During the past few days, the issue of a religious test for public office — something barred by the U.S. Constitution — has arisen in, of all places, the U.S. Senate.
The occasion was a hearing in which Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) put a Catholic nominee for a federal judgeship, Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett, to the test, demanding to know whether her religion might not prevent her from meeting judicial responsibilities.
“When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said. “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for, for years in this country.”
The issues Feinstein had in mind were, of course, moral issues, and the liberal agenda which has contributed so greatly to destroying the family and morality in America. Few have genuflected to the liberal agenda on those issues more fervently than Feinstein. Her questions were aimed at disqualifying for the bench a person who would not uphold that agenda.
The irony of the moment was remarkable, to say the least. Feinstein and Durbin belong to the same political party as John F. Kennedy, who became the first Catholic president only after he successfully debated a panel of Houston bishops who openly accused him of being unfit for the presidency because of his supposed fealty to the Vatican.
Fortunately, criticism of the senators, Feinstein in particular, was swift and vigorous, both from within the Senate and without.
Two university presidents — Notre Dame’s Rev. John Jenkins and Princeton University’s Christopher Eisgruber — wrote letters objecting to her line of questioning.
“I am one in whose heart ‘dogma lives loudly,’ as it has for centuries in the lives of many Americans, some of whom have given their lives in service to this nation. Indeed, it lived loudly in the hearts of those who founded our nation as one where citizens could practice their faith freely and without apology.”
“It is chilling to hear from a United States Senator that this might now disqualify someone from service as a federal judge. I ask you and your colleagues to respect those in whom ‘dogma lives loudly’ — which is a condition we call faith,” the Notre Dame president wrote.
During the hearing itself, two Republicans — Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jeff Flake of Arizona — suggested that the subject of Barrett’s Catholicism had been improperly raised.
“I think some of the questioning you’ve been subjected to today seems to miss some of these fundamental constitutional protections that we all have,” Sasse said.
What was also disturbing was the defense of Feinstein’s conduct made by her office since the incident:
“Professor Barrett has argued that a judge’s faith should affect how they approach certain cases. Based on this, Senator Feinstein questioned her about whether she could separate her personal views from the law….”
In a follow-up “clarification,” Feinstein’s staff cited an article written by Barrett, in which she wrote that “litigants and the general public are entitled to impartial justice, and that may be something that a judge who is heedful of ecclesiastical pronouncements cannot dispense.”
That sounds like a believing Catholic like herself might not be able to judge impartially, consistent with the law. Did Barrett really flunk her own religious test for office? The quote seems to indicate that the senators had reason to question her religiosity.
However, a reading of the statement in context shows clearly that Barrett’s intention was not that at all.
What Barrett was actually saying was that a Catholic judge has to discern the demarcation between personal belief and legal duty, and where necessary excuse herself from sitting on a case.
The incident will presumably pass, and Professor Barrett’s nomination will be confirmed. Indeed, the unfair treatment she received may even guarantee her seat on the court, lest the Senate be accused of actually enforcing an unconstitutional religious test for office.
It remains a cause for concern, though, that what transpired in the Senate hearing is symptomatic of an increasingly militant secularism, one which views with suspicion and hostility anyone who affirms traditional values.
Just this week in Britain, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Catholic member of Parliament, was branded a “bigot” and a “reactionary” in the media for his espousal of traditional views of morality. A few months ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders attacked President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, because of his Christian faith.
In former times, religion was regarded as the indispensable basis of morality, both public and private; even non-religious politicians recognized the positive role played by widespread religiosity in a democratic society.
The liberal dogma “lives loudly” these days. That’s what needs questioning, and is a real cause for worry.