The legal proposal known as the “unitary executive” is much in the news. President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, argued for it in November 2000 at a panel sponsored by the rightwing Federalist Society. The proposal, as Walter Shapiro summarized it in Salon.com, argues that “every part of the executive branch (including regulatory agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and, yes, independent counsels like Kenneth Starr) should be legally under the control of the president.”
The media too seldom notes the synergy between the religious right’s current desire for codified Christianization of the United States and the concept of the unitary executive. That synergy is very important; it is a threat to liberty and a reason why both the unitary executive concept in general and Samuel Alito’s nomination in particular should be opposed by progressives and anyone concerned about the power and influence of the religious right on the republic and American culture.
The basic idea of a super-powerful or all-powerful president (akin to the concept of an “imperial presidency“) is not new. Some early Americans thought the presidency should be an office held for life; some supporters of George Washington wanted to make him our king. Looking more aptly to modern comparisons, we see Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Democrat) and Richard Nixon (a Republican) both embodied relatively super-strong presidencies. Roosevelt attempted to radically alter the nature of the Supreme Court without a Constitutional amendment. Richard Nixon sought the power to declare war (which–though the casual observer would never know it–is a power wisely reserved for Congress) and the power of full immunity from legislative oversight. Motivated largely by personal vindictiveness, Nixon acted illegally on his beliefs about the executive branch’s would-be special privileges. Fortunately, the media had active investigative reporters back then who exposed Nixon; also fortunately, Congress was not controlled by Nixon’s own political party, and the cumulative result of those two realities was that Nixon’s abuses caused his downfall.
That was then.
Today, many of Nixon’s more powerful admirers, like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld agree with Nixon and want to craft an imperial presidency.
They have succeeded hugely. (See here, here, here, and here; also, a broader overview wisely including President Clinton’s administration is here; also, Cheney’s love of the imperial presidencyrecently caught the attention of The New York Times.)
What makes the imperial nature of the Bush presidency especially dangerous is that it comes at the same time when much of the religious right believes, probably correctly, that a tipping point has been reached in their struggle to formally Christianize America in brazen defiance of our Founding Fathers’ enlightenment ideals and in opposition to our Founders’ dreams of what America might be at its best.
The religious right is basically a marriage of socially and theologically conservative Christians (including fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, and others) with the Republican Party (including neo-conservatives within it, represented by Donald Rumsfeld among many others). When Republican candidates win, the religious right wins.
And now, the religious right sees that the Republican Party controls the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the Presidency. (Consider also that the culture of the Republican-controlled executive itself is expressly conservative Christian: after all, Bible studies occur in the Bush White House, Bush consults “rapture Christian” shamans on foreign policy, and Bush adheres strongly and openly to his version of Christianity.)
It might be said that only the Supreme Court is the only serious player among great socio-political estates that remains to fall to pro-Christianization conservative movement in the U.S.
Enter Samuel Alito, and enter the great hope for a living “unitary executive,” which under this president could be used to steamroll ahead the religious right’s beloved Christianization agenda, and would almost certainly also embolden George Bush in his own public religiosity (Won’t Alito’s confirmation be evidence of Jesus’ divine endorsement of all Bush stands for?), thereby foisting onto The United States of America its first Commander-in-Chief and de facto Pontifex Maximus.
So, for the religious right, what now is not to like about the concept of supreme executive power? Yes, FDR made the presidency even more powerful, but he exhibited merely a genteel Episcopalian sort of Christianity; what is more, he wasn’t a conservative; he backed progressive ideas from racial integration of the military to Social Security, Medicare, and the FDIC. Nixon was a conservative, but he also seemed not very religious. (His language made at least one evangelical literally cringe when he and I considered together a transcript of an unedited Oval Office recording. And you thought sailors could swear?)
But today is very different: it’s the era of near Republican hegemony and a pop evangelical president born of a multi-millionaire Big Oil dynasty and born-again of a multi-million person Big Jesus nationalistic piety. This era is a great threat to the health of America, including to the hope that our children might come of age in a truly informed, democratic republic committed to defending and expanding liberty, justice, and human rights for all.
So, what are some of the things we can do to counter this trend?
More on that soon.