Bush Adds Religion to Debate on Miers

President Bush fueled the debate about the role of religion in politics Wednesday, as lawmakers mulled whether to call Colorado’s best-known evangelical Christian leader to testify in confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.

James Dobson, founder of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Focus on the Family, took to the airwaves Wednesday trying to clarify his conversations with White House political adviser Karl Rove prior to Miers’ nomination last week.

Some Senators, including Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., have suggested calling Dobson to testify under oath at upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, questioning whether he was given information about Miers that was not being shared with the public.

Dobson dared lawmakers to call him to testify, but said they would be “disappointed.” He said Rove told him background information that is now widely-known, including Miers’ membership in a conservative Christian church, but said Rove did not give any assurances about how she would vote on future cases like abortion.

“It did not happen, period!” Dobson said.

Dobson’s widely publicized remarks prompted a question during an Oval Office photo opportunity Wednesday. Bush was asked why White House officials have stressed Miers’ membership in a conservative Christian church when trying to win support from people like Dobson.

“People ask me why I picked Harriet Miers,” Bush told reporters. “They want to know Harriet Miers’ background; they want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers’ life is her religion.”

Critics charged hypocrisy, since Bush supporters have lambasted Democrats for inquiring about the religious beliefs of previous judicial nominees. An interest group called the Campaign to Defend the Constitution charged that Dobson and other religious conservatives were being given “special access and undue influence” in the Bush administration.

“This episode where the White House consulted with powerful interests in the Republican Party but not sufficiently with the Senate is troubling and disappointing,” Salazar said in a release. “I renew my call that the President provide sufficient and necessary information about his nominee for the United States Supreme Court to the Senate so we can perform our Constitutional duty of ‘advice and consent.’ ”

Traveling in Colorado, Salazar told a Denver television station that it would be appropriate for the Senate Judiciary Committee to call Dobson to testify. The committee has sent a letter asking Dobson to explain his conversation with Rove, but no final decision has been made about inviting him to testify, the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and ranking Democrat, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., have said.

Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Colo., said in a release Wednesday that it was “absurd” that Dobson was being pressured to testify about a private conversation he has now explained publicly.

“Unfortunately, those who don’t agree with Dr. Dobson are using this opportunity to give a backhanded slap to the faith community while ostensibly pursuing information that has already been disclosed,” Beauprez said.

If Dobson is called to testify, it could turn into a political circus, said political science professor John Green of the University of Akron, who studies the role of religion in politics.

“The hearings could become a bit less about Harriet Miers and more about all these social issues,” Green said, referring to Dobson’s longtime crusades opposing abortion and gay marriage and defending traditional values.

“It could, in purely political terms, be somewhat of a draw. The interesting thing is what impact that could have on Miers’ nomination,” Green said. “She might get connected to these issues whether she has said anything or not.”

Dobson told his radio listeners that Rove described Miers’ background as an evangelical Christian, said she was a member of a conservative “almost universally pro-life” church, and described how she tried to change the American Bar Association’s position backing abortion rights. He said Rove described President Bush’s “short list” of women candidates and said some of them had taken their names out of consideration because the confirmation fight had become “so vicious and so vitriolic and so bitter.”

But Dobson vehemently denied speculation raised by some Democrats that Rove might have revealed how Miers would vote on abortion cases. Dobson has spent years advocating for judges he thinks will overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which sealed a woman’s right to an abortion.

Dobson also challenged senators who have suggested calling him as a witness: “quit talking about (it) and just go do it,” he said.

Michael Huttner, executive director of the Colorado-based liberal group ProgressNow.Org, questioned Dobson’s explanation because much of the information was already public or irrelevant to Miers’ qualifications before Dobson endorsed her, citing “some of the things that I know that I probably shouldn’t know.”

“We believe James Dobson may have additional information that he has not shared, and that his explanation regarding the information he has does not pass the sniff test,” Huttner said. “The Senate Judiciary Committee should call James Dobson to testify under oath.”

Paul Hettrick, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, fired back on Wednesday.

“Huttner might want to quit his Snoop Doggy Dogg sniffing routine and try a little harder to get acquainted with the truth of the matter,” Hettrick said. “Dr. Dobson clearly explained it on our broadcast today, but if Huttner still has unanswered questions he should simply bring them to us. Most of the rest of the interested listeners already understand it.”

(E-mail sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com)