George Bush looks set for a battle
in the Senate to secure confirmation of his new supreme court choice,
conservative justice Samuel Alito. The risk of Alito producing a major
shift in the court’s balance of power will rally Bush’s opponents, but
they have been wrong-footed by the fact that he is obviously better
qualified than the previous nominee, Harriet Myers.

Yesterday’s New York Times
draws attention to an interesting fact about Alito: if confirmed, he
will be the fifth Roman Catholic on the court, giving Catholics a
majority for the first time ever.

For most of America’s history, anti-Catholicism has been deeply
ingrained among its political class. Only one Catholic has ever been
elected president; none even ran for the position until 1928.
Traditionally, there was one seat on the supreme court reserved for a
token Catholic, but, as the Times points out, up until 1988 there had never been more than two Catholic justices at once.

Australia was always in a different position because the ALP had a
large Catholic component, but within the Liberal Party the story is
similar: until about 20 years ago, Catholics were no more than a token
presence. The change that has taken place since then is striking.

One lesson to draw may be that the so-called “rise of the religious
right” in the US is more about politics than it is about religion.
Evangelical Protestants would not be so ready to accept Catholics as
their allies if they were chiefly concerned with religion; centuries of
theological division do not disappear so quickly. The old puritans must
be turning in their graves.