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Catholicism And The ‘American Ethos’

President Donald Trump walks with Amy Coney Barrett outside the White House.
President Donald Trump and Amy Coney Barrett, Sept. 26, 2020. Photo courtesy the White House.

Joe Biden’s Roman Catholic faith is, along with his working-class roots, central to his political brand. Tonight’s presidential debate presents a fascinating opportunity to see whether – and how – he defends his church’s role in American life.

He should not need to defend anything. Politicians, like everyone else, deserve to be judged by the public for their actions in the public sphere, not for the faith they practice in their personal lives. But President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court has dragged religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, into the national spotlight. This development is probably to Biden’s deep chagrin. If Trump or debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News put the question to him, Biden will have to respond.

Barrett is a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a full professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School and a legal scholar of widely acknowledged brilliance. Her colleagues and former students describe her as a kind and generous human being of unimpeachable (no pun intended) integrity.

Barrett is also a committed Catholic and has been a member of an ecumenical Christian organization, People of Praise. People of Praise describes itself as “a community where Christians from diverse church backgrounds can share life, work, prayer and mission while still maintaining active membership in their local congregations.” The organization also notes that “After a long period of prayer and participation in community life, many members of the People of Praise choose to make a lifelong commitment to the community—a covenant.”

“This covenant is a pledge of love and service to fellow community members and to God, resembling the permanent commitments made in Christian religious orders and in many other covenant and intentional communities around the world,” the organization says on its website. “We cherish individual initiative and personal freedom. Community members make this pledge freely, after a formation and instruction period that lasts three to six years. The covenant is a permanent commitment, and yet we are also open to the possibility that God may call a person to another way of life.”

Where is the problem? Before television, the internet and social media tied everybody to their screens and their sofas, Americans routinely joined all sorts of organizations. They socialized through these groups, often while providing some form of collective service. Labor unions, lodges, houses of worship, civic groups like the League of Women Voters, chambers of commerce and even bowling leagues brought people together in pursuit of shared goals and according to shared values and interests. (Granted, the primary shared interest in the bowling leagues often happened to be beer.) Many Americans still come together this way, albeit more often in places seldom visited by those whose lives are centered in the coastal metropoleis.

Still, most of Barrett’s critics presumably would not express concern over her participation in a bowling league. It is the group’s religious nature that is at issue – and even critics who do not attack People of Praise itself have inappropriately homed in on the judicial implications of Barrett’s faith.

Over the weekend, shortly before Barrett’s widely anticipated nomination was announced, The New York Times published this screed from opinion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig (who first dismissed the rumor that People of Praise inspired Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”):

“[T]he animosity faced by Catholics in today’s America has little in common with its direct predecessor. Real sex-abuse scandals have replaced the imaginary ones circulated in the lurid tracts of yesteryear. White Catholics are no longer subject to the religious bigotry that once animated vicious rumors and, occasionally, violent attacks on Catholics and their places of learning and worship. Rather than regenerating a long-vanquished prejudice, Judge Barrett’s nomination has merely renewed attention to a fundamental conflict, centuries underway, between Catholicism and the American ethos.”

Despite my exceedingly modest expectations of The New York Times nowadays, I was stunned to read this. In a single paragraph, Bruenig held all Catholics responsible for sexual abuse by virtue of association with their church; made a distinction, contradicted by her own discussion of Barrett, between religious prejudice against white Catholics and religious prejudice against Catholics of other ethnicities; and claimed that there is some fundamental conflict between Catholicism and an “American ethos” that lives mainly in the mind of a 29-year-old columnist.

This sort of misfire is an occupational hazard for a young writer who moved, in short order, from her graduate studies and a stint as a staff writer at The New Republic to opinion writing for The Washington Post and, later, the Times. Maturity and life experience is not a prerequisite for the job. If Bruenig had editors worthy of the title, they would have saved her from publishing a paragraph that I suspect she will come to regret.

Bruenig utterly misunderstands her country and what one might call its “ethos.” The First Amendment dictates that the government may neither prescribe nor proscribe religion. It does not stand for the proposition that Americans must keep their personal moral beliefs separate from their public activity. Our traditions demonstrate the opposite. From the motto “In God We Trust” on our coins to the rote signoff of every speech by every modern president of either party – “God bless America” – public servants routinely draw on religious as well as secular values.

Bruenig discussed a law article Barrett co-authored more than two decades ago (a time when she was younger than Bruenig is today). In that article, Barrett opined that Catholic judges, in respect of their church’s opposition to the death penalty, should recuse themselves from capital cases. I am not Catholic, but I have personal experience with this issue.

A year ago I was summoned to jury duty in Florida, a state with the death penalty. I resolved that if I was considered for service in a murder case, I would tell the court that under no circumstances would I vote to impose capital punishment, or to convict if I knew the death penalty was a possibility. My firm opposition to capital punishment is not rooted in religious doctrine, but I see no difference where it arises. It would be improper for me to falsely claim impartiality so I could serve in such a case. At the same time, I am not expected or required to check my personal principles – no matter where they come from – at the courthouse door. I prepared myself to do exactly what Barrett proposed a judge should do, for exactly the same reasons. (In the end, I was interviewed for a case involving an insurance claim and excused from the panel. So much for taking a principled moral stand.)

Bruenig, herself a convert to Catholicism, drew a line between Catholics like herself (and, presumably, Biden and Obama-appointee Justice Sonia Sotomayor, though she mentioned neither by name) and judicial conservatives like Barrett. Bruenig seems to presume that Barrett, as “a piously Catholic woman,” is inherently conflicted when discharging her duties in cases involving Catholic principles or institutions. Should we allocate judicial appointments according to religious affiliation? That’s a Lebanese ethos, or an Iranian one. It is certainly not American.

As for Biden himself, he seems eager to keep the inevitable conversation about Barrett as far as possible from the faith they share. The past few days have brought a barrage of focus-group-tested messaging about Barrett’s nomination as an assault on the Affordable Care Act, whose fate will be argued in the Supreme Court a week after Election Day.

The claim is specious, if politically safe. The court will consider whether the statute most everyone calls “Obamacare” must fall in its entirety because one central provision – the mandate for individuals to buy qualified health insurance – no longer carries a financial penalty that can be seen as permissible under Congress’ power to tax.

Ginsburg’s death leaves only three sure votes on the Court in favor of upholding the statute, regardless of Barrett’s confirmation. If Chief Justice John Roberts joins those three votes and upholds an appellate decision, the case will go back to the lower courts to consider the issue of “severability.” If he abandons the three remaining liberals, the statute dies, again without regard to Barrett's status. Even if Barrett is confirmed in time to consider the case, there is little basis to predict how she will rule on the severability question – or, for that matter, how the other conservative justices will rule. There is a good chance they will not all agree.

Biden may want to avoid the issue of Barrett’s religion entirely, as the focus of his criticism so far suggests. Or perhaps he doesn’t want to avoid it at all. Biden could impress us with a full-throated rejection of her faith as an issue in her fitness for the bench, as it is in the evaluation of his own fitness for the presidency. Biden has a chance, tonight, to display the real American ethos in action.

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