Filibuster on the Cross

Why the Christian right would be nuts to eliminate the filibuster.

I stand with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in favoring elimination of the filibuster. As I explained in an earlier column (and elaborated in a radio debate with Slate editor Jacob Weisberg), the filibuster is anti-democratic because it thwarts the will of the Senate majority by routinely requiring a 60-vote supermajority to bring legislation and nominations to the Senate floor. This is more or less what Frist said in yesterday’s “Justice Sunday” speech, which Christian conservatives broadcast yesterday to hundreds of like-minded churches. (To watch the video, click here.) “I don’t think it’s radical to ask senators to vote,” Frist said. Frist isn’t willing to extend the “simple majority rules” principle beyond judicial nominations, but it’s entirely logical to do so, and if Frist succeeds it will only be a matter of time before the filibuster is eliminated for legislation, too. I’m all for it.

What I can’t figure out is why the Christian right is for it, too. “This simulcast would not be necessary if the Senate’s most liberal members would distance themselves from the interest groups that hold them in thrall,” says an April 23 statement by Tony Perkins, president of FRC Action, the Family Research Council’s lobbying arm. But if any special-interest group is playing a role in the battle over Bush’s judicial nominations, it’s the Christian right itself. The Christers’ failure to recognize that their policies appeal only to a minority of the electorate has led them to favor a Senate rule change that would damage their interests severely over the long term.

Support for the filibuster, remember, is premised on the idea that the government shouldn’t be susceptible to the tyranny of the majority. But I find very little evidence to support the idea that majority opinion in the United States is particularly tyrannical. The real problem in American politics, if you ask me, is the tyranny of the minority—or rather, of a variety of different minorities, known collectively as interest groups, which use a variety of means (including the filibuster) to exert power beyond their number. That’s true going back to the origins of the republic, when a minority of slaveholders in the South managed to exert their will over the rest of the country. Today, the most powerful interest group, or at least the most obnoxious, is the Christian right.

I will grant that right now a Senate majority favors confirming many of Bush’s judicial appointees and that these appointees tend to hold views of which the Christian right would approve. But that hardly constitutes a Christian-right majority, even in the grotesquely unrepresentative Senate. Republicans and even some Democrats tend to cut the president some slack on nominations in general and judicial nominations in particular; that explains why there hasn’t been much filibustering of judicial nominees in the past. (Though Frist is not truthful when he suggests that the filibustering of a judicial nominee is unprecedented; in 1968, Senate Republicans filibustered President Lyndon Johnson’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas for Chief Justice.)

The Christian right has long entertained the fantasy that it represents a “moral majority,” to borrow the name of Jerry Falwell’s former group, but it’s well-documented that most Americans do not share its views. The best illustration of this is that a majority of Americans continue to oppose making abortions illegal. Or take homosexuality. Although polls typically show that a slender majority of Americans personally consider homosexuality immoral, the percentage of Americans who favor banning sex between consenting adults of the same gender typically ranges from 34 percent to 44 percent. When it’s stipulated that the sex occurs in “their own home,” that drops to around 30 percent. Granting homosexuals the same legal status as heterosexual couples is neither favored nor opposed by a majority (though a majority does oppose it when this status is described as marriage). Asked whether a constitutional amendment should ban gay marriage, a majority will only occasionally say yes. I interpret all this to mean that the American public has been moving toward acceptance, however grudging, of legal equality for gay couples and that one day soon a majority will likely favor gay marriage. (The polling data on homosexuality that I’m drawing on, incidentally, was compiled by Karlyn Bowman of the ardently pro-Bush American Enterprise Institute, so if any bias exists it’s likely to be against more legal protections for homosexuals.)

The Christian right’s minority status has real-world consequences in the Senate. In July 2002, for instance, the National Right to Life Committee sent out an “urgent congressional alert” stating that Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had a 58-vote majority supporting their bill to promote therapeutic cloning (misleadingly characterized by the anti-abortion group as a “clone-and-kill” bill). That meant they were two votes shy of having enough votes to invoke cloture (i.e., end a filibuster). Without the filibuster, the bill would have passed! It faced other hurdles in the House and from the White House, but it would have cleared the Senate!

And this is the mechanism the Christian right wants to destroy? Suit yourself, brothers and sisters. I certainly don’t want to persuade you otherwise.