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?
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩