These days our civic conversation is dominated by declarations rather than argument, by assertion as opposed to evidence.
It is, for example, routinely asserted in some quarters that religion and its values are everywhere under siege and that believers are continually discriminated against in public life. In fact, we are, as a people, more God-besotted than at any time in our recent history. America is the only country in the developed world in which a large majority continues to profess belief in a supreme being; slightly more than half our people are formally affiliated with a church, which also is anomalous among advanced nations. As a consequence, religion probably plays a greater part in our public life now than at any time since the Second Great Awakening or the great revival movement in the first and second halves of the 19th century.
Then, as now, fervor and politics fed off one another. Alexis de Tocqueville, who witnessed the Second Great Awakening, put it this way: "Next to each religion is a political opinion that is joined to it by affinity."
Functionally speaking, then, our separation of church and state translates into a respect for individual opinions formed by a variety of religious consciences and an abhorrence of political agendas formulated by religious denominations out of their particular revelations or dogma. In other words, our public square includes a place for religious belief but excludes confessional politics.
That's what makes the presence of what amounts to a religious slate on next week's primary ballot in San Diego such a disturbing prospect. There, four sitting judges are being challenged by candidates hand-picked by an organization called Better Courts Now and backed by a coalition of evangelical pastors, an El Cajon gun store and opponents of reproductive choice and marriage equality. The organization was established by the late Rev. Don Hamer, who until his death two months ago was pastor of San Diego's Zion Christian Fellowship. He took a particularly active role in the campaign for Proposition 8 and, during the presidential election, produced a series of videos purporting to prove that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim.
Three of the four incumbent judges have been given the highest possible rating, "well qualified," by the local bar association. The fourth, a veteran judge, was given a lesser ranking, apparently because she's suing her colleagues in a dispute over probation policy. The bar found three of the four challengers unqualified; the fourth had too spotty a legal record to permit a rating.
That doesn't trouble Pastor Chris Clark, a local Baptist minister who backs the slate. Though he declined, as the challengers do, to cite any example, he told a reporter that he believed the incumbents "were creating new law or they were ignoring evidence and making very irrational decisions.... Courts have made numerous decrees in California and the nation that threaten our religious freedoms, our rights of conscience and preborn life."
On the organization's website, one of the challengers, Craig Candelore — a family lawyer who specializes in protecting men's rights — says that "many of our courts don't reflect our values anymore." What those might be is pretty clear from this entry on the Zion Christian Fellowship website: "The reason for our present dilemma is not ultimately assertive and demanding homosexuals, or biblically ignorant judges, or even a scripturally devoid electorate. It is ultimately a spiritually impotent church, which … allowed and caused ungodly persons to be elected, who in turn selected unbiblical judges."
Given the usual dearth of journalistic reporting in the run-up to judicial elections, and the low turnout in primary elections, small but motivated groups of extremists such as Better Courts Now can have an outsized influence. In fact, San Diego's actual demographics give its "values" campaign more than a whiff of the putsch: Just 14% of the county's residents are evangelical Christians, on behalf of whose values the slate claims to speak, while 67.5% are Roman Catholics and 8% belong to mainline Protestant churches.
Still, religious conservatives across the country recently have used low-profile, low-turnout local elections to transform school boards and other local offices into political platforms operating as an annex of the pulpit. Better Court Now and its adherents have wider ambitions of their own. As Candelore told one interviewer: "If we can take our judiciary, we can take our legislature and our executive branch."
Perhaps. Which is why they should be stopped now.