We have been discussing the anti-Catholic attacks on Judge Amy Coney Barrett and how various commentators are calling her a “cult member” and a religious “monster.” Most responsible writers and newspapers have condemned the attacks but the New York Times has run a column that appears to justify the attacks using the same anti-Catholic tropes. (For the record, I was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic high school in Chicago). The column by Elizabeth Bruenig explains why the attacks may “not be entirely baseless” in exploring historical and philosophical sources. While I do not believe Bruenig holds or wants to advance long-standing anti-Catholic prejudices, the column references sources and advances stereotypes that are painfully familiar to many Catholics.
Before addressing the merits of Bruenig’s argument, which I strongly disagree with, I would like to make two threshold points. First, Bruenig is an excellent writer with an impressive background in religious studies from Brandeis, Cambridge, and Brown universities. She previously wrote for the New Republic, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post. She is Catholic, extremely liberal, and offers an interesting perspective on these issues.
Second, I am not critical of the New York Times publishing the column. This is not a problem of inclusivity but hypocrisy. The Times continues to publish highly controversial columns from the far left while promising not to run columns like the one penned by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton on the use of military force to quell rioting. The Cotton column was factually correct, but objections from the left led to the removal of the editor and the cringing apology of the Times. In the meantime, those who pushed for renunciation of the column (and editors) have continued to tweet out utterly absurd and baseless anti-police conspiracy theories. The Bruenig column is an example of how the New York Times has made the echo-chamber media into a deafening reality. It is doubtful that the New York Times would publish a column exploring how a nominee’s Muslim or Jewish faith raises legitimate questions over their commitment to “American ethos.”
Now for the merits. Bruenig begins her column with the statement that “Critics of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee argue that pious Catholics are a problem for liberalism. They have a point.” The framing of the column in terms of “liberalism” is a tad misleading. Critics of Barrett have said that she will follow church dogma blindly and erase any line between public and private values in legal analysis. That is more than some religious difficulty with “liberalism.” Bruenig herself makes this clear just a few graphs down in questioning whether there is “fundamental conflict, centuries underway, between Catholicism and the American ethos.” She notes “Roman Catholicism does not readily distinguish between public and private moral obligations.”
Much of this discussion however concerns the common tensions between religion and public life that cuts across religions. It is called morality. While a diehard secularist who has spent his life writing and litigating against morality based laws, I respect my friends and colleagues who argue for morality in the law as a foundational concept. It has long been embraced as the touchstone of legal systems and many liberal writers rely on such arguments to advance legal positions. Bruenig wrongly suggests that there is something about Catholicism that legitimately gives pause in reviewing nominees like Barrett.
Bruenig recounts how the philosopher John Locke warned that Catholics “could not be trusted to leave their faith in the appropriate sphere” and how that view “was not entirely baseless.” I teach Lockean theory and love to discuss his brilliant theories from The Two Treatises of Government. Bruenig appears to be pulling from John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. The work is ironically controversial for the same reason as Bruenig’s column: it speaks of tolerance while expressing intolerant views. Locke embraces the role of faith and civil values in government. However, when it comes to Catholics, his tolerance evaporates. Using common papist tropes, Locke warns that Catholics are not truly committed citizens because they are not “subjects of any prince but the pope.” Their faith, Locke claimed, is “absolutely destructive to the society wherein they live.”
Locke justifies his hostility with two general claims. First, because “where [papists] have power they think themselves bound to deny it to others.” In other words, Catholics seek power for themselves to oppress others. Second, Locke insisted that Catholics “owe a blind obedience to an infallible pope, who has the keys of their consciences tied to his girdle, and can upon occasion dispense with all their oaths, promises and the obligations they have to their prince.”
Bruenig does not mention any of this anti-Catholic bias by Locke or the intense anti-Catholicism at the time that Locke was writing. Instead, she launches into how institutions like The Little Sisters of the Poor demanded exceptions to Obamacare. However, so did other religious groups. That is called a free exercise challenge that has been brought by Jews, Muslims, protestants, and virtually every other religion throughout our history.
Judge Barrett has declared that “judges cannot — nor should they try to — align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge. They should, however, conform their own behavior to the Church’s standard.” Yet, after noting that position, Bruenig returns to the sinister role of the Catholic Church and Locke: “With individuals, this kind of resolution usually suffices. But Catholic institutions are another story: It is in their fortunes that Locke’s suspicions have proven most prescient.”
The column works too hard to rationalize the use of faith in scrutinizing a nominee. While Bruenig takes a passing swipe at the most raw attacks on Barrett involving allegations that she belongs to a cult, she then justifies suspicions tied to her religion. The clear implication is that there really is reason to question the commitment of devout Catholics like Barrett to “American ethos,” as stated in Locke’s anti-Catholic diatribe. This is why famed historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. called anti-Catholicism “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people.”
There is, of course, another view of “American ethos” that is bound tightly with the free exercise of religion and religious tolerance. It is not found in papist attacks or anti-Catholic tropes but in the history of this country, including the service of great Catholic leaders from John Kennedy to Joe Biden to a host of Supreme Court justices. They did not seem to struggle with the “American ethos.” They helped define it.