News coverage of Hurricane Irma obscured the growing threat of another kind of storm in our country, the subversion of religious liberty. Last Wednesday, Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a nominee for the federal appellate bench. Senator Diane Feinstein quoted from a journal article Professor Barrett wrote some time ago in which she and her co-author discussed under what circumstances a Catholic judge should recuse herself from a death-penalty case (given the objections held by many devout Catholics regarding capital punishment). Feinstein remarked:
“Dogma and law are two different things. And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”
“The dogma lives loudly within you.”
I just turned 50 years old, and I never dreamed that in my lifetime I would see this kind of anti-Catholic rhetoric from a United States senator. But anti-Christian prejudice is indeed alive and well in the halls of the Senate. Earlier this summer, Senator Bernie Sanders told one nominee for a position in the Office of Management and Budget that he was unfit to be an American, much less serve the government, because of his evangelical Christian views.
The Constitution is very clear on this matter. Article VI says:
but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Clearly, some on the Far Left like Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein have decided to ignore this provision and subject any nominees in their purview to a strict religious test. Considering the long history of anti-semitic injustices around the world, you would hope that these senators in particular would be more sensitive on the question of religious liberty. But that is not the case – secular progressives are blindly committed to the zealous pursuit of their own dogmas.
And the notion that a devout religious adherent has no place in government is just that – a dogma. It is a creed accepted by faith, not a policy based on a reason. The First Amendment says that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
It does not say that religious people are forbidden to hold office. And when any citizen takes the oath of a particular office, that citizen is to execute that oath regardless of her own religious convictions. Ironically, that is precisely what Professor Barrett’s journal article argued – a judge with religious convictions at odds with the death penalty should recuse himself from such cases, in keeping with federal recusal laws. It is this same impulse to follow the law that leads conservatives to object to gross distortions of the Constitution like the Roe vs Wade or Obergefell decisions. The problem with these decisions from a conservative point of view is not a matter of biblical interpretation but constitutional interpretation.
But for a certain sort of secularist, there is no room for genuine debate on constitutional interpretation if this might lead someone to a different conclusion from the cherished shibboleths of the left. No, all that will satisfy them is complete conformity to the dogma of leftist ideology. There is no place for the liberalism of a previous generation (“I disagree with your opinion but I will fight to the death for your right to express it”). Senator Dick Durbin’s line of questioning framed the issue very starkly, as he asked Professor Barrett,
“Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?”
If you listen to the clip of his questioning, it is clear that he believes that any Catholic who holds that church’s teaching on issues like abortion, capital punishment, or same-sex conduct is disqualified from office, regardless of that person’s commitment to follow the rule of law.
This is the real issue. Durbin, Sanders, and Feinstein are happy to accept nominees for public office so long as that person’s actual conclusions coincide with their own religious vision. This is religious discrimination pure and simple. And it should be intolerable to all Americans committed to the concept of civil society. There has been some pushback on this issue to be sure, but I am hardly optimistic that most of my friends who consider themselves “liberal” will take what was once the classically liberal position on religious liberty.
This is an important time for believers to speak up. Yes, it is true that the church is not to be confused with the civil government. Yes, it is true that we can (and must) faithfully serve Christ regardless of what the government does. But it is also true that trends in the government (and in society) can make this task much more difficult. And if we have rights that are supposed to be protected by the government, it is a matter of good stewardship to speak out on behalf of those rights.
The apostle Paul frequently invoked his rights as a Roman citizen in the spread of the gospel (Acts 16:37-39; 22:25-28; 25:10-12). Was he willing to save the Lord even when the Empire turned against Christianity? Obviously. But he used the mechanisms of citizenship as long as he could to defend the free course of the gospel.
I am not hopeful about the long-term prospects for religious freedom in America. But we need to follow Paul’s example, and fight as long as we can to defend our right to practice our faith. If we will not speak out against such clear violations of the Constitution as religious tests for public office, when will we speak up?
At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Far Left and the Far Right will discover the one thing they have in common – abhorrence for religious convictions. For now, the Far Left’s crosshairs are only trained on devout Evangelicals and Catholics, and the Far Right’s are aimed only at Muslims. Once the extremists realize the shared values of their secular dogma, the trend against religious freedom will dramatically accelerate.
Now is the time to speak up.