By MICHAEL GOODWIN
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Of the things that separate Americans politically, the "God gap" may be the most powerful. Republicans enjoy a big advantage among voters who are religious and, if Democrats aren't careful, the Supreme Court confirmation battle over John Roberts could turn the gap into a chasm.
Religion is already raising its head as the Senate preps for its September hearings on Roberts. A devout Catholic, he has been asked by at least two senators about the role his faith would play in judicial decisions.
The answers have been confusing: According to one senator, Roberts said he would have no trouble following the law. According to a published report of the other meeting, Roberts said he would recuse himself from cases where law conflicts with his faith, such as abortion.
Religion as red flag
While that report has been called inaccurate, religion is certain to come up during the hearings. It should be a red flag for centrist Dems.
Roberts is, by all accounts, a brilliant and likable man. In the desperate search for some reason to oppose him, far-left Dems and radical groups like Moveon.org could end up demonizing him over his faith. If they do, they will be playing right into GOP hands.
In 2002, 60 percent of frequent churchgoers voted Republican in congressional elections, according to an exit poll. Those who often attend religious services voted for President Bush over Al Gore in 2000 by 63 percent to 36 percent, said the Pew Research Center.
Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, has said the "God gap" is more important than gender, age, socioeconomic status or education in voting patterns.
The Roberts case is fascinating because he does not fit easily into those political divisions. With the GOP seen as the home of very conservative evangelical Christians, Democrats have felt safe in denouncing what Sen. Hillary Clinton calls the "hard-right agenda" of Bush. The phrase carries a whiff of contempt for the Pat Robertson crowd.
A conservative feminist
But John Roberts, universally described as humble, and his wife display a more complicated face of American religiosity. Indeed, Jane Sullivan Roberts -- a Bronx girl -- is a one-person antidote to religious stereotypes. Think of her as a conservative feminist.
She attended Bronx Catholic schools and was in the first class of women admitted to Holy Cross College. She majored in mathematics, got a master's degree in applied math at Brown and a law degree from Georgetown. She is a partner in a Washington law firm, specializing in the testosterone-dominated club of global technology deals.
In many ways, she would seem to be typical of a socially liberal Democrat -- a highly educated, independent career women. She even got married at 41.
Here's the rub: Jane Roberts has been a major player in an anti-abortion group called Feminists for Life. The group's mission statement, The New York Times reports, includes the phrase that "women deserve better than abortion." It wants to overturn Roe v. Wade.
After long waits, the Robertses adopted two children. A friend of hers told The Times the adoptions were "testament to the power of prayer." That would make the Robertses a higher-power couple.
Jane Roberts, of course, is not up for the Supreme Court. But as Dems zero in on her husband, they should aim carefully. Otherwise, they might wound themselves in the eyes of Americans who identify with, and admire, people of such deep and generous faith.
X Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.