Amy Coney Barrett

Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

Let's play 'Spot the religious test' in some big news stories -- on left and the right

I realize (trigger warning!) that the U.S. Constitution is a rather controversial subject right now, with all the talk about U.S. Senate “majority votes” and tiny little red flyover states getting to have two senators, just like blue powerhouse states on the coasts.

Still, it’s a good thing for journalists in mainstream newsrooms to know a thing or two about this document, especially when covering the religion beat. I’m not just talking about the free press and freedom of religion stuff, either.

Yet another wild story in the White House has raised an issue that, #ALAS, I think we will be seeing more of in the near future. The key issue: Candidates for public service facing “religious tests” served up by their critics.

First things first: Ladies and gentlemen, here is Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, 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.

This leads us to several relatively recent news stories that raised questions about “religious tests.”

The key question: Can journalists recognize “religious tests” when they take place on the political left and the right?

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Here we go again: U.S. Supreme Court gains even more power in America's culture wars?

Here we go again: U.S. Supreme Court gains even more power in America's culture wars?

The day after election day is, of course, a day for political chatter. Let’s face it: In Twitter America, every day is a day for political chatter.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to see a few religion ghosts in all of this media fog — hints at the religion/politics stories that will soon return to the headlines. Let me start with a few observations, as a Bible Belt guy who just spent his second straight national election night in New York City.

* I didn’t think that it would be possible for the U.S. Supreme Court to play a larger and more divisive role in American political life than it has post-Roe v. Wade. I was wrong. Do you see big, important compromises coming out of the new U.S. House and Senate?

* Maybe you have doubts about the importance of SCOTUS in politics right now. If so, take a look at the U.S. Senate races in which Democrats sought reelection in culturally “red” states. Ask those Democrats about the heat surrounding Supreme Court slots.

* So right now, leaders of the religious left are praying BIG TIME for the health of 85-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, to a lesser degree, 80-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer. After two battles with cancer, activists inside the Beltway watch Ginsburg’s every move for signs of trouble. What will conservative religious leaders pray for?

* If Ginsburg or Breyer exit, one way or the other, what will be the central issues that will surround hearings for the next nominee? Do we really need to ask that? It will be abortion and religious liberty — again.

* If the next nominee is Judge Amy Coney Barrett (a likely choice with GOP gains in the U.S. Senate), does anyone doubt that her Catholic faith (“The dogma lives loudly in you”) will be at the heart of the media warfare that results?

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New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t only the highest court in the land, its judges have the responsibility to rule on cases that have a lasting impact on American politics, culture and religion. Driving those changes going forward will be a Catholic majority of justices who have become increasingly conservative, shifting the balance of the court for years to come.

The bitter partisan divide over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court — including weeks of debate over the credibility regarding allegations dating back to the 1980s that he had sexually assaulted a fellow teenager at a party – revealed how polarized politically the country has become since President Trump’s election just two years ago. To conservatives, Kavanaugh is a man smeared with unproven accusations; liberals consider him a danger in the #MeToo age.

Just 20 percent of people in the United States identify as Catholic, a number that is in decline, according to a Pew Research study. As the president has vowed to chip away at abortion rights (legalized in 1973 by the court in the Roe v. Wade decision), it will be conservative Catholics who will be tasked with doing so in the coming years. Aside from Kavanaugh, the Catholics on the Supreme Court include Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor. With the exception of Sotomayor, the other four justices are part of the court’s conservative wing. The remaining justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — are Jewish.

“I do think, however, that the Catholics on the court do fairly represent Catholicism. Roe v. Wade is only one of many issues that are important to Catholics,” said Anne Lofaso, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law. “Indeed, most Catholic abhor abortion. They split on the question whether the government should prohibit others from exercising their right, not so much on whether they would have an abortion. There is a spectrum of issues that Catholics care about ranging from what constitutes marriage, abortion, birth control, poverty, etc. People are not monolithic. We tend to pick and choose what aspects of who we are will be emphasized — hence, the phrase ‘cafeteria Catholic’ … Roberts and Alito represent one end of the spectrum. Sotomayor, a lapsed Catholic, represents another.”   

Some critics have called the current makeup of the Supreme Court a “Catholic boys club” given that they dominate the majority and are male conservatives.

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Tick, tick, tick: Will Donald Trump play the 'handmaiden' card, lighting a SCOTUS fuse?

Tick, tick, tick: Will Donald Trump play the 'handmaiden' card, lighting a SCOTUS fuse?

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.

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Is the open U.S. Supreme Court seat a religion story? Do we even need to ask that?

Is the open U.S. Supreme Court seat a religion story? Do we even need to ask that?

If you live in Washington, D.C., or have sojourned there in the past, then you know that a high percentage of folks in the Beltway chattering classes wake up every morning with a dose of Mike Allen.

This was true in his "Playbook" days at The Politico and it's true now that he has moved on to create the Axios website, which is must-reading in this troubled Donald Trump era.

So if you want to know what DC folks are thinking about -- after King Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court -- then it's logical to do a quick scan of Allen's punchy offerings today in the "Axios AM" digital newsletter (click here to see it in a browser). At this here weblog, that means looking for religion-beat hooks. It doesn't take a lot of effort to find them. For example:

Behind the scenes: Trump doesn’t personally care that much about some of the social issues, such as LGBT rights, energizing the Republican base over the Supreme Court.

But Trump knows how much his base cares about the court. He believes that releasing his list of potential court picks during the campaign was a masterstroke, and helped him win.

What part of the GOP base is Allen talking about? That's obvious. However, journalists covering this angle really need to see if many cultural conservatives are all that interested in rolling back gay-rights victories at the high court.

Most of the people I know understand that this ship has sailed, in post-Christian American culture, and they are primarily interested in seeing a strong court decision defending some kind of conscientious objection status and/or a clear rejection of government compelled speech and artistic expression. In other words, they would like to see an old-school liberal ruling on First Amendment grounds.

As I have said here many times, I know very, very few religious conservatives who wanted to vote for Trump. However, I heard lots of people say something like this: I don't know what Donald Trump is going to do. But I do know what Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to do. I'm going to have to take a risk. They were talking about SCOTUS and the First Amendment.

Back to Allen:

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An ultra-conservative, charismatic Catholic? Judicial appointee Amy Barrett gets slammed

An ultra-conservative, charismatic Catholic? Judicial appointee Amy Barrett gets slammed

When a Catholic nominee for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was dragged across the coals at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing several weeks ago, all sorts of people cried foul.

Writers from the Atlantic to the National Catholic Register wondered how come Amy Coney Barrett was sliced and diced by the Senate committee on the basis of a paper she co-wrote with one of her law school professors back in 1998. Even a Catholic archbishop filed a protest.

So it felt like a double whammy to some when the New York Times on Thursday piled on by a piece headlined “Some Worry about Judicial Nominee’s Ties to a Religious Group.” This passage is long, but essential.

One of President Trump’s judicial nominees became something of a hero to religious conservatives after she was grilled at a Senate hearing this month over whether her Roman Catholic faith would influence her decisions on the bench.
The nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor up for an appeals court seat, had raised the issue herself in articles and speeches over the years. The Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee zeroed in on her writings, and in the process prompted accusations that they were engaged in religious bigotry.
“The dogma lives loudly within you,” declared Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, in what has become an infamous phrase. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, accused his colleagues of employing an unconstitutional “religious test” for office.
Ms. Barrett told the senators that she was a faithful Catholic, and that her religious beliefs would not affect her decisions as an appellate judge. But her membership in a small, tightly knit Christian group called People of Praise never came up at the hearing, and might have led to even more intense questioning.

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Michael Gerson sends message to senators (and journalists?) about faith, law, public life

Michael Gerson sends message to senators (and journalists?) about faith, law, public life

Miichael Gerson is a graduate of one of America's best known evangelical liberal arts schools -- Wheaton College.

He has been a mainstream journalist, as well as a writer for Christian think tanks.

Gerson is, of course, best known for his work as a presidential speech writer for George W. Bush. He then moved into the role of the well-connected Washington, D.C., pundit, writing columns for the Washington Post op-ed page while holding various semi-academic research posts as a public intellectual at the Council for Foreign Relations and other groups.

It's safe to say that Gerson is capable of writing a column that is aimed at one specific DC crowd, while including information and themes that are relevant to other Beltway audiences.

Consider his Post piece on the "loud dogma" controversy that I have been writing about all week (click here for podcast) at GetReligion. The headline: "Senate Democrats show off their anti-religious bigotry."

We are, of course, talking about the recent U.S. Senate hearing in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others, probed judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett about the fine details of her traditional Catholic beliefs. Mainstream news coverage of this event was thin to nonexistent, but opinion writers of various stripes have had a field day. It's the new American journalism.

Here is my question: Gerson's column is about Democrats in the Senate. But there are places where one could switch his target to the mainstream press and his language would work just fine, if I believes that many journalists struggle to do news coverage of traditional forms of religious faith.

First, here is a key passage near the top of Gerson's column:

Barrett is an instructive test case of secular, liberal unease with earnest faith, particularly in its Catholic variety. She is, in the description of a letter signed by every full-time member of the Notre Dame Law School faculty, “a brilliant teacher and scholar, and a warm and generous colleague. She possesses in abundance all of the other qualities that shape extraordinary jurists: discipline, intellect, wisdom, impeccable temperament, and above all, fundamental decency and humanity.”
Barrett is also, not coincidentally, a serious Christian believer who has spoken like one in public.

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Podcast thinker: Bannon attack on Catholic bishops was news, while 'loud dogma' wasn't?

Podcast thinker: Bannon attack on Catholic bishops was news, while 'loud dogma' wasn't?

It's one of the questions that non-journalists ask me all the time: What makes some events "news," while other events are not "news"?

Long ago, a caller in Charlotte wanted to know why it was news that a downtown church replaced a window, while it was not news that her church built and dedicated a new building.

Well, I explained, that window was in an Episcopal Church downtown and that sanctuary is an historic site. It was controversial to put in a modern window. Now, if there had been a zoning fight about that new megachurch sanctuary, then the newspaper would have covered it. She was not amused or convinced.

So here is a more modern news-judgment puzzle, one with a twist that combines cutting-edge technology and the old demons of media-bias studies. This puzzle was at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

Too wade into this, start with the top of this interesting Crux piece that ran with this headline: "Fears of anti-Catholic bias rise on both left and right."

NEW YORK -- Of late, California Senator Diane Feinstein has come under fire for questioning judicial nominee Amy Barrett’s commitment to her Catholic faith during a senate confirmation hearing last week.
“I think in your case, professor … the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” declared Feinstein.
That same week, another story prompted Catholic furor when former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said he thought the U.S. bishops had been “terrible” in their support of DACA and “They need illegal aliens to fill the churches.”
These two cases -- which happened in the span of one, shared 24-hour news cycle -- have prompted some to wonder if anti-Catholic bias on both the political left and the right in America is on the rise.

In my mind, there's no question that both of these events were worthy of coverage.

However, stop and think about it.

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AP offers reaction piece about the 'loud dogma' story that it didn't cover the first time around

AP offers reaction piece about the 'loud dogma' story that it didn't cover the first time around

For decades, the Associated Press played a crucial role in the typical news cycle that followed a big event -- from Supreme Court decisions to tornadoes, from big elections (whether presidents or popes) to plane crashes.

Back in the 1970s, when I broke into journalism, you would hear the chimes on the newsroom AP wire machine signalling that something "big" just happened. I'll never forget hearing the four bells marking the first clear sign that President Richard Nixon would resign.

The key: The AP usually wrote the first story on big news, or quickly picked up coverage from local outlets to take a story to the national or international level.

It helps, of course, when people agree on whether an event is news or not.

I put the question this way in my first post on the U.S. Senate appeals-court nomination hearings for Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic mother of seven, who was told that the "dogma lives loudly within you" by Sen. Dianne Feinstein:

... 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?

Several readers sent emails taking that idea a step further: Try to imagine the press coverage if conservative senators asked if a nominee was too Muslim, or too Jewish, to serve on a major U.S. court.

Yes, I think the AP would have written a first-day news story in those cases, reports with the basic facts and reactions from voices on both sides. At that point, the AP story would trigger the normal "news cycle" in other newsrooms, in radio, television and print outlets.

Thus, it's crucial whether AP people think an event is news or not.

We finally have an AP story about last week's "loud dogma" hearing. Please read the overture carefully, since this is a follow-up story about an event that didn't deserve an initial report:

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