A Faith-Based Nomination

Terry Eastland | The Weekly Standard | Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Faith-Based Nomination

IT WAS EARLY ON THE first Monday in October, two hours before the Supreme Court heard its first case of the new term, that President Bush announced the nomination of Harriet Miers to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. That evening, James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, a vast evangelical ministry based in Colorado Springs, came out strongly in favor of the choice. On Fox News, Dobson conceded he hadn't met Miers, but said he could support her nomination because the president had appointed high-quality judges and thus could be trusted to make another good choice. "Beyond that," he said, "I do know things that I am not prepared to talk about here."

That comment, surely not in the White House talking points, led Senate Democrats to wonder whether Miers might have made commitments to her sponsors as to how she would decide certain cases. And so on Tuesday, the second day of her young and already controversial nomination, she found herself having to assure the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, that she had spoken to no one about how she might vote.

What "things," then, does Dobson know? "There are some things we learned about her Christian commitment," an aide to Dobson told me, speaking not for attribution. And those things very likely are among the ones that within 48 hours of her nomination were being widely reported. The stories relied on sources authorized by the handlers of the Miers nomination, who also spoke to evangelical leaders. Those sources include Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht and Miers's pastor, Ron Key, who both are from Dallas, the nominee's hometown. Both are longtime friends and share her Christian faith, which, like the president's, is that of an evangelical Protestant.

Born in Dallas in 1945, Miers graduated from Hillcrest High School, then took her undergraduate degree (in mathematics) and her law degree at Southern Methodist University, not more than a ten-minute drive from Hillcrest. After clerking for a federal district judge, she joined a prestigious Dallas firm, Locke Purnell Boren Laney & Neely, where she soon made partner, specializing in commercial litigation. For Miers, however, career success only went so far, says Hecht, then a junior lawyer at Locke Purnell. "She began thinking about what's important--what do I want to believe and what will give me meaning."

Miers had grown up going to Catholic and Episcopal churches, but her faith had yet to acquire depth, says Hecht, who likely is the person Dobson was referring to last week when he told the New York Times, "I know the person who brought her to the Lord." In 1979, during one of evidently many conversations with Hecht about ultimate questions, Miers decided to become a believer--in the well-known evangelical vernacular, to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. "I was with her at the time," says Hecht, and the question came up about where she might go to church. "I said, 'Why don't you come with me to my church?'" She did, and soon she was baptized (full immersion) and became a member of Valley View Christian Church, in North Dallas.

Ron Key became pastor of Valley View in 1972, eight years after its founding. Christian Churches like Valley View are descended from the early nineteenth century Restorationist Movement, so-called because of its intention to restore New Testament teaching about the church. Valley View is part of what Key calls "a loose confederation" of Christian Churches known as the North American Christian Convention. It was formed in 1927, at a time when Protestant churches generally were dividing along theologically progressive and conservative lines. The conservatives among the restorationists called themselves "independents," and the North American Christian Convention amounted to a declaration of their independence from the liberal programs and doctrines of the (also restorationist) Disciples of Christ. The convention has not evolved into a denomination (which is why Valley View describes itself as "nondenominational") and remains still simply a fellowship of like-minded churches whose doctrines are within the mainstream of American evangelicalism. As a visitor to www.vvcc.org can see, the church believes in the Bible as "the only infallible, inspired, authoritative Word of God" and that "to receive Christ is to believe in Jesus as God's Son and Savior of the world, repent of personal sin, confess Christ publicly and be baptized."

Valley View teaches certain moral views that it believes are grounded in the Bible. Most notably, it is pro-life and opposes same-sex marriage. But Key says that the church doesn't treat those matters in isolation. "The major issue is Jesus Christ," he says, and "the need to lift him up" and for people to "walk with Christ" in their own personal lives. It would be hard to imagine many attending Valley View for two decades as Miers did who hold different views on such questions. Several friends of Miers told me, on background, that she is pro-life and defines marriage in traditional terms.

By the accounts of Hecht and Key, Miers was a quite active member of Valley View. "She went every single Sunday" before moving to Washington to work in the White House, says Hecht, adding that when the church had Sunday night and Wednesday night services, she attended those as well. At one point she taught a Sunday night class for first, second, and third graders. She also served on the missions committee in a church to which missions--with an annual budget of $500,000--are very important. Miers participated in decisions that helped fund Bible translators, orphanages, colleges, and seminaries. Key says the committee met weekly. "With so many missions, it was very time-consuming for her," he told me. She also served as the church's legal counsel.

At the moment, Valley View is experiencing a painful division over matters of governance and worship, and a group has left to form a new church, yet to be named. Hecht, a former elder at Valley View, is part of that group, and Key, whom the church's elders recently discharged, has been preaching at services held for now in a North Dallas hotel. Hecht says Miers is part of the new church, which has the same doctrines as Valley View. "We believe just like they do," says Key.

That Bush has picked for the Court an evangelical Protestant isn't surprising. This is not to say he chose her for that reason, and Bush aides deny that he did. Bush has a record of giving new tasks to people he has long known and trusts. Miers falls into that small category (others include Alberto Gonzales and Karen Hughes), and she isn't there on account of any religious test. Still, Supreme Court justices do come from somewhere, religiously speaking. And given that evangelicals make up a growing share of the population, and given, too, that evangelicals in far greater numbers identify with the GOP than the Democratic party, you'd expect that at some point a Republican president would tap for the Court a lawyer who happened to be an evangelical. Of course, in Bush, we're not talking about any Republican president but one for whom the evangelical designation is apt, his life turning around after a mid-life "recommitment" to Christ, who, as he put it during his first run for the presidency, "changed my heart." Suffice it to say, Bush hardly finds evangelical faith a disqualification for office.

Nor is it surprising that Miers is an evangelical Protestant from Dallas. Three years ago Christianity Today claimed, in a cover story, that Dallas had become "The New Capital of Evangelicalism." Anyone who's lived there (and I grew up in Dallas) will find it hard to argue with that. The magazine reported that Dallas "has more megachurches, megaseminaries, and mega-Christian [meaning evangelical] activity than any other American city." Valley View, with 1,000 members, is big as evangelical churches in Dallas go, but it is hardly a megachurch. And the creation of a new church out of Valley View is a common phenomenon in a city that has experienced enormous church growth--especially of the evangelical variety--over the past half century.

Since coming to Washington, Miers has stayed in close touch with her Dallas friends and constantly asks for their prayers, says Key. She apparently has not found a church in the North American Christian Convention to attend. As is common among evangelicals, she has gone to several churches. Key says she most often goes to St. John's Episcopal, which is across from the White House. Hecht says she also has attended National Cathedral and National Presbyterian. The first two churches are by no means evangelical in theology, but evangelicals sometimes show up for their services. For example, Bush often goes to St. John's. One might think Miers goes there merely because of her commitment and loyalty to Bush. Key says the reason she attends is that St. John's, like Valley View, offers communion every Sunday, and "she believes it is important to have communion" that often.

In that Fox News interview, Dobson said, "There has not been an appointee to the Supreme Court who is an evangelical Christian to my knowledge in decades," and "it is refreshing that one could even be considered." If confirmed, Miers would be the Court's only evangelical Protestant, and arguably she would be the first since the advent of modern evangelicalism almost a century ago. (Clarence Thomas is the only competitor for the latter designation. When he went on the Court, he was a member of a charismatic Episcopal church that describes itself as evangelical. A few years later he went back to the Catholic church of his formative years.) Dobson isn't the only evangelical leader to see Miers in historical terms. Jay Sekulow, counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said last week in an interview with Pat Robertson that the Miers nomination represented "a big opportunity for those of us who . . . share an evangelical faith in Christianity to see someone with our positions put on the court."

The administration has encouraged the transmission of messages like these to evangelical leaders. Indeed, an exercise in religious identity politics can be glimpsed. But a question this early in the confirmation process is whether it will work--in particular, whether the evangelicals who are key constituents in the Republican coalition will come alive with excitement about a nominee whom some conservatives openly criticize and key Republican senators, such as Sam Brownback and John Thune, himself an evangelical, have yet to endorse.

The problem for Bush a week after announcing his choice of Miers stems from the fact that it is entirely possible for someone to hold moral (or religious, for that matter) views that are deemed conservative, yet to approach judging in ways that are at odds with the judicial conservatism that the president himself says he wants in a jurist. That is why what people most need to know about Miers is how she thinks about the law and the role of the courts--a question not easy to answer given the nature of her legal career and the brevity of her encounters with federal constitutional law. The president is asking conservatives--including the evangelicals among them--to trust him as to Miers's fitness in all respects for the High Court.

Not every evangelical leader has decided so to trust--Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have expressed doubts about the nomination. And there is off-the-record anxiety. "People are mystified," one prominent evangelical told me, "that [the president] wouldn't go to the max" and nominate a clear exemplar of his judicial philosophy. "A lot of people are nervous." Dobson himself reflected that nervousness last Wednesday, the third day after the announcement of Miers's nomination, when he used his own talk show to confess to an "agonized heart" and to pray about whether he had made the right decision with his early endorsement.


Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.