Inevitably, Harriet Miers’ religious views are going to get some scrutiny in the very near future, particularly since the initial reaction to her nomination from Christian Right leaders was significantly warmer than that of other conservatives. So far, all the press seems to have figured out is that she spent many years as a devoted member of a “conservative evangelical church” in suburban Dallas, and that she was raised as a (apparently nonobservant) Catholic.I did a little quick research last night on Valley View Christian Church, and also happen to know a bit about the tradition it comes from, so I thought I’d share this analysis for future reference. Keep in mind that I am at best an amateur Church historian, so this account may well include errors, though I profoundly hope it gets the big issues right.VVCC is an independent “Christian” church aligned with the conservative wing of the Campbell-Stone “Restorationist” tradition. It’s closely related to the conservative quasi-denomination, the Churches of Christ, and more distantly related to the mainline protestant Disciples of Christ.[IMPORTANT NOTES: the term “Restorationist” is occasionally applied to “Reconstructionism” or “Dominion Theology,” a scary theocratic movement of recent vintage. It has no connection whatsoever with historic “Restorationists,” or with Harriet Miers. And no one should confuse the conservative “Churches of Christ” with the “United Church of Christ,” a very liberal denomination created by the merger of the Congregationalists with German Reformed Churches in the 1940s].”Restorationism” is a distinctly American religious tradition, a product of the Second Great Awakening on the midwestern and southern frontier, largely under the leadership of Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone, both former Presbyterians who were troubled by denominational and intradenominational rivalries. The basic idea of “restorationism” was a systematic effort to return to what its adherents understood as the practices of the Primitive Church, rejecting “human” creeds, theological traditions (Protestant and well as Catholic), and sectarian denominations, with Scripture, and especially the New Testament, serving as the only source of authority in all matters.Ironically, under the leadership of Thomas Campbell’s son Alexander, the restorationists created their own denomination (albeit a loosely organized, congregationally-based denomination with a strong commitment to ecumenism), the Disciples of Christ, which grew most rapidly in the Midwest and Southwest. Their most distinctive feature was an insistence on weekly communion (most evangelical denominations, following the Calvinist practice, had long detached communion from regular Sunday worship and observed it irregularly) along with a continuing hostility to theological speculation or creeds.Eventually, and roughly at the same time that the Fundamentalist Controversy broke out in the larger Protestant denominations, a significant minority of conservative Disciples, especially in the South and Southwest, drifted out of the Disciples, most affiliating with the new Churches of Christ but others simply becoming “independent Christian” congregations like VVCC. While conservative Restorationists maintained the traditional Disciples belief in biblical inerrancy (echoing Thomas Campbell’s famous slogan: “Where Scripture speaks, we speak; where it is silent, we are silent”) other factors distinctive to restorationists were more important, particularly an insistence on adult baptism by full immersion and rejection of the Disciples’ gradual acceptance of musical instruments to accompany singing in church. But the most important contributor to the split was the conservatives’ belief that restorationists were the “one true church” replicating the Primitive Church, which, given their anti-credal and anti-denominational biases, paradoxically made them increasingly sectarian and preoccupied with “scripturally sound” doctrine, especially in matters of worship.Little has changed in the Churches of Christ and their “independent” satellites in the last century, aside from their rapid growth.Most conservative restorationists dislike the label “fundamentalist,” mainly because the fundamentalist movement in the larger denominations involved theological arguments alien to their own tradition. But they certainly share the fundamentalist position on biblical inerrancy, with an important twist: the tenet that “where [Scripture] is silent, we are silent” has made conservative restorationists much less likely to get involved, at least as a group, in battles over matters like abortion where there are virtually no direct Scriptural references, especially in the New Testament. Indeed, a 1998 article in Restoration Quarterly excoriated Churches of Christ for lagging behind other conservative evangelicals in full-throated commitment to the anti-abortion cause.What complicates this question is the conservative restorationist hostility to denominational order, formal doctrinal statements, and other “litmus tests.” These are not Southern Baptists who insist on examining their clergy and staff in search of heresy; they have few formal organs for pronouncing anathemas even if they wanted to; and much of their literature focuses on controversies like whether to use one or two cups at communion, not quasi-political topics.And this formal silence is characteristic even more of “independent” congregations like VVCC. Even if 90 to 100 precent of conservative restorationist clergy have convinced themselves the Bible does speak to the abortion issue, the gay rights issue, the school prayer issue, and other cultural matters that may come before the Supreme Court, few would know it outside their individual congregations.So: what does all of this mean in terms of “the religious question” as it relates to Harriet Miers nomination? The obvious answer is that like other aspects of her philosophy, the influence of her religious beliefs on her judicial thinking is ultimately a mystery so long as she and her friends and associates decide to keep it that way.A Washington Post profile on Miers reported that Valley View Christian Church occasionally screens Focus on the Family films, and has anti-abortion literature available in the vestibule. That kind of circumstantial evidence is probably the only kind that will turn up. Like Harriet Miers herself, her faith tradition doesn’t supply much in the way of “paper trails” on the subjects that may affect her confirmation or rejection.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
I ran across a story on faulty focus group memories of Trump, and I wrote about the implications at New York.
As an unpopular president facing a sour electorate, Joe Biden really needs to make 2024 a comparative election rather than a straight referendum on his presidency. Luckily for him, his likely general-election opponent, Donald Trump, is equally unpopular for reasons that are quite vivid. He’s as well known as Biden, and he works very hard to reinforce the traits that might make an undecided voter (even one unhappy with Biden) reluctant to put him back in the White House. So half of Biden’s work in drawing contrasts is done for him, and part of the other half is made easy for him by Trump’s strongest supporters, the “deplorables” (to use the Hillary Clinton term that has become a MAGA badge of honor) who enjoy shocking the world by advertising their hero’s most questionable characteristics.
It is becoming apparent, however, that Trump’s potential coalition is being augmented by low-information voters with a hazy understanding of the Trumpier features of the 45th president’s record, character, and agenda. By that I do not mean the non-college-educated voters who make up so large a part of the Trump base. Many if not most of them are pretty educated about their candidate. But there’s evidence that disengaged and/or deeply alienated folks who may nonetheless vote in a presidential election (if not any others) don’t know as much about Trump as you might assume, as the New York Times’ Patrick Healey has observed:
“Our latest Times Opinion focus group discussion with 13 undecided independent voters included a striking result: 11 of the 13 said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held now, and only two said they would vote for President Biden. The reason: overwhelming concern about the economy.
“But I was less surprised by the big vote for Trump than by this: The group didn’t blame Trump for things he was responsible or accountable for.
“For instance, several people linked their economic troubles to COVID, but they didn’t put any blame on Trump for that. Some were upset with the end of abortion rights nationally, but they didn’t tie that to Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. Several wanted bipartisanship, but they didn’t blame Trump for his hand in sinking the recent bipartisan border deal. One person, a Latina, blamed Trump for worsening racism in the country and recounted a searing incident that happened to her — but she was among the 11 who would vote for him anyway.”
Healey concludes that “a lot of our focus-group participants — and many voters — see Trump as an acceptable option in November, yet they don’t know or remember a lot about him.” This makes them, of course, highly susceptible to Trump campaign messaging asserting that the economy during his presidency was the greatest ever; that he’s a natural peacemaker who inspired respect for the United States everywhere; and that he’s a decent, law-abiding businessman (and family man!) whose near-constant forced court appearances are uniformly the product of his persecution by the other party.
Democrats, of course, will have opportunities (and increasingly, an obligation) to set the record straight about Trump and his presidency. But the difficult thing is that low-information voters also tend to be low-trust voters, which means they don’t tend to believe traditional arbiters of objective reality like the mainstream news media, and may not grant more truthful politicians superior credibility. Further distorting understanding of the Trump administration (and thus its possible return) is the huge trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives everything that immediately preceded the disaster an undeserved glow, while immolating memories of less powerful traumas associated with the former president’s tenure.
In other words, low-information voters who dislike politics so much that they are not inclined to dig into facts and evidence touching on political topics are highly vulnerable to the kind of disinformation that benefits Donald Trump. And if they are in a bad mood in November, they could help turn the election into a negative referendum on Joe Biden even if they are inviting something — and someone — far worse. Democrats will have to work hard to break through with the truth.