“The dogma lives loudly within you.” These were the words with which California Senator Dianne Feinstein addressed my colleague at the University of Notre Dame, Amy Coney Barrett, in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider her nomination by President Trump for the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois approached Barrett in the same manner, inquiring, “are you an orthodox Catholic?”
Much has now been written to explain why these inquiries were outrageous and I won’t reargue the matter here. See this piece by John Garvey, President of Catholic University of America, or this excellent reflection by Matthew Bunson. In brief, the questions carry the spirit of religious tests for office which the U.S. Constitution prohibits (historically, a great innovation). Their imputation that Barrett would impose her religion on the law is directly refuted by her record of careful arguments to the contrary. These senators have disrespected Barrett’s religious freedom by implying that her very faith disqualified her. And, it is reasonable to think that Durbin’s and Feinstein’s worry that abortion rights are endangered lies behind their unusually vitriolic attacks.
Among the protests of the Senator’s behavior, I am proud of the eloquent and uncompromising statement of Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins. A strong statement came, too, from Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber. Interestingly, Eisgruber has written on religion in constitutional law, including a book with Professor Lawrence Sager, in which he takes an approach to religious freedom that I regard as too secular and insufficiently protective of religious freedom. So, to me, it was all the more significant to read his incisive protest of the Senator’s treatment of Barrett. (Princeton also has issued a model statement on academic freedom.) Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty also weighed in insightfully and unsparingly.
One final thought: Even in the likely event of Barrett’s confirmation, the enduring impact of Senator Feinstein’s and Senator Durbin’s statements is to remind us how heavy the hostility is to religion’s rightful public life among wide swaths of our political and cultural leaders.