In the immediate wake of President Bush’s nomination of John Roberts to the US Supreme Court, two of the Christian right’s major interest groups, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, planned a sequel to Justice Sunday, the spectacular rally they had held in April to promote Bush’s controversial federal judiciary appointments. In anticipation of a battle fit for Christian soldiers, the planners of Justice Sunday II went big, booking a Nashville, Tennessee, megachurch and arranging the broadcast of their event to millions of homes and thousands of churches across the country through SkyAngel and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. When Justice Sunday II arrived, however, its intended galvanizing message seemed to have evaporated in the sweltering Tennessee night.
The event reached its climax when William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights stomped onstage determined to deliver the evening’s most bombastic attack line. Donohue was going to tell the crowd exactly who their enemy was, in no uncertain terms. He was going to name names. And so, in booming basso profundo, Donohue denounced “the atheist, anti-Catholic bigot” Christopher Hitchens. His salvo was greeted with befuddled silence. If there were a name with which the country-music-capital crowd had less familiarity, Donohue couldn’t conjure it. For all they knew, if they knew anything about Hitchens, the neoconservative ex-Trotskyite bibulous Brit author of Letters to a Young Contrarian had produced a how-to manual in the style of James Dobson’s “Dare to Discipline” for Christian parents to give to a naughty teenager evading an abstinence program.
Unfazed by the utter silence greeting his startling exorcism of the demon Hitchens, Donohue trundled ahead like a performance artist at the Greenwich Village Cafe Wha?. He declared that he studied under “the NYU Marxist Sidney Hook,” evoking further deep bafflement in the crowd (NY Who?), then proposed “grief counselors” for liberals and finally posed a rhetorical question: “You remember that Bob Dylan song?” With that, the packed Baptist church turned into a Quaker meeting. It appeared that the Christian militants didn’t recall “The Times, They Are A-Changin’.” Maybe Donohue should have tried something from Dylan’s early country phase, like “Lay, Lady, Lay.”
Zell Miller followed Donohue at the microphone. The turncoat former Democratic governor of Georgia had been the keynote speaker at last year’s Republican National Convention, where he shouted that Democrats wanted to arm the military with “spitballs.” Now he engaged in what seemed like a game show whose point appeared to be to yell at the top of his lungs as many mixed metaphors in the shortest time possible. Liberalism, Miller said, had “kidnapped the baby Jesus’s halo,” “treat[ed] marriage like an outdated Hula-Hoop” and “hauled off” the Constitution “in a garbage truck.” He made no references to Dylan songs.
Next up was Charles Colson, the convicted Watergate dirty-trickster turned evangelical Christian prison pastor, who humbly claimed that Justice Sunday II was doing nothing but “giving voice” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy. Colson pleaded for charity and understanding before reverting to type. “The same people who supported King are against us,” he said. That appeal to antipathy drew one of the few bursts of spontaneous applause of the evening.
Indeed, Justice Sunday II was about a lot of things–still-simmering resentment against the civil rights movement, for example–but it was hardly about John Roberts. As Donohue declared, “We need to go beyond Roberts.”
Roberts’s smiling visage was flashed on the church’s big screen, but he didn’t garner a ringing endorsement from Justice Sunday II’s most prominent personality, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. “It looks like John Roberts is, and we think so, a strict constructionist,” Dobson said during a videotaped appearance. “For now, at least, he looks good.” Gone were the senators’ phone numbers flashed across the screen during Justice Sunday I. Emcee Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, was not urging viewers to dial their Congressman, as he did before. Justice Sunday II’s planners pointedly neglected to present a giant-size portrait of Roberts beside the dais, as they did for each of Bush’s stalled federal judiciary picks two months ago. Somewhere between his nomination and Justice Sunday II, John Roberts had become the redheaded stepchild in the Christian right’s basement.
Roberts’s reputation plummeted in Christian right circles on August 4, when the Los Angeles Times reported his pro bono work on behalf of gay rights activists in Romer v. Evans, a 1996 case that declared unconstitutional a Colorado ballot initiative that would have permitted landlords and employers to discriminate against homosexuals. Though Roberts didn’t argue Romer before the Supreme Court, two lawyers who worked with him on the case said he played an instrumental role in preparing their argument. Strangely, when Roberts was asked by the Senate Judiciary Committee, just days before the LA Times article appeared, to describe “specific instances” in which he performed pro bono work, he forgot to mention Romer.
Roberts may have had good reason for reticence. After all, there are few straight men as obsessed with homosexuals as Bush’s most fervent grassroots backers on judicial appointments, the stars of Justice Sunday. In 2002 Dobson distributed a newsletter that included tips for fathers to prevent their sons from becoming gay. It included this instruction: “He can even take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger.”
In 2004 Perkins’s Family Research Council released a pamphlet, “The Slippery Slope of Same-Sex Marriage,” introduced with the tale of a Missouri man who wants to marry his horse. “The logic of his argument is remarkably similar to that employed by advocates of homosexual marriage,” the pamphlet states. Perkins recently told a reporter from the Vancouver Sun, “You ask anybody that’s investigated homosexual murders and without question they are the most violent…even the sex act itself is violent in homosexuals.” (Such comments contradict a claim made on Dobson’s Focus on Your Child website that boys who are becoming gay “dislike the roughhousing that other boys enjoy.”)
With the revelation of Roberts’s involvement in the Romer case, right-wing activists began jumping ship. The leader of a Virginia antigay group, Public Advocate, yanked support with the declaration, “‘Freedom’ is not embracing perversion.” Joseph Farah, editor of the heavily trafficked far-right webzine WorldNetDaily, attacked Justice Sunday’s planners in thinly veiled language in an August 12 column: “We now have ‘conservative’ organizations leading the fight for confirmation of a man [Roberts] who is certain to be a grave disappointment to them.” Perhaps most important, Gary Bauer, the former Family Research Council president who built the organization into one of Washington’s largest conservative operations during the 1990s, denounced the Bush White House in his daily newsletter for picking a “stealth nominee” and questioned their refusal to release 50,000 pages of Reagan-era Roberts documents.
The position of Justice Sunday II’s organizers consisted of halfhearted apologia through gritted teeth. “The Romer case was perhaps one of the most egregious decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court…and to have Roberts be part of that in any way was troubling,” Dobson said during an August 8 appearance on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes. But, Dobson assured the audience, “he had a very minor role.” When host Sean Hannity peppered him with questions about Roberts’s role on Romer, Dobson was forced to concede that “the Republican senators need to vet him [Roberts] also.” It was a stunning role reversal, considering that Dobson and his allies had spent the past month attacking Democratic senators who vowed to question Roberts’s views on social issues.
While Perkins echoed Dobson’s “concern” over Roberts, he was not about to miss the opportunity to use his nomination as a cash cow. In early August, while Roberts was wrapping up a series of cordial meetings with Senate Democrats, the Family Research Council sent a mass mailing soliciting donations to combat “a secret liberal strategy” to destroy Roberts. A breathless, bold-print e-mail pitch followed on August 11 for “very large contributions”–upward of $1,000–to “strike a great blow against judicial activism.” That same week, Perkins sent another solicitation to help raise $150,000 he claimed Justice Sunday II would cost. For Perkins, who pays himself $171,000 a year, battling activist judges is a very personal crusade.
Justice Sunday II presented promotional opportunities for its other stars as well. Three speakers, Zell Miller, Phyllis Schlafly and Chuck Colson, have just released new books, easy-to-read jeremiads bemoaning America’s descent into secular depravity. For them, the event meant face-time with their target consumers.
House Republican majority leader Tom DeLay leaped at the chance to fill in for the disinvited Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who lost the Christian right’s mandate of heaven when he delivered a floor speech in favor of stem cell research and against President Bush’s restrictions. In March, at a Family Research Council meeting, DeLay had cast his legal problems as the result of a cunning left-wing scheme to bring down the conservative movement.
Now, as his close personal friend über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff faces numerous indictments on corruption charges, DeLay lathers himself in moral piety. “The moral values that have defined the progress of human civilization for millennia are cast aside by a small number of judges,” DeLay said on Justice Sunday II.
Meanwhile, the White House, hoping to reinvigorate the Christian right’s support for Roberts, released his Reagan-era memos–for example, criticizing the Supreme Court’s rulings against school prayer–though it is still withholding tens of thousands of pages demanded by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The maneuver may have been too little, too late, at least to buttress the unshakable faith of the religious right. Not only did Justice Sunday II reflect the Christian right’s wavering support for Roberts, it also revealed a subtle yet concerted effort by its leadership to unhitch its wagon from Bush’s suddenly falling star. Dobson, Perkins and company are taking the long view, looking toward the next Supreme Court vacancy, the next election cycle and beyond that to dominating influence over the direction of the Republican Party and the country.
The true underlying agenda of Justice Sunday II was undisguised in the rousing speech given by Bishop Harry Jackson. “We need to tell both parties, ‘It’s our way or the highway,'” Jackson told the cheering crowd. “You and I can bring the ruling reign of the cross to America.”