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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Catholics 5, Evangelicals 0

One of the historical oddities of George W. Bush’s decision to nominate Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court is that if confirmed, he will establish a majority on the court of Roman Catholics. This fact hasn’t gotten a lot of comment so far, in part because it is and should be irrelevant to his qualifications, and in part because hardly anyone noticed that Clarence Thomas reverted to his Catholic upbringing in recent years, joining Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Chief Justice Roberts as Catholic members of SCOTUS. Given the brief but intense campaign by some conservative evangelicals to tout Alito’s unsuccessful predecessor, Harriet Miers, as establishing an “evangelical seat” on the Court, you have to wonder how they privately feel about yet another Catholic nomination. My friend Amy Sullivan, that intrepid interpreter of all things religio-political, has been calling around to some of them to see if they’ll open up on the subject, but has so far been met with the usual conservative Talking Points about how great it is to have a SCOTUS nominee who rejects judicial activism and respects Original Intent, etc., etc.Now to be sure, most evangelical Protestants this side of Bob Jones University have discarded most of the hard-line Reformation view of the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon, the Scarlet Woman of the Book of Revelations, and of the Vatican as the most likely address of the Antichrist. And indeed, the detente between evangelicals and Catholics (at least outside Latin America), partly theological, and partly the result of tactical alliances over social and political issues like abortion, has led to one major book with the provocative title: “Is the Reformation Over?”Still, we are not that far away from centuries of bitter hostility between Catholics and evangelicals (including, of course, the heavy involvement of evangelical clergy in the effort to oppose John F. Kennedy’s election on religious grounds), and there remain a host of theological divisions, especially between the conservatives in both communions who are most likely to agree on political issues. There are a sizable number of evangelicals, for instance, (e.g., those in Harriet Miers’ church) who think infant baptism is meaningless, and that even adult baptism is insufficient for salvation unless it involves full immersion. Even though many evangelicals deeply admired Pope John Paul II for his anti-communism and cultural traditionalism, the intensity of his Marian devotion probably troubled them a lot if they thought about it. And deep divisions remain between evangelicals and Catholics on a whole host of liturgical and ecclesiastical issues.None of this, of course, means politicized conservative evangelicals wouldn’t be happy with a Justice like Alito, who on the key constitutional issues they care about, has nearly perfect views. But beneath the surface, you do have to wonder what they think about the heavy representation of their ancient enemy, as contrasted with their own invisibility, on an institution that they regard as one of the commanding heights of American society.Maybe one of them will confess to Amy, and we’ll find out the truth.

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