Amy Coney Barrett, now a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, became a heroic figure to some religious conservatives during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall. Sen. Dianne Feinstein challenged the Catholic law professor about her religious beliefs, sneering—it seemed to many—that “the dogma lives loudly within you.” With its strong whiff of anti-Catholic prejudice, the line became a rallying cry on the right.
This past weekend, Barrett emerged as a potential favorite to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy upon his retirement later this month. CBS News reported on Monday that Barrett and D.C. Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh are Trump’s leading contenders for the appointment. Barrett is in her 40s, which means she could serve for decades, and she would be the court’s only conservative woman, which some commentators have noted would make for better optics in abortion cases. (She is also a mother of seven, including one child with special needs and two children adopted from Haiti.)
Thanks to her new proximity to power, the dark murmurings over Barrett’s religious affiliations have been revived. Many critics are particularly incensed over her apparent membership in a Catholic-adjacent group called “People of Praise,” which the New York Times reported last fall. Law professor and Senate candidate Richard Painter tweeted the old Times story this weekend and said People of Praise “looks like a cult”; another prominent critic one-upped Painter by calling it a “secretive religious cult.”
The Times story does not use the word cult, but it’s easy to see why some of its details alarmed many readers. People of Praise members are said to be accountable to a same-sex adviser, called a “head” for men and (until recently) a “handmaiden” for women, who gives input on a wide variety of personal decisions. They swear “a lifelong oath of loyalty” to the group. As one blogger put it, “Barrett is a dangerous religious extremist who believes a federal judge can subvert the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States in order to promote her own religious agenda.” Knowing Barrett’s fiercely conservative legal credentials—clerking for fellow Catholic Antonin Scalia, membership in the Federalist Society—what are we to make of her alleged membership in such a group?
People of Praise was founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, with a core group of 29 people. The group is part of the Catholic “Charismatic Renewal” movement, which arose in the late 1960s as a blend of Catholic traditions and Protestant Pentecostalism. By the late 1980s, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, up to 10 million people in the United States were participating in the movement in some way. Some simply participated in prayer groups. But others started groups that emphasized a more holistic kind of intentional community living: not necessarily living under the same roof but committing to share one another’s lives. “We’re not just praying together, we’re putting our lives in common,” Craig Lent, the group’s current leader, said in an interview.
The original South Bend group now includes about 350 members, split into several smaller “branches.” About 450 people belong to People of Praise in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, about 200 in Northern Virginia, and other smaller groups operate in 11 other states. The group also operates three Christian junior high and high schools in its three largest areas. (Lent pointed out that the schools teach the theory of evolution.) Lent says its members include Catholic priests and at least one bishop, as well as plumbers, carpenters, teachers, and mathematicians. Lent himself is a professor of physics and engineering at Notre Dame, where Barrett taught at the law school until last year.
Is this an ominously metastasizing “cult” or a thriving parachurch organization? “I would definitely not use the term cult in its popular sense,” said Thomas Csordas, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, who has written about People of Praise and similar groups. For one, it is not terribly secretive other than keeping its membership list private. It has a detailed website, and Lent, its current leader—who was elected by a board and is term-limited—cheerfully agreed to an interview. Csordas describes the group as theologically conservative, with a hierarchical leadership structure. But Lent said the group was also deeply inspired by the communitarian ethos of the 1960s counterculture. Group members often make an effort to live near each other in certain neighborhoods. Single people sometimes live with families, and there are some households of single men or single women living together. Members pledge to donate 5 percent of their gross income, and many give more, with the idea of supporting fellow members.
After about six years of participation, members can opt to commit to living in the community permanently, a ceremony that consists of pledging to attend weekly meetings and, as Lent paraphrased it, “to care for each other physically, financially, materially, and spiritually.” The term handmaiden was chosen in 1971, 14 years before Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, to evoke the Biblical Mary’s description of herself as a “handmaid of the Lord,” or a woman who has an important relationship with God. “It has acquired worse resonances, and all we were looking for was a neutral term,” Lent said, explaining the recent change to “woman leader.”
People of Praise is an ecumenical group, which means it accepts members from many Christian traditions. The only theological requirement of membership is to be a baptized Christian and to believe the Nicene Creed, a standard Christian statement of faith. Lent said the group considers abortion a “morally wrong act” but takes no position on abortion policy, comparing it to the way that greed is morally wrong but what that should mean for policy is up to individual discernment. Lent sounded bemused by the national scrutiny the group has attracted lately. “In a certain sense it’s not really about us,” he said, “although I owe members a good account if somebody asks me what this group is about.” An introductory essay on the group’s website sums it up as “hard to understand and that’s OK.”
When I mentioned Barrett’s potential Supreme Court nomination to Csordas, he corrected me, saying she was only a circuit court judge. Yes, I said, but she’s been said to be in the running for the highest court in the country. “I see,” he said. He hadn’t heard. He paused for a long time. There’s always the possibility, he said, that “the thoughtfulness and conscientiousness of that community could provide a check to rein her in, in a way that Alito and Thomas don’t have. They’re just out there on their own.” And in any event, he said: “She couldn’t be any worse than the guys on there now.”