As you may know, the usual suspects of the Christian Right, led by Tony Perkins, Chuck Colson, and James Dobson, along with their political clients Rep. Tom (Trouble Man) DeLay and Zell (The Duelist) Miller, are holding something called “Justice Sunday II” in Nashville tomorrow night, to once again howl at the moon about the alleged conspiracy to keep people of faith off the federal bench. (There’s a counter-event being sponsored by a variety of religious representatives earlier in the day in the same city).This event is full of ironies. For one thing, the key guest speaker from Justice Sunday I, the man leading the charge for Bush’s judicial nominees, Sen. Bill Frist, has been conspicuously excluded from this one, even though it’s being held in his own state. That’s his punishment for (a) failing to invoke the “nuclear option” during consideration of Bush’s Court of Appeals nominees earlier this year, and (b) flip-flopping more recently on stem-cell research.For another thing, this very sanctimonious event will be graced by Tom DeLay, a man who’s under so many legal and ethical clouds at the moment that a thunderstorm may break out over his head the moment he mounts the rostrum tomorrow.But the main irony is that the intended beneficiary of all the sermonizing, Judge John Roberts, is a Roman Catholic. And you can expect many of the sermonizers to claim that any and all opposition to Robert is based on anti-Catholic bigotry, on the theory that questions about his position on a constitutional right to privacy, or of a woman’s right to choose, involve excluding judges with religious convictions that impinge on their judicial philosophies. Indeed, the whole point of both “Justice Sundays” is that religious views can, do and must affect judicial philosophy, and to think otherwise is to persecute people of faith.This is, of course, richly ironic, since the theological and denominational ancestors of the conservative evangelical Protestant leaders most prominently on display in Nashville frequently and vehemently made the opposite argument against earlier Catholic political figures.The evangelical Protestant inquisition of John F. Kennedy in Houston in 1960 is the most famous example of conservative demands that a Catholic leader swear absolute fealty to the principle of separation of church and state. But there was an earlier and much more savage inquisition back in 1928, when Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for the presidency, was bitterly opposed by conservative Protestant ministers, especially in the South, for the possibility that his faith might somehow affect his policies in office.As it happens, I’m currently reading an interesting book (Happy Days Are Here Again, by Steve Neal) about the 1932 presidential campaign that has a short but fascinating section about Smith’s persecution for his faith, and his brave but futile response. And here’s what the preeminent American Catholic political martyr of the 20th century had to say:
I recognize no power in the institutions of my church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of church and state.
Today, peculiarly enough, such views are considered by the likes of the Justice Sunday crowd as “secular humanist,” “anti-Catholic,” and “anti-Christian.” It’s clear that poor Al Smith, were he resurrected today and lifted to public office, would again suffer persecution from the same people, but for the opposite reasons.I’d be real curious to know how Judge Roberts would feel about that.