Monday, August 15, 2005

Justice Sunday II

NASHVILLE, TENN.—-The discipline was dazzling--everybody on the same page. The usual rhetoric was deployed--the railing against "activist judges," waxings on the "originial intent" of the Constitution’s framers; abortion defined as baby-killing; the horror of "homosexual sodomy." It was a typical assemblage of speakers for a right-wing confab: 10 men, 2 women, all but one of them white. As usual, a couple of right-wing Catholics made common cause with right-wing Protestant evangelicals. Yet, for all that, this second incarnation of the Family Research Council’s second "Justice Sunday" simulcast fell a bit flat.

Perhaps it was the lack of zealous enthusiasm for the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, most probably due to the revelation that, while in private practice, Judge Roberts did pro bono work on behalf of gay rights activists who ultimately prevailed in overturning an anti-gay Colorado statute passed through referendum, a pet project of James Dobson, eminence of the Focus on the Family media empire. In fact, though Dobson, appearing in the sanctuary of Nashville’s Two Rivers Baptist Church via videotape, called upon the assembled to support the Roberts nomination, his description of the nominee indicated only tentative support.

"It looks like Judge Roberts is a strict constructionist," Dobson said. "For now, at least, he looks good."

(In truth, Roberts’ work suggests a consistent lack of philosophy--constructionist or otherwise--in favor of a sort of elitist pragmatism.)

Without a hint of irony, Dobson apologized for not attending the gathering in person, as expected, explaining the he and his wife were away on a brief trip--to France. Minutes later, he accused the Supreme Court of falling under the influence of European leftists, and described the High Court as an oligarchy.

Strict construction
Last night’s "Justice Sunday II: God Save the United States and This Honorable Court" was a follow-up to the infamous simulcast gathering in April at which Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist made a splash, when, after having failed to make a federal case out of the plight of Terri Schiavo, the brain-dead woman whose husband wished to remove her feeding tube against her parents’ wishes, he addressed the crowd that had gathered to, in the words of its own subtitle, stop "the filibuster against people of faith." Like the first Justice Sunday, this one was held in a megachurch whose sanctuary more resembles a television studio than a traditional house of worship; indeed, throughout the program, a television camera on a crane swung around center stage, and then out to the audience, all for the benefit of the dozens of churches nationwide whose congregants gathered to watch the event as a closed television broadcast.

Before the broadcast commenced, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an offshoot of the Dobson empire, instructed the congregants on their appearance before the cameras. TV viewers, he said, were going to "gauge how this is going based on you.” So they were told to clap often and respond enthusiastically to the speakers. "When they say a joke," Perkins added, "even if it’s not funny, laugh--especially if it’s me."

With Bill Frist having recently flip-flopped on support for embryonic stem-cell research, the majority leader was not invited for round two, leaving man of faith Tom DeLay, House majority whip, with the responsibility of representing the apparently beleaguered legislative branch. Speaker after speaker asserted that the judiciary has consistently usurped the power of the legislative branch, which is entrusted with the making of law. Several even questioned the very constitutionality of judicial review--the power of the Supreme Court to review laws passed by Congress and state legislatures to determine if they pass constitutional muster.

Tom DeLay made what may count as his most sedate public appearance, calling, in measured tones, for an end to all that legislating from the bench. (No mention of putting contracts out on judges.) He spoke of a judiciary grown all-powerful, and called for a return to what he called "balance," which presumably means having all three branches of government dominated by a single party. "Without balances," he said, "there can be no checks." And we all know how much checks mean to Mr. DeLay.

A rant of resentment
While most of the speakers seemed tightly scripted, William Donohue of the Catholic League issued his customary, stream-of-consciousness rant of resentment against all who take issue with him, adding fire to the evening’s overarching theme: the persecution of God’s people by the godless Court which is, in turn, supported by a mighty, godless left-wing political powerhouse.

Warning liberals of the change that awaits them at the hands of God-fearing folk, Donohue snidely suggested that his side provide liberals with counselors to help them through the great change. "We respect the fact that they don’t believe in anything," he said. Because that lack of belief precludes the use of priests or rabbis, he went on, "we’re going to send them grief counselors" to "hold their hands."

One of only two speakers who uttered the name of John Roberts, Donohue singled out for special criticism several individuals who had dared to wonder aloud about the potential implications of Roberts’ strongly held conservative Catholic beliefs. Of Mario Cuomo, who discussed just that on a recent edition of "Meet the Press," Donohue said, "And he’s one of mine! He’s a Catholic." Christopher Hitchens, who penned a controversial piece on Roberts for Slate, was described as "that atheist anti-Catholic bigot." Then, inexplicably, Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio came under fire for having simply noted that Roberts is a conservative Catholic with adopted children and a wife who served as an officer of a "pro-life" organization.

Truth be told, your blogstress felt a bit jilted to have been left off the list, having been, along with The American Prospect, the subject of a three-week press release and op-ed campaign by Donohue for having dared to mention, on The American Prospect Web site, that any questions put to Roberts about his views on abortion were likely to be met with cries of "anti-Catholicism" from the right. Three weeks of engagement and rebuttal—-you’d think the guy could have at least blown your Webwench a kiss.

In a torrent of New York-accented words, Donohue accused liberals of being "so sweet" that they allowed Christian right-wingers to "ride in the back of the bus" while the liberals did the driving. It was time, he said, for evangelicals to "take command of the wheel."

Beyond his poisonous invective, though, Donohue floated a proposition with the potential for real damage: "a constitutional amendment that says unless a decision of the Supreme Court is unanimous, you cannot overturn legislated law."

He received a standing ovation. Breathe deep the gathering gloom.

An empty frame
Thoughout the evening, the repetition of thematic words became a drumbeat, most notably the coupling of the word "sodomy" with "homosexual," and the use of the words "supremacist" and "supremacy" to describe the High Court.

After the program ended, your cybertrix asked Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum to comment on the emergence of the word "supremacist" in the context of the Court. She smiled and reached inside her bag, pulling out a copy of her latest book. The jacket features a photograph of the Supreme Court building, with these words emblazoned across the cover: The Supremacists.

"Probably I’m the one who did it," she said, "with my book. I think that word is completely descriptive; it’s a much better word than 'activist' [in describing the court]. These people really do think they’re supreme over everybody else."

When asked what she thought about the newfound love of issue framing shown by liberals, she replied, "But they haven’t a message to sell."

Constitution, anyone?

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