When a conservative skips church

t_olsonThe impression we get from this New York Times profile of the other Ted Olson -- that's conservative legal mind Theodore Olson, not Christianity Today managing editor Ted Olsen -- is that you've got to skip Sunday school if you want to think independently on the subject of same-sex marriage. I doubt the reporter intended it, but let's start by backing up. Who is Theodore Olson and why is The New York Times writing about him?

Theodore B. Olson's office is a testament to his iconic status in the conservative legal movement. A framed photograph of Ronald Reagan, the first of two Republican presidents Mr. Olson served, is warmly inscribed with "heartfelt thanks." Fifty-five white quills commemorate each of his appearances before the Supreme Court, where he most famously argued the 2000 election case that put George W. Bush in the White House. On the bookshelf sits a Defense Department medal honoring his legal defense of Mr. Bush's counterterrorism policies after Sept. 11.

But in a war room down the hall, where Mr. Olson is preparing for what he believes could be the most important case of his career, the binders stuffed with briefs, case law and notes offer a different take on a man many liberals love to hate. They are filled with arguments Mr. Olson hopes will lead to a Supreme Court decision with the potential to reshape the legal and social landscape along the lines of cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade: the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide.

Given the traditional battle lines on the issue, Mr. Olson's decision to file a lawsuit challenging California's recent ban on same-sex marriage has stirred up stereotype-rattled suspicion on both sides.

"For conservatives who don't like what I'm doing, it's, 'If he just had someone in his family we'd forgive him,'" Mr. Olson said. "For liberals it's such a freakish thing that it's, 'He must have someone in his family, otherwise a conservative couldn't possibly have these views.' It's frustrating that people won't take it on face value."

OK, now we're getting somewhere. Olson is painted as a heretical anomaly, someone misunderstood by both his own party and the people who whom he could find common cause on the issue of gay marriage. The story expands, and I kept waiting for the introduction of Olson's religious beliefs. I didn't think they were tantamount to the story -- there are plenty of political conservatives who take a more socially liberal tact (we often call them libertarians). But gay marriage and California's Proposition 8 have become so entangled with religious themes that it seemed natural that the NYT reporter would broach Olson's faith.

The answer was, well, odd:

One of those whose advice he sought was Robert McConnell, a friend from the Reagan Justice Department. Mr. McConnell, a practicing Catholic, said he told Mr. Olson that as a religious matter, he believed that marriage ought to be reserved for two people who can procreate. He said Mr. Olson replied that while he respected his convictions, he considered it a civil-rights issue.

Mr. Olson, who is not a regular churchgoer, began to elaborate on his view that religious beliefs were insufficient legal justification for government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage, but soon paused. "You don't agree with me, do you?" Mr. McConnell recalled him saying.

Not a regular churchgoer ... what in the world does that mean? He goes once a month, only on Christmas, only for funerals? When he does go, where does he go? And what about his beliefs does this infrequent attendance suggest? It would seem a lot more relevant to me to identify the religious beliefs Olson does or doesn't subscribe to than it would to determine with what frequency he attends church. After all, the emergent church movement is full of Christians who would say they don't buy into the whole church concept, but that doesn't mean they aren't gathering in Christian fellowship or that they would be any more likely to support gay marriage.

Conversely, I'm a regular churchgoer who, brace yourself, voted no on Prop. 8. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I may be making a mountain out of a mole hill here. Maybe I'm the only one who had such a sharp reaction to that one sentence. To be sure, Jo Becker has penned an excellent story here about a fascinating development in the gay marriage battle. But the framing of McConnell's recollections imply that attending church creates a bondage that prevents sound-minded people from coming to such conclusions about gay marriage policies.

Olson, we can easily infer, is liberated by the fact that he doesn't really do that church thing -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

Theodore Olson during his stint as Solicitor General

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