To listen to some of the commentary coming out of Washington these days,
you'd think Armageddon is just around the corner.
No, not the Armageddon that might presage the End of Days. Instead, the great
battle being discussed is the anticipated showdown in the U.S. Senate between
the majority Republicans and the minority Democrats over the rules under
which they will vote to confirm federal judges.
Bipartisan hypocrisy reigns in Washington, as Republicans who once used
procedural grounds to stall Democratic nominations to the court under the Clinton
administration now piously say that the only thing they want is a fair
up-or-down vote on potential judges.
They're all in favor of a fair vote all right, because at the moment, that's
the tactic that favors their nominees.
At the same time, Democrats who only a few years ago (when they were in
control of both Houses of Congress and the White House, as the Republicans are now)
blasted the filibuster as an undemocratic tool of racist reactionaries now
embrace it wholeheartedly.
If the tables turn and the Democrats get back in control of Congress, you can
bet the ranch that they'll be denouncing GOP filibusters as quickly as most
of Newt Gingrich's band of Republican revolutionaries dropped support for term
limits once they tasted the power of incumbency.
But the truly disconcerting part of this story is the way religion has been
used in it by both sides.
Most obvious, has been the rhetoric religious conservatives have employed in
their opposition to what they perceive as a liberal judiciary. To speak, as
some on the right have, of their opponents as being "against people of faith"
was both extreme and unfair.
All of this lends credence to those on the left, who are stoking fears that
the real agenda of the Christian right is theocracy, and that the ultimate
stakes in the endless bickering between the two parties isn't policy but the fate
of democracy itself.
Though religious minorities such as the Jews have legitimate fears about
preserving their rights, the drumbeat of incitement alleging that mainstream
religious conservatives want to destroy all our constitutional freedoms is partisan
hype, not reality.
The truth is, for all of their election victories, the so-called "morality
voters" who are thought to have re-elected Bush and the Republican Congress are
losing the culture wars.
Turn anywhere, and you can readily see that it is liberal secularism that's
winning. Look at the content of television and movies, at the court decisions
on issues like gay marriage, and what you see is a religious right that's
steadily losing ground, not gaining it.
As much as liberal and secular Jews fear that their status as equal citizens
would be jeopardized by the triumph of religious conservatives, religious
conservatives view the world very differently.
They see their values being marginalized. And even though they can still
claim a majority on such issues as gay marriage, they know the culture is changing
to the point where even the expression of opposition to this measure is
starting to be viewed as bigotry that doesn't deserve the protection of the law.
The point about the rise of the religious right is that it has been a purely
reactive movement engendered by liberal victories in the courtrooms rather
than at the ballot boxes. And so, while many of us are still thankful that the
courts have, for example, outlawed mandatory sectarian prayers in public
schools, we should not be surprised when those who disagree on this or other issues
seek redress through free speech and the election of like-minded candidates to
office. They are no more theocrats than all liberals are socialists.
The problem is that neither the left nor the right encounter each other much
anymore, except on TV talk-show screaming matches. So right-wingers are free
to wrongly think all liberals are Hollywood idol-worshippers and left-wingers
find it easy to believe their cherished myths that all conservatives are
That's why it is so discouraging to see some in the Jewish community allowing
themselves to be co-opted into this debate as partisan foils.
There is a good deal of hypocrisy here, too, as those on the Jewish left
which is busy trying so far unsuccessfully to mobilize mainstream Jewish
groups to fight against the Republicans claim a religious mandate for their
policy stands on a host of issues while accusing the religious right of
attempting to legislate morality via dictatorship.
What separates religious liberals who claim the Torah mandates one level of
taxation as kosher and that lower rates of spending are, by implication,
immoral from those who claim God wants them to confirm conservative judges?
Nothing, except their belief in the righteousness of their own motives. Both
view themselves as embattled defenders of decency against barbarian hordes.
Self-styled Jewish progressives often speak of themselves as inheriting the
mantle of the prophets, but if they would only listen to their foes, they'd find
them saying the same thing. What both really have in common is the idea that
their opponents are inherently illegitimate.
And this is exactly the ideological dead-end we should avoid. Neither party
as the Republicans are learning benefit from identifying themselves as
primarily a force for religious sectarians. Nor, as the Democrats have learned, do
they benefit from being perceived as the party against religious expression
in the public square.
Faith and values have a legitimate place in our debates. But delegitimizing
those who disagree with us does not.
Yes, this is a serious fight with implications for the future of the
judiciary. But, though it spoils the fun for the rabid partisans to say so, the
republic will survive with or without a filibuster.
We have enough problems sorting out self-righteous Republicans and Democrats.
If our political life must be conducted as an endless Armageddon, let us at
least try not to gratuitously drag our churches or synagogues into it.