Faith as Proxy

Last month, as the political tribes lined up for and against the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt wrote a column lamenting what he claimed was prejudice against Catholics.1 “Today’s voters,” he wrote, “will recognize any focus on faith in this judicial context for what it is: anti-Catholic bigotry.”

Hewitt argued that if “Senate Democrats in Barrett’s confirmation hearings, or in talking to the press, . . . focus on the nominee’s religion, the scurrilous tactic will almost certainly be met with disgust by voters.” They haven’t done that, but Catholicism has been invoked a-plenty by Barrett’s supporters.

Hewitt is a Catholic, as am I. He argues that it’s wrong to discriminate against a Catholic designee on the basis of religion, and I agree. But there’s something else at work here.

Almost immediately after Barrett’s nomination, we began to hear about her being a “devout Catholic.” In fact, if you Google “amy and barrett and devout and catholic,” you’ll see that the search turns up about 338,000 results.2 This focus on her religion didn’t happen because of the malign influence of anti-Catholic bigots: it happened because her Catholicism has become a proxy for pro-life positions that can’t come up during the confirmation hearings.

It has become standard practice for Senators to try to read tea leaves that will indicate how a Supreme Court Justice candidate will rule, because the nominees can’t openly talk about their positions on these issues. And this reluctance to talk about hypothetical opinions didn’t start with Barrett.

For example, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said with characteristic clarity at her confirmation hearings, “it would be wrong for me to say or to preview in this legislative chamber how I would cast my vote on questions the Supreme Court may be called upon to decide. . . . A judge sworn to decide impartially can offer no forecasts, no hints, for that would show not only disregard for the specifics of the particular case, it would display disdain for the entire judicial process.”

So the Senators can’t ask Judge Barrett how she would rule on a hypothetical case. What they can do is to look at her seven children and conclude that she must be a “traditional” Catholic, and therefore a guaranteed vote against Roe v. Wade.

So what we have here is not anti-Catholic bias being exercised against her. What we have is a use of Catholicism as a proxy for her anticipated support for overturning Roe v. Wade.

Who’s the bigot now?

  1. It’s ironic to use the term “prejudice” here: prejudice involves a “preconceived judgment or opinion,” and plenty of preconceived judgment is on display in the present hearings.
  2. I put aside for the time being the inappropriateness of characterizing someone else as devout. One’s observance can be public, but one’s devotion–the characteristic that makes one “devout”–is really known only to God.

The Barrett Hearings

The Contrarian has some observations about the Amy Coney Barrett nomination for Supreme Court Justice and the confirmation hearings that started this week. As I write this, it is anticipated that the Senate will vote next week, and we pretty much know the result.

The present hearings are a show trial: Senators have pretty much declared how they will vote, so both sides can simply play to their bases. Principle? Justice? Fairness? The institution of the Supreme Court? Please. ACB will be confirmed, and we may see some disastrous decisions in the decades ahead.

The nation is in this situation because Democrats lost the last Presidential election and have been unable to gain control of the Senate. It was clear four years ago that the Republic had suffered a catastrophe, and the administration would have four years to do its damage. Nothing should surprise us. Even if voters turn out the current occupant, his outrages will continue right up to the moment his successor takes office, and the legacy of the past four years will extend for decades.

Democrats have made much of this late-term nomination by a (one can hope) lame-duck President. In my view, the Republicans were wrong four years ago to deny a hearing to Merrick Garland. Their convenient turnaround in 2020 only exposes the hypocrisy of the position they took then. In my view, every Republican Senator who served in 2016 and went along with their leaders’ position should be voted out of office.

But while Democrats have every right to point out the hypocrisy of the Republicans in this matter, it is just as hypocritical of them to take now the position Republicans took in 2016. The Republican Senate is doing what politicians do: using their power while they can. Their base elected them to do this. Principle has nothing to do with it. Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If he observed that about the power brokers of his era, why should we expect differently about ours?

The answer for the Democrats is to regain the government and then use that power just as relentlessly as the Republicans are doing now. 1

A couple of years ago I saw the wonderful movie RBG. You don’t have to be an attorney or a constitutional scholar, or even a Democrat, to admire her, personally, intellectually, and professionally. I honor her life and mourn her death. But she didn’t have a vote on her successor in life, and she doesn’t get one in death. Honoring her wishes would be fitting, but it’s not enshrined anywhere in the Constitution. Proceeding with a hurried replacement process isn’t fitting, but it’s legal.

  1. In this vein, personally I don’t like packing the court because it inevitably would become a tit-for-tat process stretching on to infinity. If the Democrats get power and decide to use it to cement their advantage, then I do like pursuing statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. I don’t know enough about the legalities of those: beyond the likelihood that they would yield Democratic electoral votes, they have essentially nothing in common. But with enough votes, all that can be sorted out.

Political Discourse: Improvement Starts with Us

People who pass our house can’t help but notice that we have a campaign sign on our front lawn. Obviously, we have staked out a position in the upcoming election. I don’t pretend to start this post from a position of political neutrality–as if such a thing were even possible.

I recently took part in a discussion of parishioners at which it became clear that some were disgusted by politics, some were perplexed by the choices available, and all were concerned about our moral responsibilities as we face a month of voting. In one way or another, all of us were trying to answer the same question: as a voter of faith, what are my obligations as a citizen?

As might be expected, the Contrarian has some thoughts.

Continue reading “Political Discourse: Improvement Starts with Us”