This week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett represent the collision of two things we have been told to never discuss over dinner: religion and politics.
Although some defenders of separation of church and state argue that the founders wanted to keep religion out of politics, most of the founders had a deeper fear of politics manipulating religion, and this election brings their anxiety into stark relief.
The reactions to Barrett’s conservative, charismatic and Catholic religious orientation, and the assumptions about how this orientation influences her legal reasoning, is a reminder that religion has an outsized role in the 2020 election.
For liberals, Barrett is the specter of a jurist bringing narrow religious assumptions into legal decision-making, threatening health care and reproductive rights, and setting back hard-won laws that made the nation more just, fair and free. As U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a Yoda-like reflection in 2017, when Barrett was in a confirmation hearing for the appeals court, “The dogma lives loudly within you.”
For conservatives, the same woman represents a kind, brilliant and generous mother of seven, who will secure a Supreme Court majority that will impede new legislation and limit decisions that violate their view of fundamental religious and moral values.
As Sarah Posner argues in her book “Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump,” a strategic coalition initiated by far-right political and economic forces has slowly persuaded white evangelicals to loyally support someone like President Donald Trump. Sophisticated tools make it possible to manipulate religious impulses in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Posner demonstrates that religion still matters.
As Alan Cooperman, a religious researcher at Pew Research Center, notes: Religion remains the second most reliable predictor of how someone votes in America. According to Gallup, white evangelicals, Mormons and active Catholics are disposed to vote for Trump, while Black Protestants, those of religious faiths other than Christian, less observant and progressive Catholics and Hispanic Catholics, as well as the harder to define Religious “Nones,” skew toward former Vice President Joe Biden.
America swims in a marinade of religious concepts, ideas and images, and the nomination of someone like Barrett stirs up the juices of that marinade.
Warren A. Nord has warned that a deeply religious culture like America puts itself in peril when it becomes simultaneously religiously uninformed. His research found that in public-school curricula, religion was systematically expunged, in part because educators feared the legal implications of saying anything about religion. Although Martin Luther King Jr. had a primary identity as an American Baptist minister, Nord found he was often portrayed in elementary and high school history and social science texts as just a “civil rights” activist. King saw his activism as a church movement — the channeling of religious insight and virtue into public policies that recognized the inalienable rights of those made in the image of God.
America has always had religious forces that have been both healthy and unhealthy; grounded in a steely-eyed realism and in the worst of magical thinking; thoroughly integrated with high-minded Republican and civic virtue, and pining with nostalgia for a U.S. Christian theocracy that never existed. American religion has appealed to the nation’s highest angels, inspiring us to move beyond everything from slavery and Jim Crow to the rights of those on the margins of society. But, it also has provided source material for the nation’s lowest impulses, including white-supremacist organizations and groups fomenting every imaginable prejudicial movement, particularly anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Hinduphobia, and a general suspicion and demonization of anyone perceived as an “other.”
If this election proves nothing else, it demonstrates that Americans need to talk more about the role of religion in our society. If we can do so, perhaps at Thanksgiving dinner, on the other side of this exhausting election, we can experiment with civil conversations about the things that shape our inner and outer world the most — religion and politics.