Can Democrats Question Amy Coney Barrett’s Faith? Yes! Should They? Well…

Trump formally nominates Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26, 2020. Image: White House Twitter.

Let’s cut right to the paper chase, as it were. Amy Coney Barrett’s faith is potentially problematic, and ought to be subject to the same kind of critique as any other belief, sacred or secular. Whether or not critics of her ascension to the Supreme Court want to raise their objections is, however, a different matter.

This detailed explainer from the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown and Jon Swaine covers the territory thoroughly. Barrett, Pres. Trump’s latest get-out-of-jail-card Supreme Court nominee, is notably a strong, and particular, sort of Catholic. She’s reliably horrible on abortion and women’s rights. She is widely expected to be a vote to strike down Roe v. Wade (or at least any legislation that aims to weaken its protections) should a challenge arise. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has even said forthrightly that he wouldn’t support her nomination if he didn’t think she’d gut legal abortion in the U.S. (he does). And then there’s this:

In more recent years, but still before she was named to the appellate court, Barrett publicly avowed that marriage and family are “founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman.” She also voiced skepticism that Title IX — the law that prohibits sex discrimination at schools accepting federal aid — extends protections to transgender students, saying that Congress did not intend that outcome when the law was passed in 1972.

Sadly, this is pretty much garden-variety wingnuttery these days. These positions are to be expected of any nominee by a Republican president these days, certainly any Catholic nominee of a Republican president, and most certainly of a Catholic Republican president’s nominee who used to clerk for Antonin Scalia.

More unusually, Barrett has also been a member of People of Praise, a religious community whose members practice an unusual blend of charismatic Christianity and Catholicism, including personal covenants of obedience to superiors, male headship over wives, and an almost complete lack of transparency over their work, membership, rules or pretty much anything that goes on within the group. There have been accusations of abusive practices from former members, though these are difficult to pin down or verify.

The last concern typically raised about Barrett is her use of the phrase “building the kingdom of God” in a commencement address to the Notre Dame Law School. RD’s Chrissy Stroop charges that “kingdom rhetoric has often been deployed to uphold discrimination, to say nothing of the hegemonic nature of Christianity in the United States,” which is certainly true. But I actually move to acquit Barrett on this count. Read in context, Barrett’s charge to the graduates is not to bend the legal field to an interpretation of Christian righteousness, but to sustain the community they’ve been taught to create in their years at a Catholic institution. It’s a particularist vision, to be sure, but a fairly anodyne one. You could hear the same sentiment given in different vocabulary at any number of liberal schools, religious or otherwise.

That being said, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about Barrett’s religious views and how they might shape her time on the bench. As the Catholic scholar Massimo Faggioli points out at Politico, the secrecy surrounding groups like People of Praise means that there’s no way to evaluate to whom she has pledged obedience (or why), what those vows look like, or what their scope is. Barrett could have promised to install the reanimated head of Antonin Scalia on the Court, and we’d have no way of knowing. Nor can we know much of what’s been taught during Barrett’s time in People of Praise. It could be puppies, love, and the brotherhood of all mankind. Or it could be that homosexuality is a crime worthy of execution. Again, there’s no way of knowing without asking.

As Faggioli further points out, this is distinct from mainstream expressions of Catholicism, where vows (including oaths of loyalty) and teachings are done in public, where they can be examined, critiqued, and ultimately, strengthened. You can see why this is so important in the example of Father Maciel’s Legion of Christ. So, as Faggioli says, it’s not anti-Catholic to examine Barrett’s practice of the faith. In fact, the examination is precisely of those areas where she most differs from the ordinary expression of that faith.
And then there is the question of Barrett’s appearances at meetings of the Blackstone Legal Fellowship,

a summer program established to inspire a “distinctly Christian worldview in every area of law,” tax filings show. It was founded to show students “how God can use them as judges, law professors and practicing attorneys to help keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel in America.”

This program is run by the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, an organization opposed to the separation of church and state, and so virulently anti-LGBT that it’s been named as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. You can see some of ADF’s greatest hits over the years on their Wikipedia page, including “Days of Truth” meant to confront schoolchildren with the supposed evil of homosexuality; “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” meant to confront churchgoers with the supposed evil of their pastor not being able to endorse candidates from the pulpit; and challenging the ACA in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, meant to confront shoppers with the evil of forcing retailers of chintzy home decorations to pay into a system providing birth control as part of routine medical care.

There’s much to learn about Barrett’s association with Blackstone. Barrett herself maintains that she didn’t know that ADF operated the program (which, given that the ADF logo was prominently displayed on Blackstone materials, says something about her attention to detail). In any case, given the deeply-held connections between faith and law espoused at Blackstone, and ADF’s affiliation with a laundry list of extreme right-wing Christians, there are a lot of worthwhile questions to be asked about how Blackstone and ADF may or may not reflect Barrett’s jurisprudence.

The right’s response to these issues has been rather predictably to accuse anyone and everyone with any concerns about Barrett of “anti-Catholic bigotry,” in the words of Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. There’s no reason to let them get away with it.

As Chrissy Stroop ably discusses, this kind of exempting religious faith from the normal back-and-forth of public discourse sets up a double standard: conservative Christians are allowed to represent the norm of the faith, while their attacks on liberal believers and non-believers are excused. Worse, it lets conservative Christians off the hook for their attacks on the freedom of women, racial and sexual minorities.

And, as E.J. Dionne points out, it’s the sheer hypocrisy of it all:

It wasn’t the American Civil Liberties Union or some other bastion of liberalism that questioned Joe Biden’s Catholic faith. No, it was a speaker at this year’s GOP convention, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, who called Biden a Catholic “in name only” because of Biden’s support for abortion rights. A conservative group called CatholicVote is spending $9.7 million in Michigan, Pennsylvania and other battleground states attacking the devout Biden as an “existential threat” to the church.

And Trump himself rather astonishingly declared that Biden would “hurt God,” and “hurt the Bible,” too. I didn’t hear Pence say anything about Trump’s “intolerance” toward Biden’s faith.

Stupidly, the conservative demands have been picked up by some left-wing pundits who otherwise couldn’t give a damn about the life of faith because it gives them the opportunity to wax on about how the Democrats are doing everything wrong. Likewise, what the Biden VP campaign used to refer to as the “bedwetter caucus,” otherwise known as anonymous “senior Democratic strategists” have been out fretting about Dems taking on Barrett’s faith, among other things.

All of this is quite ridiculous. Like any sane political observer, I wouldn’t advise Democrats to mount a full-frontal assault on Barrett’s religious beliefs. For good reasons and bad, such an attack would risk serious backlash. But I also incline toward E.J. Dionne’s observation that, “far from being a sign of “bigotry,” invitations to public figures to explain how their faith influences their ethical and political views is a sign of respect and of taking faith seriously.”

The idea that faith is somehow exempt from evaluation or pushback in fact empties it of its value and renders it meaningless. Look, it even says in the good book that Christians ought to be ready “to give a defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” So let us not give any attention to the conservative crocodile tears. Asking Barrett even-handed, relevant questions about her faith and how it shapes her worldview as a judge is absolutely fair and in bounds.

In the end, though, I come out more or less where Dionne does: questioning the legitimacy of this nomination given just weeks before a presidential election whose winner could very well be picked by the new justice. Whatever you want to say about Amy Coney Barrett’s practice of Catholicism, the fact is that her selection was not made in good faith, and we ought let no canard take our eyes off that fact.