America - Andrew Stephen exposes a new McCarthyism

Not content with controlling Congress and the presidency, the Republicans now want the judges to be

Pity George Greer, the 63-year-old judge who first ruled five years ago that Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state and should be allowed to die. Greer, a lifelong Republican and former member of the Southern Baptist Church, now needs permanent police protection and an armed escort to and from court; in North Carolina, a $50,000 bounty has been put on his head. He has received more than 100,000 hate e-mails and was asked to leave his church when Schiavo died in March. Friends say he is "worn out".

Even five years ago, I suspect, none of this would have happened. By and large, judges were left to make decisions free of political interference or intimidation. But the likes of Greer have become targets of a new intolerance and righteousness: the far right, not content with dominating both the legislative and executive branches of government, wants to control the judiciary, too. And if that means making an example of traitorous Republicans like Greer, too bad.

I thought of all this on the evening of 24 April, when thousands gathered in the Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky to mark what the organisers called "Justice Sunday". The 90 minutes were beamed to hundreds more churches across the country, and the organisers claimed that the proceedings reached 62 million households via the internet. As well as ungodly Democrats and "murderers" such as Greer, pictures of Senator John McCain, the Republican ex-POW who dared to oppose George W Bush in the 2000 primaries, were flashed up on giant screens and met immediately with derisive jeers.

To his shame, my friend Bill Frist - the Republican leader of the Senate - was among those participating, in his case with a six-minute taped message. But it was the words from the pulpit of Dr James Dobson, chairman of a group called Focus on the Family, that most grabbed my attention: he said that the US Supreme Court was "unelected and unaccountable and arrogant and imperious and determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values, and they're out of control".

Never mind that seven of the nine Supreme Court judges were appointed by Republican presidents and that the court ruled that Bush had won the disputed presidential election in 2000: those words were a signal that the fevered far right, having seized the US flag and declared patriotism its own years ago, has now hijacked the name of Christianity in its aspiration to take over the third branch of government. Frist goes so far as to claim that Senate Democrats have mounted a campaign to thwart some of Bush's judicial nominations, because the nominees are "people of faith".

His words show how far the crusading intolerance of the far right has permeated the mainstream, because I can attest that Frist is no bigot. He is a former heart surgeon who has campaigned to halt the spread of Aids in Africa, but he has now swallowed a right-wing assumption that, in order to become a presidential candidate in 2008, he must pay obeisance to the "religious right". In this confused new world, "people of faith" means those on the Bushite right who claim the badge of Christianity as their own; devout Catholics such as Ted Kennedy, or Methodists such as Hillary Clinton, are not included (never mind, say, Muslims).

In his first term, Bush put forward the names of 229 proposed new judges, whom I assume he considered "people of faith". But judicial appointments need Senate ratification.

The Democrats tried to veto ten of them by using the filibuster, a senatorial procedure that dates back to 1841. Sixty votes are required to end a filibuster, and the Republicans have only 55.

The confirmation rate of judges under Bush still ran at 95 per cent and was the fastest for a quarter of a century. But there is now a mindset that, having finally won an election with a majority of American votes, Bush and the Republicans must be handed everything they want. Frist is duly threatening to change the rules of the Senate by abolishing the right to filibuster, which can be done by a procedural, simple-majority vote.

That, Frist says, would end "the tyranny of the minority". As it happens, the current crop of 45 Democrat senators was elected by 161 million voters, while the 55 Republicans garnered only 131 million votes - but truth and reality hardly matter here these days.

I suspect constitutional Armageddon may be avoided, and that Frist - in real life a mild-mannered Presbyterian - will try to calm things down. Yet the saga tells us much: in Bush's America, the likes of the wretched Dobson ("this pitiful 41-year-old mentally disabled woman was condemned to death by an immoral Florida court judge named George Greer") reach 200 million people a day via 3,500 radio and TV stations, and are arguably more influential than legitimately elected leaders such as Frist himself. A new McCarthyism, I fear, is under way in America.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Could the future be yellow?