WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday invoked the religious faith of his Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers, to justify her nomination to conservatives who have criticized her scant record on social issues and her lack of judicial experience.
''People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers," Bush told reporters at the White House. ''They want to know Harriet Miers's background.
''They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers's life is her religion."
Bush made his remarks yesterday as James Dobson, head of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, based in Colorado, told his national radio audience that Bush's deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, had assured him Miers was ''an evangelical Christian" and a member ''of a very conservative church which is almost universally pro-life."
The remarks amplified a 10-day campaign by the White House to convince conservatives that they can trust Miers because she is an evangelical Christian.
But the increasing focus on Miers's religious faith drew criticism from some leaders of the religious right.
They noted that White House supporters of Bush's last nominee, John G. Roberts Jr., had rejected suggestions by liberals that his devout Catholicism might affect his judicial rulings.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan emphasized that Roberts had said ''personal beliefs or views have no role whatsoever when it comes to decisions that judges make."
Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, the largest anti-abortion women's group in the country, wrote in a memo to the group's members that the focus on Miers's evangelical Christianity by ''White House representatives and other supporters" is both ''patronizing and hypocritical."
''There is continual emphasis on her faith and the advantage of having an evangelical Christian on the Supreme Court," LaRue complained, noting that ''most of those emphasizing Miss Miers's faith have [previously] resisted any attempt to impose a religious test on any person seeking public office. The Constitution forbids it."
And the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the anti-abortion Christian Defense Coalition, said yesterday that it was ''both troubling and hypocritical" for Miers's supporters to promote her evangelical faith to garner support from religious conservatives.
''You cannot it have both ways," Mahoney said. ''Groups and leaders cannot say religion is off-limits during the Roberts confirmation, and then promote religion during the Miers confirmation for the sole purpose of political gain."
Dobson, normally allied with Concerned Women for America, is one of the few conservative leaders on social issues to have endorsed Miers. Most rightist opponents of Miers say Bush should have chosen someone with a record of supporting conservative social positions to fill the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
As Miers's supporters have scrambled to defend her, a key part of their strategy has been to rely heavily on the assurances of a close Miers friend, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, a conservative who has given numerous media interviews about the importance of Miers's conversion from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity. In an interview with The Boston Globe last week, Hecht said the conservative evangelical church that he and Miers attend, Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, opposes abortion and a ''gay lifestyle." Miers has served on its mission committee, has taught Sunday School, and has tithed her annual salary to the institution, Hecht said. He described her views on social issues as consistent with those of the church.
''They don't make you hold up your hand and swear you're pro-life, but I don't think you could sit there for 25 years and give hundreds of thousands of dollars to a church without being pretty comfortable with their views," Hecht said, adding that whether Miers would vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision is an entirely different question.
The emphasis on Miers's faith has raised objections among some conservatives outside the religious right.
Legal conservatives who say judges should interpret the law as written, without regard for the political ramifications of decisions, say that stressing Miers's religion is the equivalent to saying she will produce the ''right" outcomes. ''It's the opposite of what conservatives on principle believe," said Manuel Miranda, who is a founder and the chairman of the conservative Third Branch Conference.
''We don't want judges who are results-oriented," Miranda said. ''Saying to someone 'Oh, well, he's Christian or Jewish' is an attempt to say he'll rule a certain way, not that he'll rule a certain way for the right reasons."
And even within the religious right, leaders had differing reactions to the administration's touting of Miers's religion.
Gary L. Bauer, head of the conservative group American Values and a presidential candidate in 2000, expressed exasperation that the administration would nominate someone without a lengthy conservative record -- apparently in the hope that such a person would have an easier time getting confirmed -- and then tout her conservative religious values.
''All this seems so contrary to the 'stealth strategy' that I'm left wondering why the White House didn't select [appeals court judges] Janice Rogers Brown or Edith Jones or Emilio Garza in the first place!" Bauer said in an e-mail to supporters.
But the emphasis on Miers's religion seems to have convinced some other leaders of the religious right that she is worthy of support.
Televangelist Pat Robertson said yesterday on his ''700 Club" show that conservative senators who vote against Miers would face retaliation -- especially those who voted in 1993 to confirm Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a President Clinton appointee who had been general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union.
''Now they're going to turn against a Christian who is a conservative picked by a conservative president and they're going to vote against her for confirmation?" Robertson said. ''Not on your sweet life, if they want to stay in office."