President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is a devout Catholic. Obviously, this has no bearing on his suitability to join the court. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is a devout Catholic. Justice Sonia Sotomayor is Catholic, as are four conservatives currently on the court: Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh. It is difficult to argue that Catholics, which represent about 23% of Americans, face discrimination when appointed to the High Court (although Biden, if elected, would be only the second Catholic president in our history). Raised Catholic (and still a much-derided “cafeteria Catholic”), I grew up susceptible to anti-Catholic prejudice.
Questions about Barrett’s religious beliefs are not that. They stem from his long membership in the small, charismatic Christian sect People of Praise, based in South Bend, Indiana. Although open to all Christian denominations, an estimated 90% of its 1,800 members are Catholic, the jesuit magazine America reported this weekadding, “The band also tends to skew conservatives, at least politically,” in a 2018 interview with the South Bend GrandstandBarrett’s local newspaper, the group’s current “coordinator”, Craig Lent, confirmed that People of Praise opposes abortion, gay rights and marriage equality, and believes that “the men are leaders of their families, but that they should be ‘servant leaders’,’ as Jesus Christ was.Yet Lent insisted the group ‘stay out of politics’, reported the newspaper.
(Barrett and Trump made no mention of the religious controversy during her nomination ceremony on Saturday night, but the candidate made a point of referring to her husband, Jesse, as her “partner,” not a leader. .)
Yet many conservatives, and even a few liberals, make the specious argument that Barrett’s religious views should be outlawed. Write for the Boston Public Radio website WBURin an article titled “It’s 2020. Stop Talking About Amy Coney Barrett’s ‘Devout’ Catholicism,” Eileen McNamara argues, “Let’s leave his religion out of it, okay?” McNamara slams Democrats for scrutinizing Barrett’s religious views during 2017 hearings for her nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, particularly attacking Democratic Senate Judiciary leader Dianne Feinstein from California.
Feinstein phrased her questions awkwardly, at best — another reason I wish she’d retired rather than run again in 2018. “You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail” , Feinstein told Barrett. “Dogma lives loudly within you.” (I don’t even know what that means; it reminds me The Exorcist.)
Barrett’s religious views themselves would not be of concern if we did not have enough evidence that they influence his legal views. And it’s important to note that People of Praise is significantly more restrictive than Catholicism. The group received exaggerated and unfair coverage – while it traditionally referred to the community’s male leaders as “chiefs” and their female counterparts as “servants”, this did not inspire Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale (However, to be sure, he changed “handmaidens” to “leaders” after the Hulu hit debut). Cult experts say it is not a cult. If you visit his Facebook page, most of the posts are inspiring stories of charity and grace. Also: Its post-Covid events feature people making, distributing and wearing masks!
But there’s no denying that the group opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and prohibits LGBT people from becoming members. His South Bend school, Trinity, where Barrett served on the board for several years, teaches male and female students separately and prohibits dating. In 2017, The New York Times reported that although members of the group confirmed that Barrett and her husband were part of People of Praise — in fact, both of their fathers had been leaders — she did not reveal her membership in the Senate confirmation documents. In the meantime, links that mentioned her in the band’s magazine Vine and branches— some recent ones, depending on the Times— disappeared from its website.
So why have even liberals insisted that Barrett’s eccentric religious views are outlawed when considering his SCOTUS nomination? “You cannot say that our faith on the one hand has ramifications for politics, law and the common good and on the other hand expect not to answer questions about it,” Cathleen Kaveny, professor of law and theology at Boston College, told America in 2017. Catholic scholar Massimo Faggioli written in Politics that Barrett’s association with People of Praise should be “front and center” in discussing his qualifications, given the group’s “highly authoritarian internal structure”, which by many accounts requires an “alliance” between the members and God. But in Slate, Molly Olmstead warns that conservatives have already set a trap for Democrats raising questions about Barrett’s affiliation with People of Praise. If they go, she argues, “the right already has its answer ready to go.”
But what else is new? The right relies on a culture of grievance, and the SCOTUS battles are no different. Clarence Thomas complained of a “high-tech lynching” when questioned on genuine accusations of workplace sexual harassment, and Brett Kavanaugh’s angry, almost tearful denial of credible accusations (although he a long time ago) of attempted sexual assault also earned him a confirmation. Trump is currently blaming that Biden’s eventual victory, indicated by most polls, will be the result of widespread fraud – an obvious lie – and is threatening not to quit the presidency. That’s what they do.
Still, I understand why people think it’s risky to engage Barrett’s religious views, especially since Democrats botched it three years ago. There’s already plenty of evidence on the record without examining his relationship with People of Praise. She signed an open letter to Catholic bishops in 2015 supporting the traditional gender hierarchy and opposing abortion and marriage equality. She declared abortion “always immoral” and regularly misrepresents the law as Roe vs. Wade established it. As my colleague Elie Mystal wrote this weekend, “Barrett spoke out against abortion rights in general, and roe deer specifically, more than anyone I can think of appointed to the Supreme Court after that 1973 ruling.”
She is also, as Mystal argues, a hypocrite. She wrote that Catholic judges who believe in their church’s teachings against the death penalty should recuse themselves from death penalty cases, but she does her best to get involved in abortion cases. If she thinks her religious views would prevent her from impartially enforcing the secular law on capital punishment, why can’t she admit that they do the same when it comes to women’s established legal right to take their own health decisions? (During her confirmation hearings, she appeared to backtrack on her suggestion to recuse herself from death penalty cases.)
Yet, as a Catholic, I find it offensive to see Barrett’s extremist beliefs equated with Catholicism or the views of American Catholics. We support women’s right to choose in most circumstances. An overwhelming majority support contraception, and Catholics are slightly more likely to support marriage equality than other Americans. Most American Catholics support parity in gender relations and reject the idea that the man is the “head” of the family. (Even Pope Francis doesn’t preach thisalthough he opposes abortion, contraception and the ordination of women.)
Also as a Catholic, I find it difficult to reconcile Barrett’s conservative morality with his decision to accept a nomination from a thrice-married adulterer, credibly accused of sexual harassment or assault by between one and two dozens of women. I also question the morality and judicial integrity of anyone who would agree to be nominated by someone who has all but said that he expects the Supreme Court to intervene on his side in the event of “fraud” electoral. If Barrett does not recuse herself on the issues of abortion or, now, apparently, the death penalty, she should be forced to recuse herself if the issue of Trump’s presidency comes before her as a judge. I doubt she would do that, but the Democrats should still grill her on this moral issue.