On the Sunday before Election Day, the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson and Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ went to Florida to hold a "pray-in" for George W. Bush's victory. If they had an effect on the outcome, God must have a sense of humor, or at least a desire to help the people who run 24-hour news networks like MSNBC. It took 35 days, but the Supreme Court has banged the gavel of finality on this presidential contest. George W. Bush will serve as the 43rd president of the United States.
In his acceptance speech, Bush asked for prayers and ended with a "God Bless America," the kind of civil religion we have come to expect from almost every politician. Indeed, Vice President Al Gore invoked God four times in his concession speech earlier the same evening. The real question for most of us, though, is what effect the Bush presidency will have on the future of separation of church and state.
President-elect Bush did not speak a controversial word during his brief address to the Texas House of Representatives and the nation. He talked about "common ground" and specifically how Democrats and Republicans need to work together to "make all our public schools excellent, teaching every student of every background and every accent, so that no child is left behind." If indeed he works to make all public schools citadels of excellence, there would be no need for vouchers, which proponents constantly claim are designed to give a chance to children where public institutions fail them. Yet we know from the Bush record in Texas that he fought hard for vouchers there and that throughout his campaign for the presidency, they were a key component in his package of educational "reform."
Mr. Bush said nothing about the hot button issues near and dear to the many social conservative leaders who are now claiming that they elected him. As governor, he took the extraordinary step last year of submitting a "friend of the court" brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Santa Fe, Texas, school district's right to broadcast prayers over the public address system before home football games. Although his view did not prevail before the high court, Bush has been a fervent advocate for governmental promotion of religion. Recall that he even pronounced last June 10 as "Jesus Day" in Texas.
As a presumed practitioner of his family's noted "prudence," it may be that Bush simply knows that a Senate as deeply divided as the one he will work with one dramatically more liberal ideologically than the one that preceded it won't spend much time considering constitutional amendments demanding official school prayer or declaring that human life begins at the moment of conception. He probably realizes there is no point to raising red flags like that early on.
Many voters were concerned about the shape of the Supreme Court if Bush were elected. Since he had described his ideal nominees as "strict constructionists" and specifically cited Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia as model justices, there were legitimate fears that he would impose rigid ideological tests on all nominees. Curiously, though, we have literally heard through the release of audiotapes of the oral arguments in the two Florida election cases, that the oldest and arguably most separationist justice, John Paul Stevens, seems in good health, keen mind, fighting spirit and happy to be where he is. Chief Justice William Rehnquist has reportedly noted his interest in retirement, but there would be no ideological shift from such a departure if Bush names a replacement of like mind. So it may be that no tsunami is on the high court horizon in the near future.
Moreover, with Supreme Court nominees, as well as with bad pieces of legislation, the Senate has then power to stop action on dangerous ideas emanating from the White House or the House of Representatives. One may simply have to ask senators friendly to church-state separation to do the extraordinary, not just the ordinary.
On the day Gore conceded, I wondered how the typical Religious Right activist was feeling about the Bush address that followed. I have a feeling they were disappointed and even angry over its lack of ideological passion. They had been told repeatedly by their leaders to expect payback from the president for their legions' work during the closing weeks of the campaign. They now found themselves ignored by Bush and told repeatedly by pundits of their marginal significance in shaping the work of governance.
Personally, my long tenure in Washington leads me to believe that the centrist honeymoon will be quickly forgotten. I do not honestly think that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, both of whom actually sent lawyers to Florida to help the Bush legal team, will be satisfied with a yearly hand-signed Christmas card from President Bush. They will want to see some effort to achieve their goals. From the Religious Right's perspective, even noble defeats would be preferable to inaction. Americans United will be there to help make those defeats likely.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.