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October 19, 2005

Burden of Proof

Talk about mixed signals. President Bush has promised that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers will not change her views for 20 years. Then this past Sunday on “FOX News Sunday,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of Miers, “She’s got a very probing mind and a probing intellect.” Can a person have a probing intellect and be so set in her views that they won’t change? I think not, since there is no reason to probe a subject if your mind is intractably made up.

Which is one of the reasons that Miers’ religion is a critical element of the debate over her qualifications for the Court. So far, the only significant support for Miers’ nomination is coming from the evangelical Christian community. Many, if not most evangelicals, believe in the literal truth of their Bible, renditions of the real and spiritual worlds that are unchanged over thousands of years. Miers must be asked, and must offer convincing proof, that she will be able to put aside her religious views when deciding cases before the Court.

This is about far more than abortion. Virtually every cultural hot button issue now stirring the American political stew is, at its core, a battle between religious and secular thinking. Stem cell research, school vouchers, intelligent design/creationism education, gay marriage and other gay rights, prayer in school, posting the Ten Commandments, “God” in the pledge of allegiance, even security profiling, have become contentious issues because one side claims religious validation of its case. If Harriet Miers is so committed to her religious beliefs that she cannot put them aside — if she will not change her mind regardless of the evidence or the law — she must not be allowed on the Court. If, as Bush has said, religion is a significant part of who she is, she must be able to convince the country that who she is will not affect what she decides.

Yes, we need to have a very serious discussion in this country. The question of the absolute separation of church and state should have been settled long ago. For my generation, it was settled when John F. Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he said. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”
Unfortunately, it apparently was politically incorrect to ask Bush whether he subscribes to the Kennedy position. Bush continues to manifest a faith-based stubbornness in the infallibility of his philosophy. As Sam Harris wrote in his provocative book, “The End of Faith, “... faith is nothing more than a willingness to await the evidence — be it the Day of Judgment or some other downpour of corroboration. It is the search for knowledge on the installment plan: believe now, live an untestable hypothesis until your dying day, and you will discover that you were right.” About two-thirds of Americans now have pronounced Bush wrong on just about everything, but his faith is unshaken.

On a daily basis across the globe, we see societies torn apart, and tragic human suffering, because religious dogma underlies their legal and political systems. Also on a daily basis there is evidence that the United States is headed in a similar direction, or at least that many Americans are trying to steer us there. If Harriet Miers is one of them, we need to know, and we need to reject her nomination.

Why single her out when we did not ask the same questions of John Roberts and others? Roberts and others had demonstrated, through their prior decisions and writings, that they could put their faith-based ideas aside. Miers not only has not created such a record, she has created reasonable doubt that she can. Before she is confirmed, Miers needs to convince Americans that she agrees with President Kennedy when he said, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials — and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com