In the realm of politics, religion can be a sword and it can be a shield. On Sept. 6, for Senator Dianne Feinstein, member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was a sword. Taking place was a hearing for the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Amy Coney Barrett. There was only one problem; Judge Barrett is a devout Catholic. In her statements, which included the laughably condescending remark, “The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein comes dangerously close to violating her constitutional obligations as a member of the federal government. Article VI of the constitution reads, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned…shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Now when Senator Feinstein chides Judge Barrett that her “dogma” is of “concern,” this is bordering not only on anti-Catholic sentiment, but also of a violation of her oath of office to swear allegiance to the Constitution. Of course Senator Feinstein should immediately save herself from the confirmation proceedings. So should Senator Dick Durbin, who asked Judge Barrett point blank if she was an “Orthodox Catholic;” Of course Judge Barrett would not let her religion affect her job. In fact she said as much in her 1998 paper “Catholic Judges in Capital Cases” where Judge Barrett explicitly stated that a conflict between the law and her faith would result in her removal from any proceedings. Judge Barrett is not saying anything that could not be said of anyone (secular, religious, or otherwise) who constantly objects to a law they are expected to make a ruling on. Judge Barrett was not the first nominee to be subject to a borderline violation of law—religious test. She was not even the first nominee in the last six months. Senator Bernie Sanders hounded Deputy Director, Office of Management and Budget nominee Russell Vought, about his particular protestant Christian views on salvation in June. But this is not the heart of the issue, for the real question remains.
What is religion in the political sphere? As in evidence above, it can be a sword to wield against the faithful. It can also be a shield. The Boston Globe ran a glowing piece on Sept. 2 about the deep Christian faith of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In the piece, Senator Warren quotes scripture in a sermon specifically so she can defend her developing agenda. Should I hold my breath while I wait for Senator Feinstein to express her “concern” over her fellow senator’s “dogma”? I don’t think I should. Why? Because the two senators agree on every substantive issue.
It seems that, to many, religion should be a fun little hobby that gets put back in the drawer when the real political debate begins. Of course, it would be very naïve to make religious arguments for particular policies. But to assume, even demand, that office holders’ religious views not be brought into their own conscience, would be to demand that they forget their moral upbringing. “Okay, I may be a devout Jew and I believe the teachings of my tradition, but if I didn’t believe those things I might vote in a different way…”
It would be to force a religious believer, whether they’re a judge, lawmaker, or in Russell Vought’s case, a numbers cruncher, to go against their beliefs in order to get their vote. Peoples’ beliefs are formed by their values, which, for many people, are based in a religious worldview. Religion is a topic that many people in this country take very seriously; it informs their values and the way they look at the world. To demand that people can have their fun hobbies, religion, as long as they leave them on the doorstep, is to empty people of who they are.
Elizabeth Warren is never going to be challenged from inside her own party for her faith as long as they agree on everything; if she were to adopt a change of heart and proclaim the truth of the pro-life position based on her religion, she would be denounced as a religious fundamentalist. So, it seems, that religion in modern politics, is a generalized indifference towards faith that satisfies one’s own party to justify ones policies. As long as one remains in line, there’s no problem. But if you’re Judge Barrett, even removing yourself from judicial proceedings is not enough; that’s a fun hobby you have there, but put the toys back in the toy box.
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