Suffer Not a Catholic to Live

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to oppose the nomination of Amy Coney Barnett without resorting to age-old hatreds and canards. 

By Evan Stern

In the rough and tumble world of editorial byline, the folks who are worth reporting on often  cease to be nuanced human beings in lieu of single word archetypes: “spy”, “traitor”, “fascist”, “millionaire”, etc.  While this strategy lends itself to snappy headlines and entertaining reading material, it also avails new opportunities for old demagoguery to rear its ugly head as made evident in the case of Supreme Court hopeful Amy Coney Barrett and the hostility that she has faced in the public limelight.  

Skimming through an endless litany of forums, Facebook groups and message boards dominated largely by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, a common narrative begins to take shape that Amy Barrett is unfit to lead not merely because of the religious narratives that inform her voting conscience, but because of Catholicism itself.  A popular meme asks: “Who will the handmaid take orders from: The Pope, her Priest, or her husband?”

 Unlike other mainstream political actors such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi who have negotiated an acceptable Catholicism through public humiliation and self sacrifice (Biden by accepting a very public excommunication from his native faith in accordance with his pro-choice position, and Pelosi facing much the same treatment sans exile when popular bishops of the Catholic Church derided her for much of the same),  Amy Coney Barrett stands out as a political force who is both in the public eye and unapologetically Catholic.  And while it may be easy to wave away these concerns as acceptable facets of political discourse, there is much to be examined lying just beneath the surface.  

Following this political vein all the way back to 14th century England, we find a royal decree banning all Roman Catholics from governmental service and land owning due to concerns that Catholic figures at royal court couldn’t possibly place their allegiance to an English Crown above that of their supposed loyalty to the Vatican, and even more so, it’s Pope.  It wasn’t until 1829 that an emancipation act was granted to Roman Catholic citizens of England; allowing them to serve in parliament and dismantling anything enjoining them from enjoying the same rights as their English peers.  To this day, Guy Fawkes day, a national holiday, celebrates the execution of a Catholic conspirator against the crown by burning him in effigy across the United Kingdom, and English Royals must renounce the throne if they are to subvert the national effort by converting to Catholicism.  

Keeping these facts in mind, we should also consider the American countenance towards Roman Catholics and their possible involvement in statecraft.  Unsurprisingly, anti Catholic sentiments were a popular import among the Who’s Who of American founding elite, especially among those of Protestant and Huguenot descent.  Drawing upon centuries old antipathy towards their Papist fellow travelers, a series of prohibitive laws set against Catholics were placed in effect from the earliest days of the New World.  The Colony of Virginia, for example, barred any Catholic settlers from entering its borders at all. 

Moving right along to the 19th century, and entire political parties based almost entirely upon anti Catholic bigotry have taken shape.  ‘Nativism’, a nascent political force that rocked the East Coast establishment and often took to the streets to engage in riotous battles with Catholic immigrants and Clerics, emerged as the modern face of anti Catholic suspicion, and it has remained largely unchanged today.  The same concerns that Early Americans concerned themselves with in regard to Catholics remained: an inability to make truthful oaths, an allegiance to a foreign power, and possibly, and most concerning of all, an anti American plot to destroy the free world from within.  

These populist narratives against Roman Catholics have been adopted by dubious forces time and time again. The Ku Klux Klan has made a consistent effort to terrorize and persecute the followers of the ‘foreign’ ideology known as Catholicism for over a century, and the infamously conspiratorial John Birch Society has made their bones with Catholicism known publicly through leaflets and promotional materials dating back to the 1950s.  And today, these bigoted tactics remain largely unchallenged as a means of politicking in America.  

Much can be said about the possible deficiencies of Amy Coney Barrett as a candidate for the Supreme Court, and it would even be fair to place under the microscope all of the religious presuppositions that may play a part in her practice on the bench.  But in many forums, these good faith questions have been put aside in favor of a paranoiac anti-Catholicism which has unfortunately been woven into the fiber of our popular discourse.   It is not enough to build a case against her practice of the law as it is known, or to dissect her public statements about the role of a Supreme Court Justice.  Instead, her existence as a human being has been distilled in popular quarters of debate to being only and wholly Catholic.  As an archetypal representative of a ‘Catholic’, Amy Barrett is now sufficiently dehumanized as to be discounted as a singular loathsome thing.  

As I read on in the multitudes of political forums and Facebook groups,  I found that the same tired bigotry had congealed on every page.  Memes, comments and web headers elucidated the suspect nature of a Catholic political figure.  Many of the comments were coarser still, asking: How can we trust a Catholic cultist to sit on the bench of the highest court in the world? Another commenter, more bellicose still, suggested that “Amy Barrett will try to turn all of us Catholic”.  One needs only to imagine that the last word was “Jew”, and the irresponsibility of this dialogue becomes immediately apparent.   Just as the Nativists and Klansmen of yore, there are today political forces at work that seek to build upon Americans’ fear of what is foreign.  Many of the commentary revolves around purposeful juxtaposition of the word ‘handmaid’; a staple of Catholic scripture, juxtaposed with modern novels and films of the same name that cast a pejorative light on what is traditional language. 

Much has been made and written also of Amy Barrett’s supposed engagement with a ‘religious cult’, which is in fact an ordinary charismatic and Catholic-adjacent community of laypeople.  This fact may seem alarming when presented with the familiar Catholic fear mongering, but is a point of fact that many political figures in the American mainstream have cut their teeth as young religious activists.  One thinks especially of the Evangelical establishment that arose from the ‘Jesus Freak’ movements during the 1960s’ ‘Summer of Love’.  Yet another instance in which the very same behaviour is excused in political figures who have not made the public mistake of ascribing for themselves a Catholic faith. 

Consider with which the incredulity that a such a claim about the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg would be met if were presented along the same lines; that she could not fulfill her duties as a Justice because of her innate Jewishness and the probable allegiance to the State of Israel above that of the interests of the United States as a result.  The patent absurdity of this statement is self evident, and yet so many will turn their heads and look the other way when the ire of the public is cast upon a candidate in much the same vein because of their innate ‘Catholicness.’  

Please don’t misconstrue this article as an endorsement of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, as it is not. Think of it instead as an endorsement for a more responsible and appropriate line of discourse that doesn’t seek to invalidate some candidates above others solely because of their religious leanings.  We would certainly be better for it. 

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