Even before President Trump had officially announced his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, conservatives already had their talking points in order: all opposition to the nominee would be cast as “anti-Catholic” bigotry. Conservative columnists were already proclaiming that anti-Catholic bias from the left would doom Democrats in the next election.
In reality, of course, there is no anti-Catholic bias against Barrett from the left, and the entire talking point is manufactured. No one significant in Democratic politics has made any attacks on Barrett’s Catholic faith or on Catholicism generally. Sonia Sotomayor, the last Supreme Court Justice nominated by a Democratic president, is Catholic. The 2020 Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, is a devout practicing Catholic. The Democratic Speaker of the House is Catholic. It was the Democratic Party that first elected a Catholic president, and today slightly more Catholics are Democratic voters than Republicans.
The notion that Democrats broadly or the left specifically are prejudiced against Catholics is absurd. Indeed, by far the greatest source of anti-Catholic bigotry in America remains white protestant evangelicals–the very core of the Republican base, and the proponents of various ugly conspiracy groups like QAnon, some of which snare gross old anti-Catholic theories in their nets. Insofar as anti-Catholic bigotry exists in America, it is principally among arch-conservatives and Republicans.
Even so, much of the Democratic establishment predictably wants to avoid the entire question of Barrett’s personal beliefs. It is much easier and less controversial to point out the obvious hypocrisy and desperation of Trump and his allies in attempting to force through the nomination at all. Most Americans want the winner of the 2020 election to replace Ruth Bader-Ginsburg on the Court, and it easier to focus on the very real policy implications of yet another far-right Federalist Society apparatchik on the highest court in the land.
A 6-3 conservative court is likely to make deeply unpopular decisions over many facets of American life–from ending Roe and the right to an abortion, to striking down the Affordable Care Act on scurrilous grounds, to tilting the balance of power even farther in favor of corporations and against workers. It could even deliver Trump an unearned victory through court decisions defying the will of the voters.
The Supreme Court is already stacked with devotees of an extremist legal philosophy, one that ignores both more and cultural change and judicial precedent in favor of a radically conservative interpretation of what the Founders might have meant when drafting the Constitution. Barrett would be perhaps the most radically anti-precedent Justice on the court, with horrifying consequences across the landscape of American life. She is an extremist’s extremist. As Ruth Marcus writes at the Washington Post:
Also on the Barrett chopping block could be the right of same-sex couples to marry; the existence of affirmative action programs at colleges and universities; the constitutional protections against discrimination based on gender that Ginsburg made the center of her career; and environmental protections and other regulatory efforts enacted as part of the congressional power to oversee interstate commerce.
Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor whose scholarship on stare decisis is cited extensively in Barrett’s writing, termed her approach to overturning precedent “radical.” If Barrett puts her academic views into action and four other justices go along, he said, “it will produce chaos and instability in constitutional law.”
But one of the reasons it is difficult to disentangle the personal moral beliefs of Supreme Court Justices from their judicial views that for both liberal and conservative justices, a personal moral ethics inflects a judicial ethics. If you believe that the Constitution is a living, breathing document that must reflect the culture and morality of the nation for which it provides a legal structure, then your comfort with a modern moral culture will influence your interpretations. If, on the other hand, you believe that modern society and law should conform itself to ancient scriptures and your personal wild guess as to John Adams’ specific worldview at the time of the Constitution’s writing, then that too will influence your interpretation. Given the cultural, moral and philosophical gulf between the today’s world and that of the 18th century when most of even America’s most radical revolutionaries still owned slaves (or condoned owning them) and treated women as less than human, a belief in absolute scriptural supremacy over human affairs and 18th century textual originalism cannot help but lead to extremist, fundamentalist outcomes. They are intimately connected.
And the reality is that Americans do not want extremist fundamentalists running their lives, and do not want extremist fundamentalist policy outcomes. Americans do not want the Affordable Care Act repealed. Two-thirds of Americans, including a plurality of Republicans, want Roe v Wade to remain in place. Two-thirds of Americans support marriage equality for adults of all sexual orientations. Americans are also increasingly secular and skeptical of attempts by fundamentalists to pry into their personal lives or overturn progressive policy:
The United States is heading down the same path of religious rejection as Europe. Less than a third of Americans say they attend church weekly, and a record low percentage of people say they have confidence in organized religion. The two largest Christian denominations, Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, have seen their membership sink to multidecade lows. Meanwhile, the nonreligious have seen surging numbers. For the first time, they’re in a tie for first among religious demographics.
The withering of Christianity is especially apparent among the young. Millennials were dubbed “the least Christian generation in American history,” until the next generation, the up-and-coming Generation Z, took that title from them. According to the polling firm Barna Research, as little as 4 percent of teenagers hold what they define as a “biblical” worldview. The conservative commentator Peter Wehner quotes a friend who laments: “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the church.”
There is nothing anti-Catholic about this. Americans are simply rejecting fundamentalist extremism of all varieties, both religious and non-religious, judicial and ethical. They want science, decency and empathy to drive policy. And they don’t want radical conservatives to constrain the next two generations of policy on healthcare, climate change, and even the shape of American democracy itself–much less turn the clock back on rights and benefits they already enjoy.
Barrett’s nomination is an intrinsic insult not only to the memory of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, but to the moral compass of modern America. If an extremist minority of Republicans manage to force her onto the nation’s highest court, it will be incumbent on Democrats to rebalance the court in accordance with the will of the majority of Americans.