As the Bush administration scrambles to counter conservative opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, White House allies are citing her membership in an evangelical Christian church as a key credential.
Many conservatives have attacked the selection of Miers, currently White House counsel, as Supreme Court nominee, saying she lacks experience in constitutional law and charging that her nomination amounted to cronyism. Many conservative critics also worried that she is a stealth moderate, unwilling to overturn abortion rights.
In an effort to reassure religious conservatives, evangelicals such as James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and Justice Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court — a longtime friend of Miers — are trumpeting Miers’s faith. Jewish converts to evangelical Christianity, in particular, have emerged as some of her strongest defenders.
The focus on Miers’s Christian faith antagonized Jewish groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Jewish critics of the tactic noted that during the confirmation battles over earlier nominees, including Catholics John Roberts and William Pryor, the Bush administration and its supporters argued strenuously that any questions about a nominee’s faith were out of bounds.
“Those activists who are trying to sell her on the basis of her evangelical conversion and faith; we think that’s entirely inappropriate,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Washington representative. Diament, who previously joined White House allies in accusing liberals of raising the religious beliefs of judicial nominees, added, “Just as we’ve insisted that a nominee’s faith not be held against them, a nominee’s faith is not the sole criterion for saying a nominee is fit for office, either. We think that’s a bizarre inversion of a notion of a religious test for office.”
Diament’s view was echoed by Sammie Moshenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women, a liberal organization that was pilloried as anti-Catholic by conservative activists when it opposed several of Bush’s nominees on pro-choice grounds.
“We’ve been cautioned for a long time by the administration not to take into account a person’s religious beliefs,” Moshenberg said. “It’s a bit surprising they should be so quick to highlight her religious beliefs. It’s a strange turn of affairs.”
Among Miers’s top supporters, Hecht has led the way in hailing her religious affiliations: The Texas judge claims credit for introducing Miers, then a Catholic, to Valley View Christian Church in 1979 when she was a lawyer in Dallas.
“She is pro-life,” Hecht declared on television. “And she has been a committed member of a mainstream conservative evangelical church for a long time whose position is pro-life, as well.”
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, and perhaps the country’s most prominent messianic Jew, praised Miers this week during an interview with the Rev. Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“This is a big opportunity for those of us who share an evangelical faith in Christianity to see someone with our positions put on a court,” Sekulow said. “She was a very active member of an evangelical church in Dallas.… I think she’s going to be a good pick.”
Another Jewish convert to Christianity, former Bush adviser Marvin Olasky, wrote on his World Magazine blog that “friends who know Miers well testify to her internal compass that includes a needle pointed toward Christ.” In addition, Olasky wrote, “Hecht told me she has a philosophy that grows out of evangelical exegesis and carries over into legal issues: ‘She’s an originalist — that’s the way she takes the Bible,’ and that’s her approach to the Constitution as well — ‘Originalist — it means what it says.’”
David Zwiebel, executive vice president of government and public affairs at the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, defended such comments. “When President Clinton nominated Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, there were those who were not oblivious of the fact that they were members of the tribe,” Zwiebel said. “It was a source of pride.”
The nomination is dividing Jewish Republicans and conservatives as it is the larger conservative movement.
Jewish neoconservative commentators took the lead in demanding that the nomination be withdrawn, either by Bush or by Miers herself. The critics have drawn opprobrium from Bush allies, who accused them of elitism and sexism.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in The Washington Post, opined that nominating “someone whose adult life reveals no record of even participation in debates about constitutional interpretation is an insult to the institution and to that vision of the institution.” William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, an influential conservative journal, wrote that he was “disappointed, depressed and demoralized” that Bush failed to nominate someone with “a visible and distinguished constitutionalist track record.” Likewise, David Frum — a former Bush speech writer who worked with Miers — questioned her credentials. “Can you see any instance in this long life and career where Miers ever took a risk on behalf of conservative principle? Can you see any indication of intellectual excellence?” Frum wrote in the National Review Online.
Other Jewish activists on the right, however, were willing to give the nomination the benefit of the doubt.
Jeff Ballabon, a conservative activist who was the architect of Bush’s 2004 re-election effort in the Orthodox community, said he cares “about just one thing: getting enough votes on the Supreme Court to swing the pendulum back and undo some damage.”
“On the one hand, I wish her record were clearer and I’m apprehensive because the stakes are so high,” he said. “On the other, I’m willing to be optimistic because Bush (a) clearly cares deeply about the issue, (b) has an excellent track record on federal judges and (c) knows Miers personally very well and for a long time. What some people complain of as ‘cronyism’ I see as ‘trust.’”
Fred Zeidman, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and a friend of Bush, praised Miers’s integrity and intellect. He said that he couldn’t “begin to imagine” that the president would pull the nomination.
“He didn’t do this by accident,” Zeidman said. “This was well thought out.”
Zeidman, who has known Miers for many years, said that while she leans conservative, “there’s a real good chance that she’ll not be what the far right wants.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition hailed Miers as “an active member of her community, a dedicated public servant and a female trailblazer.”
Miers, a litigator, was the first woman hired at the white-shoe Dallas law firm of Locke, Purnell, Rain & Harrell. She served a two-year term on the Dallas City Council and later was appointed by Bush, then governor of Texas, to be chairman of the state’s lottery commission. She was the first woman elected to head the Dallas Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas.
In honoring Miers with its Jurisprudence Award in 1996, the Anti-Defamation League cited a long list of her civic activities — from providing legal services to the poor to volunteering with groups that help women and girls.
Her church, Valley View Christian Church of Dallas, describes its beliefs as “falling well within the boundaries of evangelical theology.” As is common among evangelical faiths, the church believes that salvation is reserved solely for those who accept Jesus.
NBC News reported that Miers has been involved with and offered legal guidance to Pioneer Bible Translators, an evangelical missionary group based in Dallas. The organization promotes Christianity among what it describes as “bibleless people groups” in Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, West Africa and Asia.