Deepening the Religious Divide

In the religious war now being waged by the Republican Party, battles are designed not to be won but to mobilize troops for larger battles to come. The ultimate goal is not to dismantle the wall between church and state, although this would be a byproduct. It is to bring the majority of Americans who consider themselves religious into the Republican Party, thereby securing the GOP's dominance for generations to come.

This is the only way to understand the Republicans' decision to politicize the tragic case of Terri Schiavo. They could not have seriously believed that their eleventh-hour legislation would be upheld by the courts. The Schiavo law was an unprecedented and blatant usurpation of judicial authority. But their goal wasn't to end up with that law, or even to keep a Terri Schiavo alive. It was to further energize and mobilize the religious right.

Right-wing cable television and talk radio used the case to rant against judicial “elites” who, supposedly in league with America's other cultural elites, were imposing their immoral values on good God-fearing Americans. “The Schiavo case dramatized the need to do something to restrain the judiciary,” said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union. “So when we get to the coming battles over judicial nominees in the Senate, perhaps the public will be somewhat more engaged in realizing what's at stake. In this case, literally life and death.”

It's a straight battle line from Schiavo to the current fight over George W. Bush's nominees to the appellate courts to the biggest battle of them all, which will be over the next Supreme Court nominees. But winning these battles is not the main point of staging them. It's to further inflame passions of the religious right and to bring other religious Americans to the cause.

When House Majority Leader Tom DeLay accused the courts of “running amok” for overturning the Schiavo law, it wasn't to help his colleagues in the Senate summon enough votes for a rule change to end the filibuster and clear the way for Bush's judicial nominees. Notably, the forum he chose was a conference called “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith,” sponsored by religious conservatives.

Nor was Texas Senator John Cornyn trawling for additional Re- publican votes when he opined days later on the Senate floor that recent courthouse shootings might be motivated by distress about judges who “are making political decisions and yet are unaccountable to the public.” If anything, DeLay's and Cornyn's outbursts will make it harder for Senate Republicans to get the votes they need. But their goal isn't to change the filibuster rule. It's to change American politics.

To Republican strategists, fights over Bush's judicial nominees aren't contests over the nominees themselves. They're steps in a larger war. After all, blocking judicial nominees is old sport. During the six years that Republicans controlled the Senate when Bill Clinton was president, they stalled 60 of his nominees, 45 percent of all the names Clinton submitted. To date, Democrats have blocked only 10 of Bush's, while 42 Bush nominees have been confirmed. Bush resubmitted all but three who withdrew their names, and used a recess to give William Pryor a temporary seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Why all the fuss, then? Republicans are using these fights to stoke anger against America's supposed “secular elite.” It's no accident that most of Bush's blocked nominees are avowed opponents of Roe v. Wade, or against homosexuality and stem-cell research. The battles over their confirmation are a warm-up for Supreme Court confirmation fights that will consume months if not years of the remaining Bush administration. Even here, the Republican goal is not so much to win a specific contest as to divide the nation between religious and secular and to force Americans to define themselves as one or the other.

Republicans think this new fault line in American politics will systematically favor the GOP, just as the old fault line, running along economic lines, favored Democrats. They may well succeed, but it's a dangerous gamble. Most Americans consider themselves religious, to be sure, but when it comes to politics they are decidedly secular -- they don't want politics to be dominated by religious belief. If polls are to be believed, most thought it wrong for Congress and the president to intrude in the Schiavo case, most don't want to get rid of the filibuster, and most want an independent judiciary. As former Republican Senator John Danforth said recently, the Republican Party has been transformed “into the political arm of conservative Christians.” Rather than secure the party's dominance, this may marginalize it for generations.

Robert B. Reich is co-founder of The American Prospect.

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