The central, animating idea of the United States of America arose from the earliest colonists’ search for a place where they could practice their Christian faith without state persecution and bloody civil war. Whether the colonial settlers came from Britain, the Netherlands, France, or the pre-German states, and whether they were Catholic or Protestant, these people seeking relief from the sword, persecution, discrimination, and punitive taxation – at the hands of other Christians in Europe – set the course of America’s most profound contribution to Western political philosophy: the practice of respect for religious liberty.
This is not to say the original colonies had uniform views of religion, or uniformly friendly approaches to religious freedom. Some were definitely more free than others. Some treated non-Christians better than others. Some of the differences between colonies persisted well after the formation of the United States between 1783 and 1791.
But the distinctive American commitment to religious liberty, if not uniformly administered in the colonies, was nevertheless a powerfully unifying force in constituting the new nation. It became enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, not only in the First Amendment, but in Article VI of the Constitution, which reads in part (emphasis added):
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.
What constitutes a “religious test” may to some extent be a matter of interpretation. But it is hard to argue that there is not a religious test being administered, when senators probe nominees for federal offices on their specific religious beliefs, demanding responses to loaded questions.
It is especially hard to make that argument when the senators speak with hostility of what they construe the nominees’ answers to mean, clearly suggesting that holding certain religious beliefs would disqualify the nominees from office.
It seems to be a sign of the strange time we are in, that U.S. senators have twice in the last three months pursued such freighted lines of questioning – as if they are unaware of what they’re doing; indeed, as if they can’t help themselves.
Occasionally, in recent decades, pundits who don’t hold political office, and some contingents of the people, have made headlines questioning someone’s fitness for public office based on religious prejudice (perhaps, most famously, concerns about John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism. More recently, there were concerns in 2012 about Mitt Romney as a Latter Day Saint).
But U.S. senators on the warpath, in formal hearings, against federal nominees’ religious beliefs? That’s not something I remember seeing much of, if any at all.
This week, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) harangued federal court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Barrett’s Catholic faith, charging that her beliefs made her incapable of fair jurisprudence:
“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.” Feinstein is clearly hinting here at the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, a ruling that Feinstein supports so vociferously that she has even called it a “super-precedent.”
A statement like “the dogma lives loudly within you” cannot be read in any way other than as a comment on religious beliefs. Feinstein’s follow-on expression of “concern” about those beliefs can’t really be misinterpreted.
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) September 6, 2017
Note that Feinstein is not drawing unfavorable inferences from Barrett’s body of judicial work, which would be fair game. The senator is talking about Barrett’s religious beliefs, and drawing prejudicial conclusions from them about the nominee’s fitness for office.
Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) chimed in later, making explicitly disparaging remarks about Barrett’s recorded statements on Catholic belief. In perhaps the most ridiculous comment of the day, Durbin – a Catholic – objected to Barrett’s use in previous writings of the term “orthodox Catholic,” interpreting it as a knock on Catholics like himself.
This intolerant, closed-minded touchiness is really getting out of hand. We see it across the political spectrum right now, with both Democrats and Republicans falling into feeding frenzies against each other as well as against their political opponents. We cannot let it rear its ugly head in the relations among people of faith.
Americans have made too much progress in living together in peace; our civilization’s hard-learned lessons must not be forgotten or tossed aside, as if having to re-learn them, after all these years, would not be a terrible battle at incalculable cost.
And there is reason to worry. The questioning of Amy Coney Barrett wasn’t the first such instance this year. In June, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) interrogated Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee for Deputy Director of OMB, on a very specific point of Vought’s Christian faith:
Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country are [sic] made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?
Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .
Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?
Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.
Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.
As David French indicates, if Sanders had some example of Vought violating the legal rights of Muslims (or any non-Christian), it would be fair and appropriate to bring that up. But Sanders is simply expressing outrage at Christian beliefs here. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) took up Sanders’ theme in later questioning.
It doesn’t matter that some Christians might not affirm the same beliefs Vought had written about. You may be one of those Christians. But that’s not the point. It’s not even worth talking about, because the point is that it is not an offense against you or anyone else that Vought holds his beliefs.
Likewise, it is not an offense to anyone that Dick Durbin may not see Catholic orthodoxy the same way Amy Barrett sees it, or that Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein may be more or less orthodox or observant, as Jews, than the various types of Jews in America, or than each other.
In terms of what the state is properly empowered to notice – the all-important premise here – it is not an offense to anyone that Sanders and Feinstein don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah. It is not an offense to anyone that Christians do believe Jesus is the Messiah. It is not an offense to anyone that Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, and that he is not a prophet of Jehovah, and neither is Mohammed. It is not an offense to anyone that Muslims do believe Jesus is a prophet, rather than the Messiah and Son of Jehovah, and that Mohammed is the greatest and final prophet of Allah. It is not an offense that David French believes Jehovah and Allah are not the same God. (I don’t either, for that matter.) It is not an offense that Buddhists do not believe in any of these personalities, as the members of other faiths believe in them. It is not an offense that Jews, Christians, and Muslims, for their particular reasons, all think the Buddhists and the other monotheistic faiths are wrong. Nor is it an offense that they think atheists are wrong, or that atheists think they are.
How pathetic, after all this time, to have to say that. I am optimistic that the American people still have a better grip on this than some of our senators seem to. But we’re going to need that firm grip in the days ahead.
Old fault lines seem to be emerging in our social fabric – fault lines that we haven’t seen widen and screech for decades or even centuries, and that today’s generations, thanks to America’s genius of ordered, responsible liberty, have little if any experience with. This reemerging phenomenon is worth thundering prophetically about, as if one were Jeremiah himself. These demons cannot be unleashed without a terrible cost.