During the first day of questioning at his Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts was asked about his religious views by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif.
"In 1960," she noted, "there was much debate about President John F. Kennedy's faith and what role Catholicism would play in his administration. At that time, he pledged to address the issues of conscience out of a focus on the national interests, not out of adherence to the dictates of one's religion." She quoted JFK as saying, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," and then delivered what was supposed to be a hard-hitting coup de grace: "My question is: Do you?"
Roberts replied with the usual fog of generalities we've come to expect from Supreme Court nominees, while Sen. Feinstein tried to press him into saying he either did or didn't believe in an "absolute" separation between church and state. The incandescently clear implication of her remarks and questioning is that she'd prefer it if Judge Roberts did hold that there should be an "absolute" wall between all things religious and all things governmental.
Now, the funny part was that Sen. Feinstein had been sitting there just a little while earlier when Judge Roberts had been administered the oath to tell the truth "so help me God." She'd also sat there when he'd been asked by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., about the oath he took when he was sworn in as an appellate judge and the oath he'd take again when/if he's confirmed. It goes in part like this "I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as (title of position) under the Constitution and the laws of the United States, so help me God."
Why didn't Sen. Feinstein cry "foul"? Why didn't she say "Whoa, whoa, whoa! There will be no God-talk here"?
This is, after all, a heartfelt conviction on Sen. Feinstein's part. For example, in 2003, she was very upset to learn that Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr. - Bush's nominee to the 11th circuit court of appeals - had once told a Catholic high school that while the "American experiment is not a theocracy and does not establish an official religion" the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are "rooted in a Christian perspective."
"What," Sen. Feinstein asked Pryor at hearings on his nomination, "are others to think of that statement as to how you would maintain something that is important to this plural society, and that is an absolute separation of church and state?"
The reality, of course, is that not even Sen. Feinstein believes that there should be an "absolute" wall between religion and state. If she did, she would be aligning herself alongside the legal pest Michael Newdow, who recently won a big victory in his one-man war to create a truly absolute wall when he got another court this week to rule that having the words "under god" in the pledge of allegiance is unconstitutional. But she's not. Why? Probably because she knows that would be politically stupid and because she thinks Newdow's position is stupid on the merits.
Feinstein also would have objected when John Kerry insisted during the presidential campaign that his religious faith is "why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice."
And she might even go so far as to denounce the Reverend(!) Martin Luther King Jr. for his entire civil rights project, which was so thoroughly rooted in religious faith that if you tried to remove it, there would be virtually nothing left.
Look: The view that the Constitution was ever intended to create an atheistic political culture is so universally recognized as ahistorical claptrap, it's become almost a cliche to debunk it.
The real issue is more complicated. In recent years, conservatives have used religion in good faith and bad, reasonably and unreasonably, to assert their political agenda. Lately, liberals have started to do the same thing, arguing that a "proper" religious attitude requires support for the welfare state, environmentalism and the like. Some conservatives are dismissive, others appalled.
But the reality is that liberals claiming God is on their side is the norm. As with Martin Luther King Jr., the liberal tradition in America has often been suffused with religiosity. When I hear self-described "progressives" talk about purging religion from public life, I wonder if they've ever even read a single book on the history of progressivism in America. If they have, it must have been one with all the chapters on the Social Gospel, Christian Socialism, Jane Addams and Woodrow Wilson ripped out. Progressives then, and today, never objected to the use of God in public arguments. They merely objected to the claim that God disagreed with them.
The most charitable thing one can say about Sen. Feinstein is that she's continuing in that tradition by claiming that religious doctrines that lead to policies she dislikes - i.e. abortion - have no place in public life. But religious convictions that support causes she likes are just fine. It's a double standard, but that's the American way.