Should Americans Worry About Amy Coney Barrett and 'People of Praise'?

Let's look at her record.

Let me begin by laying my cards on the table. I’ve long been an admirer of Amy Coney Barrett, both as a person and a jurist. I believe Donald Trump made a mistake when he nominated Brett Kavanaugh instead of Judge Barrett in 2018, and I believe he made the correct pick yesterday. If he wins re-election in November, she should be promptly and quickly confirmed. I persist, however, in my belief that a rapid vote before the election is imprudent. It’s dangerously hypocritical and inflammatory in an already-volatile and cynical time. 

Yet those of you following the judicial wars closely know that in some quarters Judge Barrett is especially controversial—beyond the obvious and ongoing judicial differences between progressives and conservatives. There is a persistent religious critique of Judge Barrett that began when Sen. Dianne Feinstein touched off a firestorm by saying to Barrett in her court of appeals confirmation hearing, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” 

With those words, it appeared that she was imposing an unconstitutional religious test on Barrett’s bid for public office. Why was she singled out? Yes, she’s a faithful Catholic, but she’s hardly the only faithful Catholic in the federal judiciary (much less the Supreme Court). Her jurisprudence will likely be pro-life to some degree, but she’s hardly the only the judge who’s faced confirmation suspicions that she’ll oppose Roe

Instead, the claim appears to be that Barrett is unique. She’s not just religious, she’s super-religious. Or perhaps weirdly religious. And that allegedly weird, extreme religiosity makes her judicial integrity and commitment to the Constitution suspect. The critique centers around her membership in an ecumenical (but predominantly Catholic) charismatic Christian group called “People of Praise.” Back in 2018, prominent law professor and former George W. Bush ethics attorney Richard Painter tweeted a rather blunt, succinct critique:

Friday night, HBO’s Bill Maher called her a “f**kin’ nut” and said she was “Catholic. Really Catholic. I mean, really, really Catholic—like speaking in tongues.” On Thursday Mother Jones published its own concerned report (similar concerns were also printed in Politico):

The media hits just keep on coming. Earlier last week, Newsweek wrongly connected People of Praise to the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of religiously inspired sex slavery. Newsweek later corrected its piece, and outlets on the right and left fact-checked it into oblivion. In fact, Vox was unequivocal: “To be absolutely clear: People of Praise is not an inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale, and the group does not practice sexual slavery or any of the other dystopian practices Atwood wrote about in her novel.”

No sex slavery? That’s a relief.

So, if they’re not sex slavers, what is the case against People of Praise? In 2017, the New York Times posted a report titled “Some worry about judicial nominee’s ties to a religious group.” You can read the entire thing, but the core case is contained in these three paragraphs:

Some of the group’s practices would surprise many faithful Catholics. 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.

More:

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.

And: 

Legal scholars said that such loyalty oaths could raise legitimate questions about a judicial nominee’s independence and impartiality. The scholars said in interviews that while there certainly was no religious test test for office, it would have been relevant for the senators to examine what it means for a judicial nominee to make an oath to a group that could wield significant authority over its members’ lives.

The more I looked into People of Praise, the more I had two simultaneous thoughts: First, many millions of American Christians see echoes of their lives in Judge Barrett’s story. And second, lots of folks really don’t understand both spiritual authority and spiritual community. The concerns about Barrett reflect in part the glaring gaps in religious knowledge in elite American media.

In other words, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet was right when he told NPR’s Terry Gross, “We don't get religion. We don't get the role of religion in people's lives.”

So let’s try to “get religion,” especially in the context of close-knit religious fellowships like People of Praise. First, outside of true cults, the concept of spiritual authority and spiritual “headship” is quite divorced from the lurid fears and imaginations of many Americans—and it rarely has anything at all to do with law, politics, or the American Constitution. It has much more to do with religious doctrine and religious practice—orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  And words and terms that sound strange to secular ears are simply biblical and traditional to countless Christian Americans.

I’ll give you an example. My family recently moved from Columbia, Tennessee, to Franklin, Tennessee, and that meant we had to move on from our beloved Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in Columbia to join a new church. When we joined that church, we took membership vows, and those vows included a promise to submit ourselves “to the government and discipline of the church.” 

Combine that pledge with the reality that there is a category of elders in the PCA called “ruling elders” (yep, that’s the term), and it’s easy to imagine the essays expressing concern if I were ever nominated to anything (no chance of that!)— “David French has agreed to ‘submit’ to the ‘government and discipline’ of his ‘ruling elders.’ Can he be trusted to uphold his oath of office?” 

It gets even worse. “French consults with his so-called ‘rulers’ on matters relating to his marriage, his career, and his finances. He even joins small groups of believers, and those groups often have leaders who ‘hold him accountable’ to the doctrines and practices of his faith.”

Sounds ominous, right? It might even sound a little culty. But then you realize what’s actually happening. To the extent that the leaders exert real authority, it’s to uphold the teachings of the church—making sure that the words of the church (in the pulpit and in Sunday School) match the beliefs of the church.

To the extent that the leaders impose discipline, it’s after a careful and compassionate process that provides ample opportunities for repentance—such as urging an adulterous husband to return to his wife and removing him from church membership if he does not. 

What about all that “interference” in marriage, careers, and finances? Well, that’s the totally normal and valuable process of providing counsel and prayer to individuals who might be facing a crossroads or a crisis. Sure, an elder or leader might have real influence, but that’s because they’ve demonstrated actual wisdom and spiritual maturity. Their words are worth hearing

Moreover, tight-knit Christian communities aren’t “weird” or “strange.” Instead, they provide an immense blessing of close fellowship, of deep friendships. Because people are highly imperfect, there is no question that some communities and some fellowships can be dysfunctional, but the mere existence of the fellowship is not suspicious. 

And what about the “strangeness” of the charismatic movement? While there are certainly extreme elements within charismatic Christianity (roughly defined as the strand of the faith that believes spiritual gifts—like healing, prophecy, and tongues—described in the New Testament persist today), it also happens to be one of the fastest-growing faiths in the world. 

A branch of Christianity that began with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906 now counts more than half a billion believers worldwide. 

In fact, I have direct experience with a tight-knit group that experienced a charismatic renewal. No, it wasn’t Catholic. We were almost entirely Protestant. I didn’t speak in tongues, but I experienced perhaps the greatest period of sustained spiritual growth in my life. I made friends that have lasted a lifetime. Most of us lived together, we ate together, and—yes—we held each other accountable. We had leaders we looked up to for spiritual guidance and wisdom. 

What was the name of that group? The Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship. And one of our key leaders, a woman of tremendous faith, is now the Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard. The rest of us are scattered across the country, and many are doing remarkable and compassionate works for our nation and for the church.

And that brings me to my final point. Any evaluation of actual people in real religious fellowships can and should apply a simple scriptural test, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”

And what are the fruits of the People of Praise? While every group has disgruntled members (I’m sure you can find one or two from my church), the overall response is glowing. As I wrote when Barrett’s faith first became controversial:

[I]t’s a group so nefarious that the late Cardinal Francis George wrote, “In my acquaintance with the People of Praise, I have found men and women dedicated to God and eager to seek and do His divine will. They are shaped by love of Holy Scripture, prayer and community; and the Church’s mission is richer for their presence.” It’s so dastardly that Pope Francis appointed one of its members as auxiliary bishop of Portland. And it’s so insular that it’s founded three schools that have won a total of seven [now nine] Department of Education Blue Ribbon awards.

And what are the fruits of Judge Barrett’s life? She’s a mom of seven kids, two adopted and one with special needs. She clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia, she was a respected law professor, and now she’s a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. She’s already written standout opinions during her time on the bench. 

Progressive Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, who clerked alongside Barrett at the Supreme Court in the late 1990s, endorsed her yesterday in a Bloomberg essay. After first decrying Republican hypocrisy surrounding her nomination, Feldman says this:

Yet these political judgments need to be distinguished from a separate question: what to think about Judge Amy Coney Barrett, whom Trump has told associates he plans to nominate. And here I want to be extremely clear. Regardless of what you or I may think of the circumstances of this nomination, Barrett is highly qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

I disagree with much of her judicial philosophy and expect to disagree with many, maybe even most of her future votes and opinions. Yet despite this disagreement, I know her to be a brilliant and conscientious lawyer who will analyze and decide cases in good faith, applying the jurisprudential principles to which she is committed. Those are the basic criteria for being a good justice. Barrett meets and exceeds them.

I’ll say one last thing about Barrett’s faith. A fundamental aspect of faithful Christian commitment is truthfulness. “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.” Barrett has a reputation for integrity. 

So when she declares that her judicial opinions are guided by the facts of the case and the text of the law — and not the doctrines of her church or the leadership of her religious fellowship — and when that declaration is buttressed by an impressive record of scholarship and jurisprudence, Americans can be sure that Trump has nominated a serious conservative scholar and good and decent person to the highest court in the land.

One last thing…

One thing I’ve noticed during this time of sickness, economic hardship, racial tension, and political polarization is that the question “How are you?” has taken on new and profound weight. Those words are no longer a conversational formality but often an entrée into revelations of real personal pain. 

Just last week, I casually asked that question on a phone call with a person I’d just met, and I found out the answer: She’d been battling Covid-19 for weeks, and she couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. She was in deep despair.

So this week’s song is a little different. The lyrics are from Job, but they’re interrupted partway through by a few short words from John Piper about the meaningfulness of suffering. His words encouraged me. I hope they encourage you:

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