By many measures, liberal Catholics outnumber conservatives in the United States; but in the American political system of state-by-state, winner-take-all presidential elections, small electoral shifts can have huge consequences. During the past election, then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger wrote a letter to the American bishops while the electoral campaign was in progress instructing them to deny Communion to any Catholic candidate who was unwilling to criminalize abortion. Ratzinger’s letter did not win anything close to unanimous consent even among the American bishops, yet Ratzinger had succeeded in creating a large and public question about John Kerry’s status as a Roman Catholic. The resulting shift within the Catholic portion of the American electorate was small in absolute numbers, just six percent, yet large enough to turn the election in Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico. Arguably, then, Ratzinger won the election for Bush.
Today, the United States faces an unprecedented Bush Administration effort to use religion to bring about one-party rule in the United States, and once again American Catholics may provide the margin of victory. The Republicans seek to eliminate effective Democratic opposition by what they call—all too unmistakably—the “nuclear option.” Step one is the elimination of the filibuster in the Senate, a rule that permits forty of the one hundred senators to block certain measures such as, crucially, the appointment of judges. Here the Republican strategy is to claim that it is hatred of religion that has moved the Democrats to oppose these judicial candidates. A special Republican-sponsored television special entitled “The Filibuster Against People of Faith” aired on Sunday, April 24, just as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was preparing to call for a vote to kill the filibuster. Evangelical Protestants have led the way in this effort to portray Democrats as enemies of God, but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has now lent invaluable support to the effort in a mass mailing of postcards to parishioners, postcards timed to yield constituent letters just as the matter comes to a vote.
If the Republicans succeed, they will not just have crushed Democratic opposition within the Senate but through this victory will be en route to a dramatic weakening of the independent judiciary. Tom DeLay, the ultra-conservative Republican majority leader of the House of Representatives, recently said, defiantly, to a group of reporters: “We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse.” In an audio recording obtained by the Los Angeles Times of Protestant leaders at a private meeting, the most influential among them, James C. Dobson, provided chilling detail: “Very few people know this, that the Congress can simply disenfranchise a court. They don’t have to fire anybody or impeach them or go through that battle. All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s gone.” At issue, then, is not just the ratification or rejection of proposed candidates for the bench but the dismissal of judges and the dissolution of courts if rulings do not pass religiopolitical muster.
No successful putsch ever announces itself as such. The putsch likely to be attempted soon will be presented as a simple rule change, and it will succeed unless at least six Republican senators dare to break with the radicalism of the Bush Administration and join with all forty-five Democratic senators to defeat it: Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, John McCain? The roster of the brave is ominously short.
Last January, Fritz Stern—a German emigre historian who witnessed the rise of Nazism—was asked by Jordan Mejias, an editor with the Frankfurter allgemeine Zeitung, whether the United States could ever become an authoritarian state. Stern, who has steadfastly resisted facile comparisons, replied: “To be brief, my hope is that the real conservatives of this country may catch fire, the ones who regard civil rights and the Constitution as fundamental, and that on those grounds they may rise up against the foreign and domestic excesses of this administration and say, finally: ‘No! You are not going to get away with this!’ Three or four senators could be enough to turn the tide.” But will there be even that many?
And the German pope? In what mood does he witness the rising threat to democracy within the United States itself? During the presidential election, John Kerry’s deep reservations about the invasion of Iraq placed him closer in spirit to John Paul II, who had denounced the invasion, than his opponent was. Prima facie, each candidate had an issue that he could exploit to claim the Pope as an ally. But Josef Ratzinger would have nothing of such even-handedness. “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,” the future pope wrote to the American bishops. “There may be legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
What his letter suggested was that if Bush gave Rome what it wanted on the abortion issue and the (now strategically inflamed) euthanasia issue, Rome would do its best to give Bush what he wanted regarding the death penalty and, above all, war. The question that arises now is whether Rome is offering a similar deal with the American Constitution itself at stake. If Bush will yield to Rome on abortion and euthanasia, Rome will do what it can to turn American Catholics against the filibuster. The fact that only a minority of the country’s Catholics will be reached by this is less than decisive. The minority, now as in the past election, may make the difference.