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Homemade Inquisition
August 2, 2003
By Terry Sawyer

Someone needs to pen a column called "New Lows" and dedicate every week to the Republican party. Doubtlessly the latest edition of said column would involve the recent imagined anti-Catholicism created by the Committee for Justice's attack ads against the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. In a nutshell, the ads proclaim that by questioning the "deeply held beliefs" of federal appeals court nominee William Pryor, Democrats were really saying that Catholics should not be allowed to be judges. Like all laughably bad Republican arguments, this one would be a lot funnier if everyone got it.

Jeff Sessions, Pryor's good ole' boy Don King in this here fight has been one of the most vocal proponents of this inanity. During the hearing he argued, "Well, let me tell you, the doctrine that abortion is not justified for rape and incest is Catholic doctrine. It is a position of the Pope and it's a position of the Catholic Church in unity. So are we saying that if you believe in that principle, you can't be a federal judge? Is that what we're saying? And are we not saying, then, good Catholics need not apply?" Of course, no Democrat had been or would be that gaudy, and the entire debate on Pryor's "deeply held beliefs" had revolved around his ability to separate his application of the law from his outrageously partisan commentary about it. This is the man, after all, who can't help but refer to the "so-called separation of Church and State".

When I really begin to think about the charge, I can't see why it should be illegitimate to ask someone if their belief system prevents them from applying the constitution in a fair and equal manner. What if a conservative Muslim jurist (like Republicans would ever let that happen) said that they couldn't enforce laws against sex discrimination because, in their cosmology, women are inherently beneath men? The fact of the matter is that all judicial nominees are expected to subordinate their particular beliefs about God to their service to the Constitution and not the other way around. The adherence to constitutional principles above religious piety is designed to prevent judges from making our legal standards based on whatever a given judge happens to believe about the mind of God. This is especially prudent with conservatives, who seem to believe that the God's intentions conveniently mimic their own agenda, like some lying sack of shit Snow White mirror. (William Pryor is most certainly not the fairest of them all.)

Truth be told, Orrin Hatch introduced Pryor's Catholicism into the hearing in order to be able to milk this lie with any amount of plausibility. Up until that point, Pryor's religious affiliation hadn't even been part of the record. But since we're there, let's not even call it strict Catholicism. Pryor finds it convenient to junk the Pope's edicts when they happen to come into conflict with his more fervent political alliances. If Pryor and the Republican Party seek to bring sectarianism center stage, then it should certainly be legitimate to ask why the Church should dictate Pryor's beliefs about abortion but not the death penalty. I'm being facetious, of course, because every condom-wearing Catholic in America understands that their relationship to their Faith isn't nearly as involuntary as Sessions implies. All this conveniently divisive talk bout religious freedom leads me to believe Pryor's actual Church is Sister Ashcroft of the Broken Glass Houses.

It's unfortunate that this careening hallucination of an argument distracts from the fact that Pryor makes a truly ghastly nominee. He's called Roe v. Wade an "abomination" and has consistently proposed the fig leaf of Federalism for every single social issue where the Constitution might act as a bulwark against the unsavory march of the Right. Of course, lo and behold his belief in Federalism seemed to momentarily lapse when he became the only attorney general in the country to file an amicus brief in support the Supreme Court's election of the President in Bush v. Gore. I suppose every good lap dog deserves a scratch behind the ears. Pryor has also come out in support of sodomy laws commenting that they are not discriminatory against homosexuals per se, but merely acts of homosexual conduct. Oh, I see, is that like loving the ignoramus but hating the ignorance? Silly me, I loathe both. Hey maybe I'd be willing to support the idea of conservatism, as long as none of them voted.

The reality is that William Pryor is a religious extremist who seems to have a long record of being unable to distinguish his beliefs in God and his job of enforcing the protections of the Constitution. That's in addition to his ethically checkered past shilling for corporate cash with the Republican Attorney General's Association. He's part of a fairly recent though corrosively successful trend of defining the Constitution down in order to remove impeding liberties, precedents, and rights like privacy and desegregation that conservatives consider "made up." In short, conservatives hope that, by nominating judges like Pryor they can effectively gut the Constitution's safeguards against tyrannical majorities or misguided but powerful minorities.

This is part of a broader, snaking, and wily reversal of truth constructed by evangelicals who seek to define any effort to thwart their imposition of theocracy as "anti-religious" or denying them "freedom". Sadly, it's not the first that the language of authentic social just has been hijacked. (See also Reverse Racism and The Defense of Marriage Act.) Republicans don't sincerely believe that Democrats are anti-Catholic. Nor would, under normal circumstances, evangelicals be above bashing a Catholic piņata with glee. Truth be told, certain Southern protestants are of the few Americans left who actually care about such arcane irrelevancies. But surely sowing phantom division has been a boon to Republican coffers and electoral success. Why not dredge up papist hatred historically fomented by right-wing protestants in order to paint liberals as tarring a sweet innocent man of Faith? For once, Republicans might actually be overreaching in their underestimation of the body politic. This argument is so blatantly self-inflicted, so incoherently frothed out, that is unlikely that all but the most unreconstructed wingnuts will buy this line of phony martyrdom. Then again, they always seem to surprise me with an unseen trapdoor in the bargain basement of ethics.

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