Senators have an opportunity to model religious tolerance in the Amy Coney Barrett hearings. Will they?



I’ve never met Amy Coney Barrett, and I’m not a legal scholar with informed opinions on her past judicial rulings. But I find myself sympathizing with her as she prepares to enter the lion’s den of Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Because like Barrett, but on a smaller stage, I know what it’s like to juggle a high-profile career, in a flyover state, while raising small children and practicing my faith, a kind of faith that many of my colleagues thought disqualified me from doing good work.

When I read that at a 2017 court of appeals confirmation hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Judge Barrett, “the dogma lives loudly within you” — implying that the judge would impose her conservative Catholic faith on Americans — I flashed back to a standoff with colleagues early in my broadcast journalism career.

It was shortly after I’d been assigned to the religion and culture beat at WFAA (Channel 8). I was in the middle of the newsroom and found myself facing several senior reporters.

“Don’t you go to church on Sundays?” one asked, as though he’d caught me in some petty crime.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “And I teach fourth-grade Sunday school.”

“Then how can you cover religion?” he shot back as a gotcha moment.

“Didn’t you vote in the last election?” I asked him, and he answered yes.

“Then how can you cover politics?” I said.

From the moment Barrett was nominated as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement on the Supreme Court, a stream of critics has linked her faith to judicial incompetence.

Several weeks ago, HBO’s Bill Maher called Barrett “a [expletive] nut … I mean, really, really Catholic — like speaking in tongues.”

Thomas Merton, a prolific author and renowned Catholic theologian, once described a prophet as “one who cuts through great tangled knots of lies.”

I’m no prophet, but 30 years of experience as a journalist, with a lot of untangling of truth from distortion, makes it pretty easy to spot the glaring lies, if not the hypocrisy in the firestorm surrounding Barrett.

The first lie is that religious belief compromises good judgment in a profession that requires clear-headed, fair and unbiased reasoning.

The truth is just the opposite. The kind of faith that professionals such as Barrett or millions of other American, practice is in fact the best insurance policy against bias.

Conservative Catholics and Protestants follow the teachings of the Bible closely, and one of God’s highest callings is to demonstrate integrity and excellence in our work. For both a jurist and a journalist, that means setting aside personal bias and refusing to inject our ideology into our rulings or our reporting.

I hear that thinking in Barrett’s response to charges of bias in her 2017 confirmation hearings:

“It’s never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge’s personal convictions, whether they derive from faith or anywhere else on the law.”

Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, who takes issue with many of Barrett’s votes and opinions, agrees, writing: “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’ve long marveled that the same people who worry that deep religious faith contaminates objectivity show no concern over non-religious beliefs that are every bit as dogmatic and fervent. Think critical race theory, the National Rifle Association, or some environmental lobbies. The strong convictions driving these movements are just as potent as traditional religious belief. It’s hypocritical to suspect bias when a person’s philosophy is shaped by religion but not when it’s infused with secular beliefs.

When I joined ABC News, a senior producer was quoted in the press as being troubled that Peter Jennings had hired a “Southern born-again Christian,” as though I couldn’t report the news objectively. Jennings argued that my experience as an award-winning journalist who also practiced her faith would enhance the network’s coverage of the millions of Americans whose stories the network kept missing or getting wrong.

After all, major media outlets regularly send Black reporters to cover stories on racial justice, LGBTQ reporters to cover gender discrimination, and feminists to cover women’s rights. So why cry foul when a practicing Christian enters the newsroom or a judge’s chambers?

If Barrett’s critics were honest, they might admit that their disdain isn’t for her having religious beliefs, but for having the wrong ones.

No one complained that Ginsberg, a Jewish jurist, kept a Bible verse on the wall in her chamber.

President Bill Clinton told me in a White House interview how his progressive Christian beliefs shaped his decisions while in office. He said he prayed every day as “a child of God who has sought forgiveness, searched for redemption and is struggling to find the guidance of God in this job.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” was entirely rooted in Christian theology.

Yet Barrett’s critics consider her form of conservative Catholicism a threat to justice. Some point to a commencement address of more than a decade ago, when Barrett encouraged Notre Dame Law school students to help build the “Kingdom of God,” a term straight from the most popular prayer in the Bible, prayed daily by millions of Americans. By the reaction, you’d think it was a call to enlist in a fringe cult.

The ignorance and contempt on the part of the media and cultural elites when it comes to religious belief and its meaning for so many Americans is staggering. And it’s hardly a secret.

Several years ago, in an interview with NPR, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet confessed, “We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.”

It’s more than not getting it. It’s judging it as crazy. Once, after I beat the competition to win another exclusive interview with a newsmaker who happened to be Christian, a news executive asked me, “How do you get these people to talk to you? Do you Christians have séances in basements together?”

There’s a steep cost to this disconnect. It helps explain the popularity of Fox News and the election of Donald Trump. Most evangelical Christians I know don’t like the man, but feel that other candidates have ignored or spewed contempt on many of their beliefs.

At Barrett’s confirmation hearings, I anticipate the spotlight to focus on People of Praise, the tightly knit community of faith Barrett belongs to. It’s fair game to question whether the group has influence over Barrett’s judicial philosophy, and so far, there’s been no evidence.

I advise Barrett’s critics to tread carefully when they take on the group’s teachings. Many of them, such as communal accountability, charismatic worship and traditional views on marriage and sexuality are shared by millions of Americans.

If these are the kinds of beliefs Barrett’s critics find suspect, the upcoming nomination hearings will only add fuel to an already explosive battle in this country between traditional Judeo-Christian values and the newer religion of progressive enlightenment. Dragging Supreme Court confirmation hearings into this culture war will further erode crucial public trust in our judicial system. If instead Democratic senators can model religious tolerance, they could lead a divided country toward respectful conversations over our differences.

Peggy Wehmeyer is a writer in Dallas and a former news correspondent for WFAA and ABC News.

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