To divert attention from Barrett’s views and their wanton flouting of historical norms, her Republican defenders offered dire warnings about a coming religious war. They insisted that anyone who expressed interest in how the 7th Circuit jurist’s Catholic faith or her membership in a fellowship called People of Praise might affect her view of the issues facing the court was guilty of “anti-Catholic bigotry,” as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) put it.
Sasse was echoing many others on the right. Vice President Pence said questions about Barrett’s religious views were evidence of “intolerance . . . about her Catholic faith.”
The idea seems to be that if a public figure such as Barrett speaks openly about the importance of her faith, as she does, no one has any right to comment or inquire about what this means for her attitudes toward public questions.
A small problem with all the Republican huffing and puffing: The GOP and its conservative loyalists assail the faiths of their political opponents all the time.
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. (And speaking of bigotry, we can’t forget Trump’s banning citizens from a group of predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States)
This is yet another case of the “heads we win, tails you lose” bullying Republicans have turned into high art. They ask us to accept that the only kind of faith that can never be questioned is the sort that leads people to support conservative policies and vote for Republican candidates. When it comes to other brands of faith (and especially to nonbelievers), it’s open season.
Are liberals sometimes clueless about conservative believers? Sure. I wish Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had never said to Barrett at her confirmation hearing for the appeals court: “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”
Beyond how weird that statement is, it had an illiberal sweep to it — and in any event, we are not worried about Barrett’s “dogma.” (The Virgin Birth? The Resurrection?) What we have good reason to worry about, as my colleague Ruth Marcus wrote, is Barrett’s rather radical lack of respect for court precedents.
Still, I would insist 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.
Religious conservatives have every right to bring their faith-inflected views to the public square. (I freely acknowledge that my own commitments on poverty and social justice have been much influenced by Catholic social thought.) But once we enter the fray, others have an equal right to challenge our assumptions and ideas. That’s how democratic dialogue works.
What degrades religion to the level of political propaganda is conservative double-talk that it’s okay for them to criticize Biden’s brand of Catholicism, but not okay for liberals to challenge Barrett’s brand of Catholicism.
As a practical matter. I hope Democrats stay away from Barrett’s faith altogether. The central issue is not Barrett herself but the scandal of Trump making this nomination 38 days before the election. Republicans have proved themselves to be ethical and constitutional opportunists by having different rules for Supreme Court nominations by Democratic and Republican presidents.
Barrett must be pressed to reveal exactly what she discussed with Trump — and to recuse herself from any case involving the 2020 election. Trump has already signaled that he is counting on a new justice to help him steal the election. “We need nine justices,” he explained to reporters, because of “a hoax with the ballots.” He has made any conversation with Barrett, any winks and nods, public issues.
Democrats must also challenge Barrett on the Affordable Care Act, which, based on her record, she might well gut, and also on her very troubling rulings on worker, immigrant and civil rights.
There’s one other reason to stay away from Barrett’s faith. Republicans desperately want to keep it front and center so their theatrical ranting about “anti-Catholicism” will drown out the real issue: their unconscionable, boundless and unprincipled lust for judicial power.