3 Ways Liberals Will Attack Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic Faith
COMMENTARY: If a religious believer like Amy Coney Barrett is nominated to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, the secular dogma will live loudly in the public discourse.
According to “insiders” and the betting markets, which are probably more reliable, Amy Coney Barrett may be nominated to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. President Trump says he’ll announce his choice on Friday or Saturday, and that it’ll be a woman.
If he nominates Barrett, liberals and pro-choicers will tell the world that she’ll impose her religion on the country.
She’s too religious, they’ll say. She won’t be fair or neutral. She won’t respect the law. She’ll deny the separation of church and state. She’ll try to impose Catholic belief. She won’t obey the First Amendment and its promise of religious freedom. And so on.
I don’t believe they’re really very worried about that. She’s a constitutional “originalist,” and they don’t want that. They don’t want anyone the president will appoint. But religion is a great stick to beat her with, because she’s serious about it. When you believe something so public as the Catholic faith, and associate yourself with something so big as the Catholic Church, you give your critics lots to hit you with.
We’re going to hear a lot more of this kind of criticism if Barrett is nominated. The criticism will be loud and constant and just this side of hysterical. Her enemies will go through everything she has ever written, looking for weapons. The criticism won’t be fair. And they’ll make it so loudly and so constantly, you won’t be able to get a word in edgewise.
Her critics will hit her in three ways. The first treats serious Catholicism as in itself disqualifying. The second presents every belief the critic doesn’t like as “religious” and therefore forbidden. The third takes words out of context to make the victim look like a Catholic fanatic.
These are the standard methods of trying to push Christians out of the public square. It’s useful to know how they do it.
Barrett the Dogmatist
Here’s an example of the first. Remember the dumb remark from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein three years ago, in the hearings on Barrett’s nomination to the Court of Appeals: “In your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you — and that’s of concern.” You’re supposed to shudder in horror because only fanatics hold dogmas.
As far as I can tell, Feinstein meant that Barrett really believed what she believed. That was enough to make the senator claim to be concerned, and to vote against her. The senator didn’t have to examine what she believed about the issues at hand.
Everyone speaks from their fundamental beliefs. When Barrett speaks as a Catholic … she speaks as a Catholic. That’s what everyone with beliefs does.
When my friends who are observant Jews speak as observant Jews, they do the same thing. When my Marxist friends speak as Marxists … they speak as Marxists. It would be weird if they didn’t.
The senator herself does this. She holds fundamental beliefs — the beliefs she calls dogmas — and they live loudly within her. For example: “I believe very strongly that we should control our own bodies in connection with our faith and medical ethics.” That’s a dogma about the nature of man, among other things, and one she proclaims loudly and often.
But let Barrett speak as a believing Catholic and she shouldn’t be a federal judge. Never mind what she believes about the law.
Barrett the Overreligious
Here’s an example of the second type of criticism. Last time Barrett was a possible nominee, two years ago, Newsweek announced that Barrett “has characterized abortion as a practice that ‘take[s] away innocent life.’ While critics have called this an example of her personal religion creeping into her legal duties, Barrett's friends and colleagues are adamant in their defense of the role of religion in her life.”
Sounds reasonable. Even fair, balancing “critics” with “her friends and colleagues.” But wait. What does this criticism assume? How does it load the claim against Barrett and indeed against any Catholic?
The writer implies that a belief that abortion “take[s] away innocent life” is an example of her Catholicism. Therefore, it’s a religious belief — a dogma — she can’t bring to her judicial decisions, because that would violate the separation of church and state.
It does that very subtly. Notice that the magazine says her critics say that, but it doesn’t say that Barrett disagrees. It only says her friends and colleagues defend the role of religion in her life. It leaves the reader to assume that the description of abortion is “private” or “sectarian.”
Pro-choicers love trying to dismiss defense of the rights of the unborn as religious. But how is calling the unborn child “innocent life” religious at all? The unborn child is definitely a life and definitely innocent. An atheist should see that. It’s an observation. It’s no more “dogmatic” than knowing that the South Pole gets more snow than Miami. It’s obvious. But Newsweek twists it into an expression of private religious faith.
Barrett the Theocrat
Here’s an example of the third type. I’ve already seen it on Facebook: Memes quoting her saying that the lawyer should serve God first. She’s a theocrat, they say, shocked and horrified. A theocrat believes that God must be the head of the state and wants to direct the nation’s laws and life to doing what he wants.
What did Barrett say to deserve that? The quote comes from a commencement address she gave as Notre Dame Law School’s professor of the year. In 2006. (I told you they’d read everything.) The memes quote her as saying “your legal career is but a means to an end, and that end is building the kingdom of God.” They may also quote her as saying that the lawyer’s “fundamental purpose” is to “know, love and serve God.”
That does make it sound like she’s telling lawyers to bend the law to Catholic ends. It will sound like that especially to someone who wants reasons to say she shouldn’t be a Supreme Court justice. It looks like a smoking gun. She let out her real thoughts speaking to her students and peers. Those quotes make her a dangerous theocrat, her opponents say.
Here’s the quote people are (ab)using: “[Y]ou will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as Father Jenkins told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.”
She then makes that practical, which explains what she means by it. Most lawyers “treat the legal profession as an end in and of itself,” she says. It determines where they live and what jobs they take. It takes up all their time. Don’t do that, she says. “No matter how exciting any career is, what is it really worth if you don’t make it part of a bigger life project to know, love and serve the God who made you?”
She then offers three practical ways of doing this. Are they theocratic instructions to let their religious convictions drive their decisions? No. They are: Pray before taking a new job, tithe, and find Catholic friends. Basically, what any sensible person might say in some form.
If Trump nominates Amy Coney Barrett, look out for these three types of criticism. Almost everything said in attack will a version of one of these — that being a serious Catholic disqualifies her, that Catholics try to make their private beliefs into public policy, or that she’s a fanatic. If Trump nominates an observant Jew or Muslim, we’ll hear the same things said about them.
The great irony of this, of course, is that as an originalist, Barrett will be more faithful to the First Amendment and its promises of freedom than her critics are. But they don’t really want religious freedom. They want secularism.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death blog.
He is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.