The Slatest

Conservatives Are Already Playing Up Hypothetical Anti-Catholic Bias Against Amy Coney Barrett

A smiling headshot of Amy Coney Barrett taken in a law office.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor at Notre Dame University, in an undated photograph obtained from Notre Dame University. Matt Cashore/Notre Dame University/Handout via Reuters

President Donald Trump will reportedly announce Amy Coney Barrett, a federal judge and Notre Dame law professor with deeply conservative legal credentials, as his nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court on Saturday.

Coney Barrett has long been rumored as a potential Trump appointee to the Court, and in the week since Ginsburg’s death, conservatives quickly began voicing outrage over what they see as a prejudiced reaction to her potential nomination.

“Liberal media already targeting Amy Coney Barrett with anti-Catholic bigotry,” the Washington Examiner proclaimed. “In SCOTUS Confirmation Fight, Expect Democrats To Embrace Anti-Catholic Bigotry,” the Federalist warned. Sen. Ben Sasse put out a press release condemning “anti-Catholic bigotry,” while Mike Pence told ABC News that some were opposing Barrett because of “intolerance” of her Catholic faith. Laura Ingraham had stronger words: “We saw it coming for years, but with a possible Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, the anti-Christian and anti-Catholic bigotry within the Democratic Party is now undeniable.”

What are these accusations based on? In most cases, very little. (It’s worth remembering here that Joe Biden, the party’s presidential nominee, is Catholic). The argument that Democrats are anti-Catholic is built on a couple articles in mainstream publications, comments on social media, and questioning in two judicial confirmation hearings earlier in the Trump presidency. The allegations of bias are priming readers for a hypothetical outrageous offense to come.

The ongoing controversy centers mostly on articles about Barrett’s association with a group called the “People of Praise,” not her Catholicism. People of Praise, founded in Indiana in 1971 as a part of the Catholic “Charismatic Renewal” movement, is a blend of Catholicism and Protestant Pentecostal traditions. Like other “charismatic” groups, People of Praise encourages its members to participate in a close, faith-oriented community with one another. The group has been followed by accusations it is a “cult” because of some of the terminology it uses. According to the New York Times, which first reported on Barrett’s connection to the group:

Members of the group swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another, and are assigned and are accountable to a personal adviser, called a “head” for men and a “handmaid” for women. The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.

Current and former members say that the heads and handmaids give direction on important decisions, including whom to date or marry, where to live, whether to take a job or buy a home, and how to raise children.

But People of Praise is not a cult. While charismatic communities, including People of Praise, have been accused of being at times overly controlling, its members believe what their individual churches teach them, and as Ruth Graham wrote for Slate in 2018, “it is not terribly secretive other than keeping its membership list private.” The term “handmaid”—a reference to the Biblical description of Mary as a “handmaid of the Lord”—was swapped out for “leader” in 2018 because of the associations with the Handmaid’s Tale show airing on Hulu. (Barrett has not spoken openly about the group; reporters have confirmed that she was a member, though it’s unclear if she remains one today.)

The biggest offender in recent coverage, according to conservative media, was Newsweek. An article originally headlined “How Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise group inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale” referenced some of these tropes. Newsweek soon issued a correction: “The book’s author, Margaret Atwood, has never specifically mentioned the group as being the inspiration for her work. A New Yorker profile of the author from 2017 mentions a newspaper clipping as part of her research for the book of a different charismatic Catholic group, People of Hope. Newsweek regrets the error.”

The distinction between Barrett’s Catholicism and her ties to the People of Praise is an important one. While most of its members are Catholic, People of Praise includes members from a number of Christian churches, and it claims to have both conservatives and liberals. (The group’s culture is highly conservative, and it is known to encourage more traditional gender roles.)

Writing for Politico, Catholic scholar Massimo Faggioli argued that Barrett’s connection to People of Praise should be examined, and in particular “any covenant—a solemn contract binding before God—that she signed in the course of becoming a full member of People of Praise.”

To whom has Barrett made a vow of obedience? What is its nature and scope? What are the consequences of violating it? Groups like the People of Praise are a new form of lay Christian life. The members of these communities are (and see themselves as) different from ordinary nonordained Catholics, who do not take vows to obey their parish priests and bishops. But members of covenant communities do typically make broad vows of obedience to community leaders.

This editorial was met with outrage, with the staff of the Catholic News Agency arguing that such questioning would amount to an unconstitutional religion test to Barrett. So far, though, no Democrats have called Barrett’s fitness for the bench into question because of her membership with People of Praise. Instead, critics on social media concerned about Barrett’s positions on abortion—and reporters intrigued by the unusual practices of a relatively small charismatic Christian group—are conflating Barrett’s two religious affiliations. If Barrett’s defenders were being more honest in their attacks, they would accuse such critics of broadly anti-Christian, not anti-Catholic, bias. But there seems to be an increasingly popular argument building in conservative circles centered on Catholicism specifically.

The primary evidence comes from two confirmation hearings: of federal judicial nominee Brian Buescher in 2018 and of Barrett herself to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. In Buescher’s case, Kamala Harris ended up the subject of outrage. During the hearing, Harris questioned Buescher’s impartiality because of his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that does charitable work and opposes marriage equality and abortion. Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono also asked Buescher whether he would “end [his] membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias.” Critics often elided the difference between the organization at the focus of the question and his religious identity in their outrage.

Barrett’s earlier questioning, if it were focused directly on her Catholicism, would look worse for Democrats. In reference to a speech Barrett gave to conservative legal groups and an article she co-authored about Catholic judges in the ‘90s, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “the dogma lives loudly within you.” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a practicing Catholic who opposes anti-choice abortion policies, asked Barrett if she was an “orthodox Catholic”—a term she had herself used in her writing. Critics condemned the question as one of anti-Catholic bigotry.

Since Ginsburg died and speculation began about a potential replacement, no Democratic legislator has said anything about Barrett or any other potential nominee that could be termed anti-Catholic. There are a number of reasons some on the right might be drawn to such hypothetical offenses. It preemptively offers protection to Barrett on tough questions about her judicial philosophy. It may be a cynical ploy to attract votes from Catholics—including Latino Catholics—in the election. Or they may be acting on truly held, but misplaced, beliefs: there was a real history of anti-Catholic discrimination in the U.S. But when the Democrats do begin questioning Barrett during the confirmation process, it’s clear what will happen if any of them ask about the People of Praise or reference her faith-based beliefs. The right already has its response ready to go.