Monday, May 14, 2007

Bush, Constitutional Threats, and the Christian Right

That the Bush administration is disturbingly power hungry is amply documented in a recent article, "The Assault on the Constitution: Executive Power and the War on Terrorism," by Erwin Chemerinsky in the UC Davis Law Review. While some Christian Right leaders sleep tight in the secure knowledge that the brightly burning Bush has God's help in illuminating the shadows of terror; others fear it is the flames of a new witch hunt prophesizing ungodly dangers.

So some of us who work to defend and extend civil liberties in the United States find ourselves in coalitions with Christian Right staff and ideologues inside the beltway; and sometimes outside the beltway in that vast area between New York and Los Angeles often overlooked by DC policy wonks. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and some of us have struggled with the questions surrounding such coalition work. Where are the proper boundaries for even limited cooperation?

There is a real danger facing civil libertarians (and all of us!) under the Bush Administration. Chemerinsky, a Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law, warns that

"Throughout American history, the government's response to threats has been repression. The war on terrorism is now over four years old and shows no signs of abating. Authorities have imprisoned some individuals without due process for nearly that long and have given no indication about possible release. These detentions have lasted longer than either World War I or World War II. In addition, the loss of freedom to average citizens has been enormous and, most disturbingly, there is no reason to believe that the country has been made any safer by the loss of liberty."
Serendipity brought me the Chemerinsky article; my son is on the board of editors of the UC Davis Law Review and sent me a copy. As it happens, Chemerinsky and I are both on the board of advisors to the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DEFCON). We were bombarded with e-mails from supporters of Dr. James Dobson after DEFCON criticized Dobson's refusal to find a problem in his being used as a shill in a questionable lobbying campaign cooked up by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

At the same time, I was on the board of a group, now renamed the Defending Dissent Foundation, with a DC staff person who found herself at meetings with representatives of several Christian Right groups such as Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. This wing of the Christian Right was worried about civil liberties, executive power, and political repression.

As is often the case, Justice Louis D. Brandeis summarized the issue in elegant (if dated) language:

"Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."
--Justice Louis D. Brandeis, dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 479 (1928)

One reason to see the complexity in the various sectors of the Christian Right is that there are times when some of us find ourselves on the same side of an issue.

If our typical response to the Christian Right is to use alarmist and demonizing rhetoric, we miss opportunities for parallel tactical activities toward a common goal, even if we are reluctant (for good reason) to form long-term strategic coalitions.


Erwin Chemerinsky, "The Assault on the Constitution: Executive Power and the War on Terrorism," UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2006: pp. 3-20.