By contributor
updated 4/6/2005 11:08:38 AM ET 2005-04-06T15:08:38

The parallels are eerie: The next presidential campaign is beginning in the august chambers of Renaissance buildings with painted ceilings and corridors filled with sculpture. In the shadows of massive domes, meeting in unique, isolated city-states, the Conclave of Cardinals in the Vatican City and the members of Congress in the District of Columbia will set the tone and terms for a great debate over the roles of law and faith in defining life in America.

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What do the Schiavo case, the selection of a new pope, the filibuster rule in the Senate and the fate of Rep. Tom DeLay have to do with one another? At least in the political realm…everything.

Looking back, it’s pretty clear what the 2004 election, at heart, was about: George Bush’s lock-and-load attitude towards the use of military force against regimes allied with Islamist terrorists. Looking ahead, it’s pretty clear what the 2008 election, at heart, will be about: the role of religious belief in what theologians quaintly call “the public square” – especially the federal courts and especially on “life issues” such as abortion, stem-cell research and the “right to die.” 

Hyper-competitive compassion
Democrats won’t be competitive in 2008 unless they can figure out a nuanced, compassionate, consistent platform that at least acknowledges the role of Biblical faith across a range of these issues. Conversely, Republicans risk losing the gains of the Bush Years if they appear to be the political slaves of religious zealots who have no regard for the Constitution. Put another way, John Kerry was way too determinedly secular; Congress’s attempt at intervention in the Schiavo case was way too clerical. Americans want a balance.

If the new pope is anything like Pope John Paul II, he – and his American prelates – will have much to say about the Church and State debate, speaking, as they will, to by far the largest and most important bloc of swing voters, the 65 million or so American Catholics. And if the new pope is anything like his predecessor, the Vatican voice will be staunchly and uncompromisingly against abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and cloning experiments.

In the Senate and the House, meanwhile, Republicans – urged on by the GOP’s growing base of religious conservatives – are mounting a jihad against what they brand an “out of control” judiciary they see as having brutally (even criminally) ignored Terri Schiavo’s God-given right to life. The GOP aims to get “control” of the judiciary by watering down the filibuster rule to ease the way for the confirmation of conservative, pro-life judges.

As for DeLay, a leader in that judicial fight, he may well have another motive for attacking the legitimacy of the federal courts: he could find himself on trial in one of them some day. He is using all of his considerable political skill and power to wrap himself in the pro-life, anti-judicial cause, attempting to make himself synonymous with them – and indispensable.

Faith, science, the courts and Congress
The issue at the core of all of these conflicts is as simple as it is profound: who defines human life and the genetic destiny of mankind? If the 20th century was an argument about the control of economic life – the “means of production and distribution. (Marxist Communism lost.) The argument in the 21st century will be about the control of the human genome – the “means of production and distribution” of life itself. (Will Huxley’s nightmare come true?)

The Church, to put it mildly, has a view on this: from contraception to the death penalty, from stem cell research to cloning, the Holy See stands athwart scientific history and secular law-making and shouts “NO!” If they needed moral support for their purest beliefs, the red-robed cardinals in Rome need look no further than above their heads in the Sistine Chapel. In Michaelangelo’s metaphor, God’s Touch is pure, singular and overpowering.

That was the heart of the argument “conservatives” made in Congress in defense of Terri Schiavo: that their Bible-based faith, and natural human decency, made the decision of the Florida court immoral and therefore invalid – and that every means, even ones of dubious constitutionality, needed to be deployed to save her life. If you believe the polls, voters recoiled at that argument. Or at least most of them thought Congress was wrong to intervene.

Which way the white smoke blows
Much of the tone of the debate in America will be set by the new pope. There was a time when there was no such thing as a “Vatican political strategy” here. That time is long gone. John Paul II enthusiastically and meticulously got involved – and always to make a strong case for a hard line on “life issues.” (The pope also apparently had no hesitancy about telling President Bush, to his face, that he thought the invasion of Iraq was a blunder.)

The election of a new Holy Father is a mysterious process inspired by faith – and so, in a sense, beyond analysis. But it would be naïve to think that the outcome won’t have political consequences. 

Given all the issues facing the Church, will the new pope concentrate as much on America life? Whoever is chosen is sure to be a doctrinal conservative; that is one of John Paul’s lasting legacies. But if the cardinals chooses a Latin American or an African, won’t they be signaling a new desire to concentrate on the Third World – where the growth is and the challenge from Islam – and not the moral/scientific controversies of the First?

In the Senate, meanwhile, the senators have what, by their standards, is a holy ritual of their own: a debate on whether to again change the ancient rule that allows senators to block actions by talking them to death. GOP Senate Leader Bill Frist is searching for some kind of compromise on the “filibuster” issue, but I tend to doubt that he will find one. Democrats are pretty united – but the Republicans probably have the votes to change the rules.

If that happens, they’ll have an excellent chance to confirm a series of pro-life judges, perhaps including one or more Supreme Court nominations in the next three years. That will please the cardinals – and the new pope – but it’s not clear how the voters, democracy’s conclave, will respond.

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