By Kate Hawley
Two days after “Justice Sunday,” the reviews are in: the Church telecast starring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) that sought to end the use of a filibuster to block judicial nominees was, “a big mistake,” “misbegotten,” “fully ideological, largely partisan,” “shameful,” “a distressing new low,” a “grotesque religio-political circus,” and finally, “almost too stupid to rebut.” Almost, but not quite.
Columnist Cal Thomas was one of the few to complain, “Why is the republic in danger only when conservative religious people speak and act? Why are only conservatives seeking to impose a ‘theocracy’ and liberals are never charged with such motives?”
The media’s largely negative reaction should come as no surprise — “Justice Sunday” was an easy target. Asserting that Democrats’ efforts to block conservative judges through a filibuster amounts to discrimination against “people of faith” is contradictory, even, some argued, hypocritical. For one thing, cloaking one’s own highly politicized religious group with such a broad moniker as “people of faith” looks like a bit of a stretcher. The press, often baffled by religious language and behavior, at last had something to jump on. Hypocrisy is familiar territory to any muckraking journalist, and so is speaking truth to power (in this case, conservative Christians angling for more political power). For that matter, so is the charge of discrimination, which makes the gray penumbra of theology and belief more manageable.
At best, the press accused Frist, who may be angling for a presidential run in 2008, of political miscalculation. Even self-confessed James Dobson fan, John Leo of U.S. News and World Report, predicted that “Justice Sunday” would “play into the hands of those who like to toss around the word “theocrats” and who would like to change the subject from filibusters to issues of church and state.” Dobson at al., clever media strategists that they are, must know this. And perhaps the vitriol of the mainstream press biting back at “Justice Sunday” will bolster that Christian conservative refrain: evangelicals are persecuted, see?
And they may be winning a subtler battle. Merely by staging an event like “Justice Sunday,” there is certain language that, via the media, begins to enter the cultural bloodstream. Take the title of the event itself, or its subtitle, “people of faith” (phrases which by themselves mean almost nothing). Whether a writer is propagating them, debunking them or merely repeating them, he or she has allowed them to become a reference point. As Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff has written, conservatives are good at setting the terms of public debate by skillful manipulation of language.
One such manipulation may be the notion that the religious right is a monolith. The movement is so good at presenting a unified front that it’s possible to forget it’s not solely composed of mini-Falwells and Dobsons, propagating in lock-step the views of their leaders throughout the land. One angle few reporters pursued is how “Justice Sunday” reverberated throughout the far right. It’s a sizeable movement; some degree of diversity is inevitable. Frequently, the media relies on the religious right’s powers of self-definition, instead of illuminating its inconsistencies, both human and organizational.
Slate magazine, in a partial exception to this rule, pointed out that the goal of “Justice Sunday” doesn’t make much sense. Republicans may want that filibuster back pretty soon. They’ve certainly used it to their advantage before.
Many things about the religious right don’t seem to make sense to those on the secular side of the American political fence; but just because something appears irrational, it should not go unmediated.