The clock is ticking and the news coverage is heating up. At this point, for religion-beat pros, there's only one question that matters: Will Donald Trump GO THERE? Will he nominate the "loud dogma" candidate who will make heads explode in the liberal Catholic and secular politicos camps? We are, of course, talking about Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
However, there is a rather cynical possibility linked to this story, an angle explored in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
You see, Trump needs to fire up voters for the midterm elections. In particular, he needs evangelical Protestants and pro-Catechism Catholics to turn out in droves, to help rescue the GOP from, well, Trump's unique ability in infuriate half of America (especially in elite zip codes and newsrooms).
So what if he nominated Barrett and let the blue-culture masses go crazy?
What if he unleashed that storm, knowing that the moral, cultural and religious left will not be able to restrain itself?
What a scene! Remember the hearings long ago for Justice Robert Bork -- the SCOTUS seat eventually taken by one Judge Anthony Kennedy -- and this famous speech by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, speaking for the Catholic left and cultural liberals everywhere?
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.
So what would that sound like today, if Barrett has to face her critics once again?
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has already prepared that script, in a piece for The New Yorker, describing this future nightmare court:
It will overrule Roe v. Wade, allowing states to ban abortions and to criminally prosecute any physicians and nurses who perform them. It will allow shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and hotel owners to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds. It will guarantee that fewer African-American and Latino students attend élite universities. It will approve laws designed to hinder voting rights. It will sanction execution by grotesque means. It will invoke the Second Amendment to prohibit states from engaging in gun control, including the regulation of machine guns and bump stocks.
In this kind of atmosphere (typical Washington Post op-ed scream here), it's hard to do solid, balanced journalism. So many news organizations have jumped to apocalypse mode.
In the Barrett drama, the key (other than the "loud dogma" hearing) was a New York Times feature, the one we could call the "handmaiden" manifesto. Basically, the world's most powerful newspaper stopped just short of saying that the Notre Dame Law School professor and judge was part of a cult.
You could have knocked me over with a feather the other day when, in this acidic atmosphere, Slate published a solid piece on Barrett's ties to a charismatic fellowship called People of Praise (click here for a Catholic News Agency backgrounder on this group and its relationship with mainstream Catholicism). Here is a large chunk of that Slate piece:
People of Praise was founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, with a core group of 29 people. The group is part of the Catholic “Charismatic Renewal” movement, which arose in the late 1960s as a blend of Catholic traditions and Protestant Pentecostalism. By the late 1980s, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, up to 10 million people in the United States were participating in the movement in some way. Some simply participated in prayer groups. But others started groups that emphasized a more holistic kind of intentional community living: not necessarily living under the same roof but committing to share one another’s lives. “We’re not just praying together, we’re putting our lives in common,” Craig Lent, the group’s current leader, said in an interview.
The original South Bend group now includes about 350 members, split into several smaller “branches.” About 450 people belong to People of Praise in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, about 200 in Northern Virginia, and other smaller groups operate in 11 other states. The group also operates three Christian junior high and high schools in its three largest areas. (Lent pointed out that the schools teach the theory of evolution.) Lent says its members include Catholic priests and at least one bishop, as well as plumbers, carpenters, teachers, and mathematicians. Lent himself is a professor of physics and engineering at Notre Dame, where Barrett taught at the law school until last year.
Is this an ominously metastasizing “cult” or a thriving parachurch organization? “I would definitely not use the term cult in its popular sense,” said Thomas Csordas, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, who has written about People of Praise and similar groups. For one, it is not terribly secretive other than keeping its membership list private. It has a detailed website, and Lent, its current leader -- who was elected by a board and is term-limited -- cheerfully agreed to an interview. Csordas describes the group as theologically conservative, with a hierarchical leadership structure. But Lent said the group was also deeply inspired by the communitarian ethos of the 1960s counterculture. ...
The term handmaiden was chosen in 1971, 14 years before Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, to evoke the Biblical Mary’s description of herself as a “handmaid of the Lord,” or a woman who has an important relationship with God. “It has acquired worse resonances, and all we were looking for was a neutral term,” Lent said, explaining the recent change to “woman leader.”
Perhaps SCOTUS watchers could have a drinking game, taking a shot of some adult beverage whenever the term "handmaiden" is used during cable-news discussions of Barrett?
So here is the ultimate "what if," in this case.
What if Trump serves Barrett up as a sacrificial lamb, unleashing the media storm? This would fire up the voters that the Tweeter In Chief needs to fire up.
After a week or so, he asks her to stand down. Then he nominates a candidate that the chattering classes would oppose, but see as more conventional (someone who doesn't have seven children and a degree from Notre Dame, as opposed to Yale).
The bottom line: He fills the SCOTUS seat, yet also creates the rallying cry, "Remember Judge Amy Coney Barrett!" #SOMUCHWINNING
Yes, that's cynical. Will Trump go there?
Tick, tick, tick.