Cornell University Press

Religion on Trial: Amy Coney Barrett’s Faith and the Supreme Court

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The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has left a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court that the President and Congressional Republicans are eager to fill. Amy Coney Barrett, previously floated for the seat that eventually went to Brett Kavanaugh, has been tapped for the role. Commentators point to Barrett’s religious identity as one of the reasons for her appeal to conservatives: Barrett is a devout Catholic and a member of People of Praise, a charismatic religious community in which members make a lifelong commitment to support and guide one another. Though many religious communities make use of small-group accountability structures—they’re quite popular in Methodist churches, for example—People of Praise’s emphasis on “headship” has raised suspicion from outside observers, since married women’s “heads” are always their husbands and single women receive advice from a female community member known as a “handmaid.”

In the Senate hearings surrounding Barrett’s appointment to the 7th Circuit Court in 2017, Senator Dianne Feinstein worried aloud about how Barrett’s religious identity might affect her judicial decision-making. “I think whatever a religion is,” Feinstein proclaimed, “it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor… the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.” In addressing Feinstein’s concerns, Barrett stated that “It’s never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge’s personal convictions, whether they arise from faith or anywhere else, on the law.” But given Barrett’s short tenure on the 7th Circuit, where according to one law professor she “hasn’t been a judge long enough to really have developed… a distinctive judicial voice,” commentators have searched her past for clues as to how her religion might guide her behavior should she be confirmed.

In the Senate hearings surrounding Barrett’s appointment to the 7th Circuit Court in 2017, Senator Dianne Feinstein worried aloud about how Barrett’s religious identity might affect her judicial decision-making.

One potential piece of evidence is a law review article Barrett co-wrote with John H. Garvey, which concluded that Catholic judges, “if they are faithful to the teaching of their church, are morally precluded from enforcing the death penalty” and should therefore recuse themselves from cases where a death sentence might be on the table. Other commentators point to a 2015 letter to the Synod of Bishops that Barrett signed alongside a number of other prominent Catholic women; the letter affirmed papal teachings on “the value of human life from conception to natural death,” on sex and gender complementarity, and on heterosexual marriage.

As Feinstein’s comments and Barrett’s background suggest, a woman who lives her religion “loudly” raises concern in American politics. The historian Joan Wallach Scott explains in her book Sex & Secularism that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment rhetoric that shaped our founding political ideals assigned both women and religion to the realm of the private and the domestic. Thus, when religious women appear in public even now, their presence threatens to undermine notions of a rational and secularized (and implicitly masculine) political sphere.

As Feinstein’s comments and Barrett’s background suggest, a woman who lives her religion “loudly” raises concern in American politics.

One question at issue in Barrett’s nomination, then—one that I explore in my new book—is the relationship between a woman’s religious adherence and her public and political agency. Will Barrett, because she is Catholic, conform strictly to papal dictates even in secular matters? Will she, because she belongs to a complementarian community, defer to a man’s opinion in matters of law? Concerns like these risk falling prey to the fallacy of theological determinism: the idea that religious adherents, particularly women, are controlled by religious leaders or those leaders’ beliefs, and that if we can only pin down the exact nature of a woman’s “dogma,” we can predict how she will behave. But religion isn’t something done to women; it’s something women do. And if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court, Barrett, like every person who claims a religious identity, will strike her own balance between personal belief, political identity, private feeling, and public duty.

*Featured photo by Olivier Douliery/ AFP – Getty Images


Ashley Reed is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Tech. Follow her on Twitter @AshleyKReed.

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