America is trapped in an abusive relationship—not just with the pussy-grabbing President Donald Trump, our abuser-in-chief, but also with the Republican Party, its white Christian base, the police, and the increasingly uninhibited “good guys with guns,” whose vigilante actions are evidently becoming increasingly brazen. And unless liberals, leftists, and all Americans of good conscience are willing to confront the abusive character of the authoritarian right in no uncertain terms, I frankly don’t see how we can defeat surging fascism and set this country on a healthy democratic path.
To riff on the work of retired UC Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who documented the ways in which Americans understand politics through family-related metaphors, if the United States is a dysfunctional family, then much of the media has taken on the role of the peacemaker.
In a dysfunctional family, the peacemaker “may become anger-phobic and attempt to smooth out differences before a healthy interchange can take place,” according to couples’ counselors Linda and Charlie Bloom. The flurry of discussion around Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the apparent frontrunner to be named Trump’s pick to fill the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, neatly illustrates the dynamic in which the right gaslights the American public, and the media normalizes and perpetuates the gaslighting.
In the case of Barrett, context matters. Trump has been stacking the federal judiciary specifically with right-wing Catholics and members of the Federalist Society, which even The New York Times describes as “a legal group with views once considered on the ‘fringe.’” Barrett is a Catholic, a Federalist Society member, and a member of the high-control “covenant community” known as People of Praise, a Christian group with about 90% Catholic membership that emerged from the Catholic “charismatic renewal” that began in 1967.
People of Praise assigns its members spiritual leaders; men are assigned “heads” and women are assigned “woman leaders” (formerly “handmaids”). In the case of a married woman, this leader is automatically her husband. Meanwhile, Barrett’s far-right bona fides are not in question. She is an acolyte of the late arch-conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but influential right-wingers are already trying to make serious discussion of her politics off limits by crying loudly with faux outrage over legitimate public scrutiny of her religious commitments:
Regardless of where anyone stands on the prudence of a SCOTUS nomination and vote during an election, the already-emerging attacks on Amy Coney Barrett's faith are utterly repugnant. Can we not separate the person from the policy and treat her with dignity and respect?
— David French (@DavidAFrench) September 22, 2020
President @realDonaldTrump hasn’t even made his pick yet and the liberal mob is already viciously attacking Judge Amy Coney Barrett for being a Christian and a working mom of seven kids. American women should be paying close attention to what Democrats really think of us.
— Sarah Huckabee Sanders (@SarahHuckabee) September 22, 2020
Of course, right-wingers loudly questioned President Barack Obama’s religion when he was a candidate, and when he was in office. But what’s good for the goose is never good for the gander with the openly hypocritical American Right, whose leaders are now working to push through a SCOTUS appointment in an election year just four years after inventing a “tradition” of leaving such vacancies open for the victor of the ensuing presidential election to fill.
Note also that former Trump Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who perfected her gaslighting skills during her time working for the Trump administration, claims that “a liberal mob” is “viciously attacking Judge Amy Coney Barrett for being a Christian” when she’s knows quite well that this is patently untrue. It also smoothly juxtaposes politics and religion, falsely implying that Barrett’s Christianity is above politics.
No one is raising objections to the possible nomination of Barrett for a SCOTUS seat on the basis of her being a Christian. If anyone actually contended that Christian faith is disqualifying, that would leave very few eligible appointees to any position in a majority Christian nation. But to effectively push back on the flood of gaslighting currently being unleashed by the Christian Right, we need to flip the script.
Lord knows (if you’ll pardon the expression), the Democratic Party is far from godless. But, while God talk in the party may sometimes annoy non-religious Democrats, no serious liberal argues that adherence to a religion itself is disqualifying for public office, which would be to advocate for an unconstitutional position. The difference is this: in the vast majority of cases, Democrats of faith understand their religious commitments as compatible with an approach to pluralism that provides robust equality for all in the public square. Right-wing Christians, on the other hand, espouse an anti-pluralist understanding of their faith, using and abusing the rhetoric of “religious freedom” to demand the right to be, as it were, “more equal than others.”
And when Democrats object to the politics of right-wing bigotry, conservative Christians respond with moral panic, spewing flurries of concern-trolling comments on “religious freedom” and America’s commitment to apply no religious test for public office. In the case of Barrett, notably, even Catholic scholar Massimo Faggioli contends that it’s not anti-Catholic to ask questions about how her specific beliefs might shape her decisionmaking as a justice. But the Christian Right carries on with its moral panic and faux outrage in the hopes of making such questioning politically impossible. The same issue came up when Trump nominated Barrett to the federal judiciary in 2017, and this move is perennially in play with respect to the Christian Right’s attempts to ban abortion and prevent LGBTQ equality by obscuring a bigoted desire to dominate women and “sexual deviants” behind “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Meanwhile, as we saw in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, America lets “hostility to religious beliefs” stand unquestioned as a reason to overturn rulings that favor robust equality in the public square. Somehow, though, we never seem to question the Christian Right’s hostility toward progressive people of faith in any major media outlet, and we take for granted right-wing Christians’ hostility to the non-religious in general, and to atheists in particular, treating it as normal. But we should not blame members of othered groups for the presence of hostility between them and the authoritarian Christians who don’t approve of their existence, as Trump’s new executive order effectively banning anti-racist education for all government agencies, federal grantees, and federal contractors does.
Unfortunately, our major media outlets generally fail to consider power dynamics and let stand the widespread impression that “real” Christianity is conservative, and that critical scrutiny of conservative Christian views is strictly verboten. To do so while Christian nationalists are stacking the federal judiciary, removing protections for women and queer people in schools, and undermining our response to a deadly pandemic by refusing to wear masks and challenging public health initiatives in court, is wildly irresponsible.
As I recently argued elsewhere, criticism of religious views that are mobilized to affect those who do not share them must be on the table in a fair, democratic society:
Like freedom of the press, religious freedom is an important First Amendment right. But when believers use their faith as a bludgeon to attack othered groups and to prevent equal accommodation of members of those groups in the public square, we have moved beyond the bounds of a truly democratic approach to pluralism.
To be sure, some media coverage is directing critical attention at the red flags raised by Barrett’s affiliation with People of Praise, though with the exception of Massimo Faggioli’s excellent piece at Politico it’s mostly been unnuanced. But for the most part, we are getting hand-wringing and bothesidesism at best, and dismissiveness with a heavy dose of false equivalence at worst.
In a particularly egregious example of the latter, Fordham University theology professor Charles C. Camosy argued in Religion News Service that there is no reason to view Barrett’s desire to “advance the Kingdom of God” through law as substantially different from the devotion of liberal Christians like President Obama to their version of that ideal. “Neither is a dangerous theocrat,” Camosy tells us flatly, even claiming that “Kingdom of God” rhetoric, no matter what sort of Christian it comes from, is “not so different from the Jewish concept of tikkun olam” in its expression of a commitment to realizing justice on earth.
If one were comparing theological concepts in a vacuum Camosy might have a point, but this isn’t a theological issue so much as a cultural and political one. Theological concepts take on political meaning in a given cultural context. By ignoring both Barrett’s past comments and the way that kingdom rhetoric has often been deployed to uphold discrimination, to say nothing of the hegemonic nature of Christianity in the United States,, Camosy is gaslighting his readers. In contrast, there is no Jewish tradition in the United States of using the concept of tikkun olam as a bludgeon to control non-Jews.
While Democrats must undoubtedly be careful in how they question Barrett, assuming Trump does nominate her to fill Ginsburg’s seat, public discussion that questions the relationship between Barrett’s far-right politics and her religious views is absolutely valid, and we should not let the double standards that characterize our politics and media because of Christian supremacism prevent us from doing so.
In addition, we would do well to remember that any nominee put up by Trump is illegitimate, as constitutional law expert Andrew Seidel recently contended here on RD, because of the GOP’s openly hypocritical power grab. The Republican Party has become an authoritarian organization, and the politics of authoritarianism is a politics of abuse. If we hope to defeat it, we must stop letting our abusers get into our heads with their bad-faith rhetoric, and we must loudly and clearly call out their gaslighting wherever we see it.