinics have opened, over 100,000 children have been born in the United States by this manner. It was initially opposed. Stem cell research is undergoing the same vehement opposition, all based around the idea of abortion, with opponents again denying the potentiality of the technology due to a belief that life should not be tampered with. (It would be an interesting statistic to see how many opponents to these issues have had, say, plastic surgery.)
Needless to say, The Court and The Cross has arrived at an important juncture in our national history. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Americans’ very identity of what they represent to the world may be decided over the next year. Lane is aware of this, and does his best to describe the dangers of letting fundamentalist religious thought influence what is supposed to be a democracy. My biggest hope is that he won’t only be screaming to the pulpit, and will reach a large segment of the population—not only those who already agree with his detailed observations.
We live in a moment in which Warren can declare that America is the “most blessed nation in the world” and few flinch their eyes (at least those who live here). Perhaps he had forgotten about the biblical warning of hubris, or failed to recognize that less than one in every three Americans even have passports, making that claim seem obvious to those who never leave.
No matter. I find no irony in the fact that both Obama and Lane ended their time with the Right in a similar manner. Obama, feeling the pressure of Warren to make some sort of firm Christian conviction, reminded the pastor of the importance of humility—something that, watching Warren’s reaction and quick sidestepping, wasn’t appreciated. Humility involves accepting the fact that you may be wrong, even admitting such when called for, and this is not on the agenda of the Right.
This closing sentiment from Lane’s book is a compelling enough snippet to make any citizen want to read the book in its entirety. In a convincing clincher he reminds us that “much of what the remarkable [Earl] Warren Court accomplished will be weakened or wiped out by a social and political movement that more than anything else wants to baptize the United States as a Christian nation and use the Bible as its primary source of legal authority. In the end, the goal of the Religious Right is nothing less than to bring this country to its knees.”