If you ever need much evidence that the growing “God gap” in American politics fosters an immense amount of ignorance and occasionally outright bigotry, look no farther than the concern — the alarm, even — that Amy Coney Barrett is on President Trump’s short list to replace Anthony Kennedy on the United States Supreme Court.
The alarm isn’t about her credentials. She’s checked every box of excellence — law review, appellate-court clerkship, Supreme Court clerkship (with Justice Scalia), elite law-firm experience, law professor at an elite law school, and now experience as a federal judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. She’s a young, brilliant woman at the apex of her profession.
So, beyond her obvious originalist judicial philosophy (shared to varying degrees by every person on Trump’s list of potential nominees), what’s the problem with Judge Barrett. Why do some progressives single her out for particular scorn?
It turns out that she’s a faithful Christian who lives a Christian life very similar to the lives of millions upon millions of her fellow American believers.
No, really, that’s the objection.
Of course there was the infamous moment during Judge Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearing for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals when Senator Dianne Feinstein imposed an obvious religious test on her nomination. “When you read your speeches,” Feinstein said, “the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for, for years in this country.”
Feinstein’s statement was crude and direct. Many progressives I know — including influential Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman — blanched at the obvious religious targeting. But there’s a different, more subtle attack on Barrett that is already reemerging. Based on a September 28, 2017, New York Times article by Laurie Goodstein, the insinuation is that there’s something not quite right with Barrett’s faith. She’s part of a “small, tightly knit Christian group called People of Praise,” and this group — not her church — is the real problem.
Goodstein goes on to cast the group in near cult-like terms, with talk of a “lifelong oath of loyalty,” special religious language like “head” and “handmaid” to describe the leaders of the group, and ominous implications that members are not completely independent — that group leaders “give direction on important decisions, including whom to date or marry, where to live, whether to take a job or buy a home, and how to raise children.”
Then, to really ratchet up the concern, Goodstein refers not to experts on People of Praise or similar groups, but rather to “legal scholars” to opine on Barrett’s independence:
Legal scholars said that such loyalty oaths could raise legitimate questions about a judicial nominee’s independence and impartiality. The scholars said in interviews that while there certainly was no religious test for office, it would have been relevant for the senators to examine what it means for a judicial nominee to make an oath to a group that could wield significant authority over its members’ lives.
When I read the article last year, I rolled my eyes so hard that I almost injured myself. Aside from the basic facts about People of Praise — it’s a group so nefarious that the late Cardinal Francis George wrote, “In my acquaintance with the People of Praise, I have found men and women dedicated to God and eager to seek and do His divine will. They are shaped by love of Holy Scripture, prayer and community; and the Church’s mission is richer for their presence.” It’s so dastardly that Pope Francis appointed one of its members as auxiliary bishop of Portland. And it’s so insular that it’s founded three schools that have won a total of seven Department of Education Blue Ribbon awards.
But beyond the basic facts about People of Praise, I was amused by the article for a different reason. It betrays fundamental ignorance about the way millions of American Christians live their lives. You see, for many of us (myself included), what happens at church is just the beginning of our efforts to build and sustain Christian community.
At the low end of additional engagement, we form and belong to what Evangelical churches call “small groups” — Bible study on steroids. The members of small groups don’t just study scripture. They form deep friendships and they seek advice for living their lives, including, yes, advice on dating, marriage, careers, and child-rearing.
And that’s the low end of additional spiritual engagement. Moving farther down the walk of faith, Evangelicals (and many Catholics, like Barrett) work with more formal “parachurch” organizations — entities that complement and supplement the work of a local congregation. Often, members of those organizations not only do things like found schools, they also create more formal social networks that allow people to help other members in need, to house members who need places to stay or live (especially when they move to new communities), and to appoint leaders who direct the group and provide biblical counsel to its members.
Amy Coney Barrett is at the peak of her profession. She shares faith practices with millions of co-religionists. Her faith experience is their faith experience. And if progressives seek to block her from the nation’s highest court because of it, they’ll betray our nation’s founding ideals.
Moreover — as anyone with even the most cursory exposure to biblical Christianity knows — these groups use biblical language to describe their roles. Words like “covenant” are incredibly common.
Many years ago, before I was married, I belonged to a parachurch organization that enriched my life immeasurably. We prayed together, worshipped together, ate meals together, and even lived together. My two roommates were members of the same group. We often engaged in the same kinds of community outreach (e.g., many members volunteered for Big Brothers/Big Sisters). We held each other accountable, and when one member of the group strayed from biblical teaching, the leaders confronted him or her. We spoke the language of “covenant,” and we’ve maintained deep relationships to this very day.
What was the name of this radical, scary group? The Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship.
So when I read tweets like this, from law professor Richard Painter, I hope they’re the product of ignorance, not malice:
A religious group in which members take an oath of loyalty to each other and are supervised by a male “head” or female “handmaiden.” That looks like a cult. Now she wants a seat on SCOTUS for the sole purpose of overturning Roe v. Wade. The answer is NO.https://t.co/i3lb7nVJPU
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) June 30, 2018
I don’t know Judge Barrett personally, but I know her by reputation. She’s widely acknowledged to be a brilliant law professor, and she’s a role model for Christian professionals who are committed to excellence in their careers and to loving Christ, their families, and their neighbors. If she’s deemed unfit for the Supreme Court, then the religious test is alive and well.
Shortly after the 2016 election, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet confessed that “media powerhouses don’t quite get religion.” It’s not just the media powerhouses. Only 32 percent of white Democrats even believe in the God of the Bible. These are folks who are disproportionately clustered in academia and powerful progressive corporations. Many of them rarely interact with committed Evangelicals or committed Catholics, and their lack of knowledge is glaringly obvious.
Ignorance leads to suspicion, and suspicion leads to fear. Yet this fear cannot and must not be permitted to trump reason. Amy Coney Barrett is at the peak of her profession. She shares faith practices with millions of co-religionists. Her faith experience is their faith experience. And if progressives seek to block her from the nation’s highest court because of it, they’ll betray our nation’s founding ideals.