Frist Plays God Card on Judges

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is set to join televangelists in calling Democrats “against people of faith” on judicial nominees.

Frist Set to Use Religious Stage on Judicial Issue (NYT)

As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as “against people of faith” for blocking President Bush’s nominees. Fliers for the telecast, organized by the Family Research Council and scheduled to originate at a Kentucky megachurch the evening of April 24, call the day “Justice Sunday” and depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier does not name participants, but under the heading “the filibuster against people of faith,” it reads: “The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith.” Organizers say they hope to reach more than a million people by distributing the telecast to churches around the country, over the Internet and over Christian television and radio networks and stations.

Dr. Frist’s spokesman said the senator’s speech in the telecast would reflect his previous remarks on judicial appointments. In the past he has consistently balanced a determination “not to yield” on the president’s nominees with appeals to the Democrats for compromise. He has distanced himself from the statements of others like the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, who have attacked the courts, saying they are too liberal, “run amok” or are hostile to Christianity.

The telecast, however, will put Dr. Frist in a very different context. Asked about Dr. Frist’s participation in an event describing the filibuster “as against people of faith,” his spokesman, Bob Stevenson, did not answer the question directly. “Senator Frist is doing everything he can to ensure judicial nominees are treated fairly and that every senator has the opportunity to give the president their advice and consent through an up or down vote,” Mr. Stevenson said, adding, “He has spoken to groups all across the nation to press that point, and as long as a minority of Democrats continue to block a vote, he will continue to do so.”

I support Frist’s efforts to get judicial nominees an up-or-down vote and even support invoking the so-called “nuclear option” to get it done. However, this particular move is not only unseemly but likely to backfire. Frist’s appeal is that he appears above politics. This sort of slimy tactic will not serve him in the long term, especially as he seeks the White House in 2008.

Clearly, the GOP leadership thinks they’re in trouble on this one. According to a report in The Hill,

Senate Republican leaders were due to meet [Wednesday] night amid rising concern that they are being beaten on the “nuclear option†by Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) public-relations war room. The GOP’s talks follow a meeting last week in which aides warned Bob Stevenson, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) communications director, that something needs to be done to win back lost ground, a participant said. “I think there’s a realization that this particular [Democratic] effort has to be countered and they’re in full-scale attack mode,†a GOP aide said, adding, “I think that people know that we’ve got a serious problem here. “There’s been a lot of talk. Advice has been solicited from me and others. I’ve been told that a plan will be submitted tonight. It will be tweaked.â€
Another GOP aide said: “There’s a general sense in the rank and file that we are a little in the hole and that Democrats have been more aggressive on messaging, that we’ve kind of gone dark. Democrats have gotten a head start and defined the issue ahead of us.â€

The turnaround has flummoxed Senate Republicans and conservatives. They say it is incredible that Democrats who have “undone 200-plus years of precedent†by filibustering nominees have managed to portray Republicans as “overreaching.†Republicans say eliminating the filibuster of nominees would merely restore Senate tradition. “They turned it around,†the aide said, and “one can suggest that it’s because of our lack of organized countermessaging.â€

This is clearly an issue the Republicans should be able to win on the merits. The idea that the president’s nominees should not be able to get a vote in a Republican majority Senate is simply bizarre. But arguing that Democrats are defying Jesus with their obstructionism is unlikely to turn this one around.

Update (1058): Steven Taylor adds,

I must confess to being somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that this is a division of the religious v. the irreligious, as that is false dichotomy. For one thing, the battle over the judiciary is about far more than issues of faith (translation in this context: about the social conservative agenda) but is, at its core, about how the Constitution and the laws of the land are interpreted. Of course, I will grant that legal theory would make for a less sexy event than one predicated on a war against faith.

To over simplify, the degree to which faith is the issue, it is about the views of many of the faithful on abortion. Clearly, Senate Democrats have decided that if a nominee is Catholic or an evangelical, then that person is dangerous vis-à-vis abortion rights, and therefore the nominee must be stopped. On balance, this appears to be the common thread that ties most of these nominees together.

He also has some thoughts on how well the ideas expressed by some who tout the Bible in their politics square with the teachings of a certain long-haired fellow from Nazareth.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, Law and the Courts, Religion, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. wavemaker says:

    Well I take some solace that those advising Senate Republicans are not listening in an echo chamber — but it’s a very risky calculated decision for Frist to cozy up so close to the CR in this manner.

  2. Anderson says:

    Frist’s appeal is that he appears above politics.

    Say what? You mean, Senator Frist?

    I guess you’re getting some heavy work out of “appears.”

  3. James Joyner says:

    Well, yes. He has crafted the image of a citizen-legislator who is still mainly a healer of men and only incidentally a politician.

    He’s not a great orator or particularly charismatic on camera. His selling point is that he’s not a sleazy partisan. If he gives that away, I don’t see what his hook is.

  4. bruhaha says:

    I agree that there is a danger here — especially since the MSM will interepret it (already is interpreting it!)very much the way YOU are, when you characterize it as “arguing that Democrats are defying Jesus”.

    No! The claim that a number of Democrats are, in fact, holding people’s faith against them is NOT the same as claiming that they are “defying Jesus”.

    Where were you you when Chuckie Schumer justified his opposition to Bush nominee Bill Pryor by telling us the problem was that Pryor, a devout Catholic had beliefs that he held too “deeply”?

    (Specifically: “His beliefs are so well known, so deeply held that it’s very hard to believe — very hard to believe — that they’re not going to deeply influence the way he comes about saying, ‘I will follow the law.'”)

    Of course, Schumer was not really objecting to the STRENGTH Of Pryor’s beliefs, but to their SUBSTANCE, which happen to disagre with Schumer’s own beliefs (above all concerning abortion, of course). He and his cohorts have not the slightest difficulty with strongly held beliefs that AGREE with their own.

    Sorry, my friends, but this IS a religious test certain Dem politicians are applying, and it is worthy of being unmasked

    The difficulty is, HOW can Frist (or any other Republican) appropriately point this out or counter it without slipping into thinking, or (more likely) simply creating the impression that his argument is about “defying Jesus”?

    In short, Frist is arguably correct on the facts, though this he may not be POLITICALLY wise to state it too directly.

  5. McGehee says:

    No! The claim that a number of Democrats are, in fact, holding people’s faith against them is NOT the same as claiming that they are “defying Jesus”.

    I agree. I really don’t think most Americans are going to see this the way you do, James.

    I don’t think this should be the main thrust of the argument against the Democrats’ position, but in conjunction with the other approaches you prefer, it’s going to help focus the attention of people who are more comfortable with questions of simple fairness than with the (to them) arcane rules of a house of Congress.

  6. GP says:

    I don’t understand how questioning whether a judge’s religious beliefs are going to lead him to ignore the law is religious bigotry.

    Judging is a difficult task that requires not only immense intelligence but the ability to make a good faith attempt to separate your own beliefs from the facts of any case. Like all of us, judges will of course be informed and shaped by their beliefs and values. There is nothing wrong with that as our strength as individuals comes from these beliefs and values. So we don’t want them to check their stength at the courthouse door. And as different administrations appoint judges with different perspectives we end of with a balance. The problem arises when judges purposely or negligently put their beliefs (mainstream or not) ahead of applying the law. This can happen with liberals and conservatives. Judge Moore in Alabama offered one of the most recent and brazen cases of this when he purposely defied the clear cut law and said religious law is higher than the man made laws he was to apply. Liberal judges can be accused of the same when they find rights in the law that weren’t intended.

    But to accuse Schumer and the other Democrats of bigotry because they ask the question is sick. Democrats may be unfairly targeting Pryor’s nomination to make a point about Bush’s appointment of extremely conservative judges or about Bush’s failure to follow protocol of seeking the advice of the opposing party’s leadership on judicial appointments. If so, that is bad. But I haven’t heard anything that leads me to believe these charges of religious bigotry are anything other than a slimy political maneuver designed to inflame the religious right and peg the Democrats as religion haters. It’s gross and will eventually backfire.

    The problem for Frist is that he is not Bush, who seems quite skilled at riding the fine line of playing to the religious right but do so in a way that makes him look mainstream. Frist simply hasn’t charisma or raw political talent to pull it off. While the religious right may like him (and get him the nomination), the majority of voters in a general election are not religious conservatives. They will be turned off. If Frist is the nominee, candidate Clinton might just become President Clinton Part Deux.

  7. Moneyrunner says:

    But to accuse Schumer and the other Democrats of bigotry because they ask the question is sick.

    But, my friend, they are not just asking the question, they are answering it. Based on their observations and their votes, it appears that people of faith, who truly believe in their faith, cannot receive Schumer’s approval because the does not believe that Christians can follow the law instead of their religious beliefs.

    I’m sorry, that is a religious test. Committed Christians fail that test because their faith instructs them that certain acts are wrong. How can you deny that?

  8. J.A.M. says:

    There is absolutely no question that the Democrats applied an illegal religious test at least in the case of Judge Pryor. He pledged to follow the law irrespective of personal beliefs, and absolutely no evidence to the contrary was presented.

  9. William says:

    “Im sorry, that is a religious test.”
    I would go further and say that that this is a values test that the senators are applying, but what is wrong with that? Senators have a right, rather a duty, to judge the judges based on whatever factors may affect their decisions, and if religion is such a factor, then it is fair game. Forcing the majority to pick the most impartial men to enforce our countries laws is not bigotry.

  10. McGehee says:

    I don’t understand how questioning whether a judge’s religious beliefs are going to lead him to ignore the law is religious bigotry.

    The assumption that religious judges — men and women who have been trained in the law — would ignore the law, doesn’t strike you as similar in substance to an assumption that a man whose skin is darker than someone else’s, might be more likely to go insane with lust and rape one’s daughter?

    ‘Cause it does strike me that way.

  11. Linda from Whittier, CA says:

    I find it bizzare that the Majority Leader cannot speak at a conference of some of his biggist supporters. It seems to send all the secularists into hysterical (as Hugh Hewitt says)relgiousrightititus. Seems that some of you supposedly on our side have the same desease. I know most of the secularists think that the 40% of us who attend church regularly should just show up vote the way you want then sit down and shut up. Sorry it doesn’t work that way. This namby pamby “stay away from the religious people” is disgusting and idiotic. We are not trying to legislate Jesus, but we are not going to give into the religious biggotry from our side or from the DEMS.

  12. Sydney Carton says:

    Schumer isn’t the only one doing it:

    “No Catholics Need Apply
    By David Holman
    Published 4/15/2005 12:08:16 AM
    Washington special interest groups — notorious for their anti-religious hostility toward conservatives — are conducting a coordinated smear campaign against Scott Bloch, George Bush’s appointee to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which reviews and refers whistleblower disclosures to agency heads. In an interview with TAS, Pete Leon, legislative director for Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who has called for Bloch’s resignation, revealed the fundamental anti-religious bigotry at the heart of the campaign. Articulating his objections to Bloch, Leon said, “He is a devout Catholic,” then quickly added, after he realized his gaffe, the famously insincere line from Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

    And now the libetarians in the blogosphere are doing it too, because I suppose religious people are getting too “uppity.” Where have I heard that before? And why the constant use of the smear-word THEOCRAT by so-called mainstream bloggers like Instapundit? Perhaps all of this bigotry is being exposed for what it is.

  13. jt007 says:

    It is unbelievable to me how many people are threatened by the Christian religion. All over the blogosphere people who I have come to respect as logical and fair minded have distorted the purpose of Frist’s appearance on this telecast. Neither Frist nor anyone else is making the claim that the Democrats’ use of the filibuster somehow shows that the Democrats are not on the side of God. That is a distortion and the people who are propagating that falsehood are either dishonest or stupid.

    On the contrary, Frist is confronting the reality that certain nominees, not all of them, have been filibustered because of their religious affiliation and beliefs. Glenn Reynolds and everyone else can pretend otherwise, but Charles Schumer and the other Democrat trolls on the Judiciary Committee have explicitly stated that they object to certain candidates because of their “deeply held beliefs.” Case in point, William Pryor. He is a devout Christian, but as the Alabama AG, he has a track record of enforcing laws that he doesn’t personally agree with. He is the public official who enforced the court order removing the ten commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building. He has also enforced Alabama laws ensuring a woman’s right to an abortion even though he is pro-life. He has done nothing professionally that would warrant the filibuster. Democrats are just using him as a Christian bogeyman to hold up to their liberal elitist, People for the American Way constituents as a bigoted Christian that they are protecting us from. Frist is correct that Democrats don’t want Pryor and several others on the bench because of their “deeply held beliefs.” Quit misstating the claims made by Frist and stop pretending that Democrats haven’t done what they have admitted to doing.

    Why is it that people who consider themselves moderate Republicans or Libertarians are as repulsed by Christians as are Democrats. Get over it.

  14. William says:

    Stop putting this in a purely religious context. The democrats are not trying to keep anyone who goes to church out of the judiciary. They are merely being picky as to what kind of judges they want, and having approved near record amounts of judge nominees, they have the right to do that. There is no urgency to nominate judges, so why rush the evaluation process? Perhaps it is not that they find one nominee bad but, on the contrary, believe another would be better. Senators have the right to decide that someone would not make a good judge, whatever the reason, and act on that decision. That is why they must be approved.

  15. Half Sigma says:

    The divide between Democrats and Republicans is becoming more about religion and less about economics. Unfortunately.

  16. Just Me says:

    “I don’t understand how questioning whether a judge’s religious beliefs are going to lead him to ignore the law is religious bigotry.”

    Well wondering, and assuming are two different things. If the person answers that they will follow the law, and you decide that their religious beliefs are too deeply held, and makes them unqualified because of it, then you have effectively created a religious test, and that my friends is unconstitutional-not just unethical or offensive.

  17. William says:

    Half Sigma has a very good point, it is sad that religion is being abused as a political difference, a way to say “I’m better than you” and this is also why atleast I am afraid of the growing christian participation in politics. Not because I believe they’re evil (I’m a Christian), but because whereas before it was “who’s going to do the best to make our nation better”, now it seems it is “who’s going to do the best to bring our nation in line with God”. Please correct me if I am wrong, but if this is true, then there remain good reasons to seperate religion and government.