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Barrett hearings will play into Trump’s hopes to claim Catholic high ground

Democrats will walk right into a trap set for them by conservatives if they make her faith the centerpiece of these hearings.

President Donald Trump walks with Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a news conference to announce Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(RNS) — The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic woman, to the Supreme Court has sparked fresh debates over a centuries-old American obsession with Catholic identity and democratic values. As the Senate opens confirmation hearings on Monday (Oct. 12), a noisy public battle includes accusations of anti-Catholicism and wrestling over how the justice’s religious commitments might impact her judicial decisions.

But the Barrett hearings are only one skirmish in a broader fight for the Catholic political soul. 

Since Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee, President Trump’s religious cheerleaders have tried to depict Biden as a “fake Catholic” because of his support for abortion rights. Other members of the administration are taking on the global church. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the Vatican would lose “moral authority” if it went forward with an agreement with the Chinese government on internal church policies, Pope Francis refused to meet with him during a religious freedom conference organized by the U.S. embassy to Rome. Pompeo then held meetings with clergy who have publicly opposed the pope.  

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers his speech during the “Advancing and Defending International Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy” symposium, in Rome, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The Trump administration is in no position to claim any high ground when it comes to Catholic values. The administration’s policies on immigration, taxes, expanding health care to the poor, climate change, the death penalty, and international agreements clash with positions taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, wrote last week that President Trump has “tainted the pro-life cause with the individualism and cult of wealth, greed and celebrity that very quickly erode solidarity and cheapen life.” 

Yet a president who once called Pope Francis “disgraceful” after being challenged for his anti-immigrant rhetoric is now positioning himself as a defender of the Catholic Church.

“Seriously, they’re going after her Catholicism,” Trump said recently about his Supreme Court nominee. Speaking to a high-profile charity dinner for the Archdiocese of New York last week, Trump denounced “attacks against Judge Barrett’s faith,” accusing the Democratic Party of “anti-Catholic bigotry.” 

Most Americans are likely to be surprised to hear breathless charges of anti-Catholicism raised today. More than four decades have passed since John F. Kennedy convinced most voters that he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican, an ugly trope that Protestant leaders had peddled at least since New York Mayor Al Smith became the first Catholic presidential nominee in 1928.

It is not 1928 or even 1960. Catholics in powerful positions in law and politics include the current Democratic presidential nominee, the speaker of the House, more than a third of congressional representatives and five current Supreme Court justices. There are no institutional hurdles stopping Catholics, regardless of political leanings, from ascending to power in the way that there still are for LGBTQ Americans and people of color. Barrett herself is proof of this fact.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett appears at her nomination hearing to sit on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2017. Video screengrab

It’s unfortunate that a tone-deaf remark by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein during Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearing for the 7th Circuit Court gave fresh ammunition to conservatives who already caricature Democrats as hostile to religion. “The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein told Barrett, “and that’s of concern.” The phrase instantly became a badge of honor for conservative Christians who adorned the slogan on everything from T-shirts to coffee cups.

Feinstein’s ill-considered remark and backlash should serve as a cautionary tale for liberal opponents of Barrett and to Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who will question her next week.

It’s not “anti-Catholic” to respectfully probe how a justice’s religious commitment might impact her judicial philosophy. Barrett herself once wrote a law review article that argued a Catholic justice might need to recuse herself in death penalty cases given church teaching against executions. But Democrats will walk right into a trap set for them by conservatives if they make her faith the centerpiece of these hearings.

The “anti-Catholic” mantra is a manufactured myth to distract from a crass power grab less than a month before the election, a victim narrative that serves as a convenient brand if you’re losing the culture war. Those who remake a radical faith that challenges power, pride and greed into a transactional strategy for seating a supposed “pro-life” judge have distorted the prophetic essence of Christianity. 

The problem isn’t that Amy Coney Barrett is a Catholic. The cause for alarm is the court’s extreme lurch to the right and how that threatens health care, voting rights and other moral issues at stake in this election.

(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life Action, and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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