Amy Coney Barrett’s Religion Isn’t the Problem; It May Be Part of the Solution

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“… reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

—  George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796


In a 2006 Diploma Ceremony address at Notre Dame Law School, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic, told the graduating students:  “… your legal career is but a means to an end, and … that end is building the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God is that eternal realm marked by charity, grace, forgiveness, fairness, and peace.  In referring to the kingdom, Barrett acknowledged that, ideally, one’s legal career must point always to the Good, the Beautiful, and the True; jurisprudence must be accompanied by principled virtue, and moral purpose must underscore all civic engagement.

For some, this construct is objectionable.  And now, as Barrett has been chosen to be the U.S. Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her statement is sending chills down the spines of opponents.

Barrett was appointed a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. In her confirmation hearing for that post, she faced hostile remarks about her Catholic faith, most notably U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-California) admonition that “the dogma lives loudly within you.  And that’s of concern.”

Feinstein’s statements should alarm all practicing Catholics — indeed, all U.S. citizens, as they reveal an agenda that would seek to exclude from the bench those individuals who exhibit a moral conscience informed by religion. It is imperative to state, here, that the U.S. Constitution forbids using religion as a standard to judge a candidate for federal office. Article VI, paragraph 3 states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or pubic Trust under the United States.”

That means that while a specific religious affiliation cannot be required for a federal appointment, a specific religious affiliation should also not be a barrier to appointment — it should not disqualify.

On September 22, Susan Hennessey, Brookings Senior Fellow and CNN National Security and Legal Analyst, tweeted this comment:

“Amy Coney Barrett’s personal faith is entirely unobjectionable and between her and her creator.  Her clear intention of imposing her private beliefs, including religious views, on the American public by overturning long-settled precedent should disqualify her from the bench.”

The long-settled precedent that Hennessey refers to here is, no doubt, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. Barrett’s views are widely assumed to include opposition to Roe vs. Wade. Let’s say that’s true. Why couldn’t it be based on her legal philosophy instead of her religious philosophy? Why wouldn’t moral reasoning be part of a legal philosophy? And why should she have to abandon her concept of moral reasoning in order to become a Supreme Court justice?

It stands to reason that sincerely held religious views would influence a person’s moral reasoning. But that’s not the same as saying that religion dictates the conclusions of a seriously religious person when it comes to legal reasoning.

Barrett has repeatedly remarked that her personal views regarding abortion and other issues would “have no bearing on the discharge of my duties as a judge.” She understands that there is a radical difference between imposing her private beliefs and, conversely, being free to allow those beliefs to inform her actions, decisions, and livelihood. Her endeavor to be informed by her faith and to underpin her vocation with a principled set of moral beliefs should elicit praise, not scorn. It should be welcomed with enthusiasm, not with suspicion.

The First Amendment of the Constitution gives specific favor to the free exercise of religion.  It promotes what Justice Antonin Scalia (for whom Barrett served as law clerk) called “the official encouragement of religion, but strict neutrality among religious sects.” The Declaration of Independence appeals to the “Laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God,” and affirms that “all men …. are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” For Catholics, as for all Christians, God, not man, is the beneficent Author of our civil liberties. The contemporary repudiation of transcendental faith is an outright dismissal of our American heritage.

Alexis de Tocqueville opens his masterpiece Democracy in America by reminding us that the freedoms and rights we cherish rest upon religious foundations. He notes that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society, and that liberty “considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” Sadly, contemporary society has rejected Tocqueville’s premise. The ethos of the present relativistic age, of course, is that mankind is the author and purveyor of all rights. There are no immutable truths. Moreover, the concepts of Natural Law, Nature and Nature’s God have been largely jettisoned from contemporary society and, in this society, to adhere, as Barrett does, to the precepts of Catholicism is to cling to a fanciful illusion.  The antipathy toward, and outright disdain of, religious institutions is permeating our culture, and in this secular zeitgeist faithful believers have become pariahs.

What is so frightening about religion?  Shouldn’t we be more frightened of abandoning it?  As political theorist Daniel J. Mahoney recently pointed out in Real Clear Politics, British diplomat James Bryce (1838-1922) recognized that if Americans abandoned their religious beliefs, they would do so at great peril. In his 1888’s book The American Commonwealth, Bryce imagined a democratic civilization without religion. He considered the dangers of a world where human beings “cease to believe that there was any power above them, any future before them, anything in heaven and on earth but what their senses told them.”

Feinstein, Hennessey, and many others on the Left seem to envision a U.S. Supreme Court devoid of serious Catholics. That’s not only unconstitutional, it’s unwise. Barrett, in referring to the kingdom of God and identifying herself as a believer in that kingdom, implicitly holds herself to a higher standard than mere political ideology. She can’t just zip to a desired end – she must justify the means by which she gets there. That means includes a respect for the constitution, statutes, and case law that define her power and limit it.

Isn’t that exactly the type of person you want on the Court?


Lori Brannigan Kelly is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously in New Boston Post.  She has also published works in The Human Life Review, the Pilot, Society magazine, First Things, St. Austin Review, Patheos, and Catholic Exchange.  She lives in South Boston, Massachusetts with her husband Dan.