This is becoming a rather common pattern on a certain type of hot-button story on the Godbeat.
What kind of hot-button story? To be honest, I'm not quite sure whether I'm ready to pin a label on this church-state phenomenon or not. However, we have another one of of these stories, no matter what we call it. Let's walk through this.
Stage 1: Something happens in the public square that combines clear religious content and politics (if possible linked to You Know Who in the White House). Take, for example, a U.S. Senate hearing in which a Notre Dame University law professor who is a traditional Catholic and the mother of seven children is -- since she is being considered for a federal appeals court slot -- bluntly asked: "Are you an orthodox Catholic?" Another senator warns her that Catholic "dogma lives loudly within you."
Stage 2: Conservative and religious news websites, fired by Twitter storms, cover the story. Meanwhile, major news outlets -- starting with The New York Times (still) -- ignore this interesting drama linked to the U.S. Constitution's ban on establishing religious tests for public servants. Click here for my first post on this issue.
Stage 3: The Atlantic then runs an online story which puts the key facts into play, while offering what amounts to a second-day feature analysis story about an event that -- in terms of first-day, hard-news coverage -- doesn't exist in the mainstream press.
We are, of course, talking about the whirlwind surrounding 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a pro-Catechism Catholic legal scholar. The double-decker headline for religion-beat pro Emma Green's feature at The Atlantic says a lot:
Should a Judge's Nomination Be Derailed by Her Faith?
During a recent hearing, Democratic senators pushed an appellate-court nominee to explain how her religious beliefs would affect her legal decisions.
The summary, interpretive, material at the heart of the piece observes:
While recent Senate hearings have skirted the boundary of posing religious tests for public servants, raising constitutional questions, something more complicated seemed to be going on here. Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democratic senator from Rhode Island, expressed frustration that Barrett and her fellow nominee at the hearing, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen, refused to discuss how their personal beliefs might shape their legal thinking. He and the other Democratic senators seemed to believe that religious convictions affect how judges apply the law. “To sit here and pretend that there is no role for people’s personal and private views … when they go to the court—it’s just, it’s so preposterous as to be silly,” Whitehouse said.
As conservative, often religiously motivated positions on issues like gay marriage and banning abortion increasingly become out of step with popular opinion and legal precedent, this boundary between personal conviction and legal fidelity is going to become even tricker to navigate. What’s the line between examining a nominee’s religious convictions and believing those convictions disqualify her from serving the country?
Along the way, readers are introduced to all kinds of material -- from on-the-record sources of interest to left and right -- that one would normally expect to see in coverage from high-quality journalism sources.
The question, again, is pretty obvious: Why isn't this story drawing mainstream news coverage?
One more thing about The Atlantic piece. Quite a bit of attention is paid to an essay written in 1998 by Barrett, when she was a law student, and John Garvey, who is now president of the Catholic University of America.
In the paper, the two authors explore whether a Catholic judge should recuse herself from death-penalty cases if she would be unable to impartially uphold the law because of her religious convictions. “The pope and the American bishops have recently offered clear and forceful denunciations” of the punishment, they reason, and many Catholics feel morally obligated to uphold the teachings of the Church. In certain, limited circumstances, they argue, federal judges should step back from involvement in cases that might raise conflicts of conscience.
They did not, however, argue that judges should step back from morally complicated cases all, or even most, of the time. “It turns out that the number of cases in which we thought an adherence to your moral principles would prevent you from deciding a case according to the law was much smaller than we imagined,” said Garvey in an interview.
In those rare cases when law and conscience do conflict, Barrett and Garvey argued in the paper, the most important thing is that “judges cannot -- nor should they try to -- align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge.” Although some might be tempted (to) “cheat,” as they put it -- “to take charge of sentencing hearings and manipulate the law and evidence in order to save lives”—that betrays public trust. Occasionally, the federal recusal statute can help judges to avoid interfering with the law while still “[conforming] their own behavior to the Church’s standard.” Perhaps, they write, “their good example will have some effect.”
OK, that's pretty clear. However, as Green observes in this analysis piece:
The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee seemed to read the paper in the opposite way, saying that a judge’s religious beliefs should trump the law.
In other words, the bottom line is that the liberal Catholics on the Senate panel do not believe that the conservative Catholic being grilled is being honest about this issue. Is there any Constitutionally appropriate way to get around that barricade?
The piece ends with a final kicker from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fiercely pro-abortion-rights voice in the Senate:
“Dogma and law are two different things. I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different.”
Read it all. Meanwhile, we can all continue to wait for the mainstream media coverage, which -- in and when it ever arrives -- is almost sure to be framed as a case of conservative Catholics making a big to do about nothing. Of course, as I said at the end of my first piece:
... The main question is an old one that your GetReligionistas have asked many times: Can you imagine the mainstream press ignoring this story if the theological and political doctrines in were reversed? Can you imagine liberal senators asking the same questions to a Muslim nominee?
Just asking. Again.
OK, and again.
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Feinstein is Catholic. That glaring error has been corrected.