Amy Coney Barrett is a brilliant and decent jurist

Melinda Henneberger, Opinion columnist
Published 4:28 p.m. ET Sept. 26, 2020 | Updated 5:17 p.m. ET Sept. 26, 2020

You cannot fight bigotry with bigotry. Indulging it won’t get us a more tolerant America.

All faiths are at least a little bit weird to those outside of them. Imagine telling someone unfamiliar with Catholicism, “Every chance I get, I eat some bread that I believe is the body of God’s only son, who was executed in Jerusalem under Tiberius.” Totally normal, right? 

So to all of my friends who think that the religious practice of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, who is a member of a charismatic ecumenical community called the People of Praise, ought to bring out the bulldog in Kamala Harris and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I say dear God, no. 

First, you cannot fight bigotry with bigotry; religious intolerance is just as wrong as any other kind of othering. Indulging it won’t get us a more tolerant America. 

And Senators, treating her like the kook that she is not is just what the president is counting on you to do. Unless you want to star in Trump campaign commercials that he’ll say prove Joe Biden is “against God,” don’t even think about it.

This 2017 photo provided by the University of Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Ind., shows Judge Amy Coney Barrett. (Photo: AP)

Yes, women leaders in the People of Praise were until recently referred to as ‘handmaids’ — a biblical reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, when the angel tells her, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus,” she responds, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  

But the group was not the inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ “What the people in that book are going through is horrible,” says Joannah Clark, who runs a People of Praise school in Portland, Oregon and has known Barrett since college.

More: I’ve known Amy Coney Barrett for over 20 years. Her intellect — and heart — is unrivaled.

The group does not require a “loyalty oath” or arrange marriages or force women to keep having children. It puts a premium on intellectual life and values education for men, women and children. Its well regarded schools are attended by many non-members.

It does have a view of marriage that I don’t share and you might not, either, but that St. Paul certainly did. (As the Church is subordinate to Christ,” says his letter to the Ephesians, “so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.”) 

You know that favorite pro-choice rejoinder, ‘If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one?’ If deferring to your husband at home and speaking in tongues in prayer is not your brand of theological vodka, then don’t join the People of Praise, or any Pentecostal church in the world. But don’t be the kind of hypocrite who embraces only those differences that line up with your own cultural views.

Just as Biden is not coming for your guns or your suburbs, neither is he coming for your religious liberty. But could we please make sure Dianne Feinstein is aware, so she doesn’t repeat the folly of her 2017 “dogma lives loudly within you” gift to Republicans at Barrett’s confirmation hearing for her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit?

Brilliant and decent judge

I have talked to Republicans who know Amy Coney Barrett personally and love her, and to Democrats who know her and don’t. But I give special weight to Notre Dame law professor Mark McKenna, who doesn’t think Trump should even be able to fill this seat in the middle of an election and doesn’t agree with his former colleague Barrett on much, in terms of either politics or legal philosophy. 

Yet he sees her as brilliant, decent and operating in good faith.  “Religious attacks are both gross and totally politically misguided,” he says, and is right on both counts.

When Justice Sonia Sotomayor visited Notre Dame five years ago, McKenna remembers, she “spoke movingly about how her faith has shaped her as a justice” and nobody found that in any way suspect. The legal giant Barrett will presumably replace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, drew inspiration for her work from her Jewish faith, too. Why is Barrett’s orthodox Catholicism and membership in a charismatic Christian community any different?

More: Women like my mom nicked the glass ceiling. Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood on their shoulders.

As for the kind of justice Barrett will be, Trump was never going to pick even a Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s moderate choice to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat four years ago. His current nominee is unambiguously conservative and does seem to think Roe was wrongly decided. But as McKenna asks, what’s the endgame in choosing any Supreme Court justice? “If it’s ‘who can get us the results we want,’ then we don’t have a rule of law any more.” 

That’s exactly how Trump has said he looks at the court, and it’s what Missouri Senator Josh Hawley is advocating when he says Republicans shouldn’t vote to confirm any nominee who doesn’t want to overturn Roe. It’s not, however, how the high court was ever supposed to function, and those who know Barrett see her as someone with a far less partisan view of its role, and hers. 

Trump is so overtly transactional that he says out loud that he has to seat his nominee before Election Day so that the person he picks can in turn pick him after he disputes the results. But in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court had to look at counting ballots in a way Florida law hadn’t contemplated. That’s not going to be the case in 2020. 

I also can’t help wondering whether a wholesome person like Barrett, who doesn’t curse or enjoy hearing others do so, is really the fan of our p-grabbing, soldier-mocking, handicap-denigrating president that he expects all of his nominees and appointees to be. Nobody tell him, but I don’t think she’s the political hack he’s hoping for.

By all means, Democrats, go after the fact that this shouldn’t be Trump’s choice to make and that he’s trying to undo the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic. But heap scorn on the People of Praise and you’ll regret it.

Melinda Henneberger, a graduate of Notre Dame, is an editorial writer and columnist for The Kansas City Star and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Follow her on Twitter; @MelindaKCMO 


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