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The Petrification of John McCain

Today's post is from Frederick S. Lane, author of The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right's Crusade to Reshape the Supreme Court. Lane is an expert witness, lecturer, and author who has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC, and MSNBC. His next book will be People in Glass Houses: American Law, Technology, and the Right to Privacy (Beacon 2009). For additional information, please visit www.FrederickLane.com.

LaneThe Religious Right has successfully spent the last thirty years putting the fear of God into Republican presidential candidates. Those who deviate from the evangelical political liturgy are threatened with the special purgatory of corporate golf games and Viagra ads reserved for unsuccessful Republican nominees. And of all the hymns aspirants are required to memorize, none is more sacred than "A Mighty Fortress Are Strict Constructionists."

If there was one candidate who gave the impression that he could carve his own path to the nomination, it was Senator John McCain. The Senator, after all, is a bona fide war hero whose military service and survival of years of imprisonment is eloquent testimony to his personal courage. Eight years ago, when contesting the nomination with George W. Bush, Senator McCain spoke and acted like a candidate confident he could prevail without kneeling at the altar of religious or political extremism.

But McCain is 71 years old now, and is showing all the symptoms of Stage III Potomac Fever, a highly contagious disease that typically infects Senators, Governors, and the odd (occasionally VERY odd) billionaire or Ohio Congressman. Stage I is that moment when someone looks in the mirror and says "I could be President!" In Stage II, the trappings of power or wealth lead to a slow ossification of creativity and political idealism. But Stage III is the saddest development: outright petrification, marked largely by the grinding fear that the White House might be slipping away.

This diagnosis stems in large part from the May 6 speech on judicial philosophy that Senator McCain delivered, with undoubtedly conscious symbolism, in the chapel of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His remarks were well-received by the people sitting in the pews in front of him, but as is so often the case for Republican candidates, his real audience was the leaders of the Religious Right.

With each succeeding paragraph, the Senator made it abundantly clear that a once flexible and even maverick politician has lost all resistance to the threats of evangelical indifference in November. He decried the "common and systematic abuse of our federal courts" by judges and accused them of ignoring the authority of Congress and the President (which lately, of course, has been devoted to such salutary activities as wiretapping, waterboarding, and whitewashing). He criticized the Supreme Court's reference to "evolving standards of decency" in the global community as one reason for rejecting the death penalty for children, and warned that "litigious people seek to rid our country of any trace of religious devotion." The right to privacy, which undergirds not only Roe v. Wade but so many other critical aspects of our society, was dismissed as an "airy construct."

The correct answer to these errors, McCain essentially said, is the nomination and confirmation of more Supreme Court justices like John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and William Rehnquist.

McCain's speech could easily have been written by Jay Sekulow at Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice or Tony Perkins at James Dobson's Family Research Council. While somewhat short on specifics, Senator McCain's speech makes it unequivocally clear that not only is the Religious Right unsatisfied with the changes it has wrought so far on the judiciary, but that McCain himself believes that a Faustian bargain with the evangelical wing of his party is the Potomac Fever cure he seeks.

In the coming year, it will be made abundantly clear just how much ground already the Religious Right has covered in its campaign to reshape the courts, and just how dangerous McCain's new-found fervor for strict constructionists might be. Evangelicals, for instance, are fervently defending the right of Pleasant Grove City, Utah, to discriminate in favor of a granite Ten Commandment monument on public property. The Supreme Court will resolve the issue during its next term, and the recent additions of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Court make it significantly more likely that the governmental display of the Christian Commandments will be approved.

If Senator John McCain is in a position to carry through on his promise to appoint additional justices like Roberts and Alito, the Ten Commandments monument will be the pebble that triggers the avalanche.

At risk are many of the pillars of a modern, pluralistic society: a woman's control over her body, freedom from government-directed prayer in public schools, a fact-based approach to scientific theory, and ultimately, the separation of church and state. And that's just the starting place: A small but disturbingly influential dominionist segment of the Religious Right actually advocates for a judicial system based on Old Testament principles, up to and including communal stoning for those convicted of such offenses as blasphemy, infidelity, homosexuality, and abortion (either obtaining or providing one).

There is no reason to think that Senator McCain himself feared an actual stoning, even from the Right's most ardently dominionist faction, if he failed to preach the gospel of strict constructionism.

But what obviously petrified the Senator and his advisors is the prospect, on Election Day, of millions of religious conservatives sitting at home in stony silence.

You may also want to check out these posts: Happy Birthday Justice Stevens and Charlton Heston and the Separation of Church and State.