Some of President Trump’s judicial nominees have faced questioning from Democrat senators that seems more like a religious inquisition than discussion of judicial philosophy and temperament. Notre Dame law professor Amy Barrett was confirmed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals last week, but not before having a notable exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein who challenged her on a number of Catholic teachings and concluded: “Dogma and law are two different things. And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. … The dogma lives loudly within you and, that is concerning.”
Sen. Dick Durbin probed another fine point of jurisprudence, asking: “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” Both senators voted against Barrett in committee and in the full Senate.
Feinstein and Durbin’s queries drew widespread criticism. Some suggested Democrats were hazardously close to imposing a religious–or more precisely, an anti-religious–test for confirmation. Other major media, however, pressed on, trying to keep nominees’ religious beliefs a viable question mark for confirmation. “Some Worry About Judicial Nominee’s Ties to a Religious Group” fretted The New York Times. The Times ran a lengthy article questioning Barrett’s membership in an interfaith group called People of Faith, that promotes integrating biblical principles into members’ personal and family lives.
The Atlantic was surprisingly candid, and declared that conservative religious positions on issues like marriage or abortion will make nominees targets for interrogation. “What’s the line between examining a nominee’s religious convictions and believing those convictions disqualify her from serving the country?” The magazine was marking a path for Democrat senators to keep testing that line.
They are trying. Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked district court nominee Trevor McFadden about his church’s teachings on gay clergy, the definition of marriage, and the roles of mothers and fathers in families. Whitehouse then asked McFadden if he would be able to follow Supreme Court precedent that reaches results different from the tenets of his faith.
National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru illustrates that this seemingly reasonable question might seem less reasonable if Republicans quizzed members of liberal congregations whether they could fairly enforce such policies as immigration law or the First Amendment rights of religious employers who object to funding abortion. Best to query directly about matters of policy and philosophy directly, without rooting them in a nominee’s religious beliefs.
It’s also important to recognize the bigger picture. These questions are part of a longer term trend to marginalize traditional religious beliefs in order to make serious believers somehow exotic and unacceptable.
One early such skirmish arose from Sen. Marco Rubio’s famous interview with GQ Magazine, when, unrelated to any other topic, the interviewer asked Rubio how old he believes the earth is. Rubio, then thought to be an early presidential frontrunner, responded a bit clumsily and noncommittally. Of course the game was to either force Rubio to affirm a personal belief the earth is 4.5 billion years old—disturbing some of his fundamentalist religious supporters–or to mock and stigmatize him and all others who might hedge on endorsing commonly accepted scientific knowledge.
This tendentious approach, stretched to its logical end, amounts to demanding that politicians reject belief in God’s divinity and supremacy. That is, it countenances loyalty only to a god who exercises no will or power or doctrinal demands beyond passively upholding the principles set forth in Science 101. The random question was untethered from public policy or from issues Rubio might pursue in the Senate. It stemmed from a singular goal unrelated to reporting current events: GQ wanted to conjure an effective wedge question and discredit or embarrass a believing conservative.
Major national media took that ball and ran with it. If unchecked, this trend takes politics in an ugly, anti-religious direction. It eliminates the reasonable space of co-existence between matters of physical science and matters of faith, doctrine, and belief. Traditionally, it has been possible to accept and apply all the knowledge that science offers while still believing there is divine power and truth that can’t be caught and measured under a microscope—and to intelligently hold both values simultaneously.
Some on the left want to end the accommodation, leaving the script of science as the only tolerable expression. I experienced this gambit as a state legislator around the time of the Rubio story. A Democratic activist posted on social media, chortling about Rubio’s discomfort. I responded by questioning the relevance and good faith of GQ’s question. Suddenly, several other liberals appeared on the thread, demanding my answer to the same query.
Their interest in getting a term-limited state lawmaker on record was surprising. Their reasoning was revealing and troubling. They said any reservation is a threat to science. The earth’s age is determined by measuring carbon, radioactivity, and other phenomena. Similar technologies also drive the operation of nuclear reactors, medical radiology, and a host of other modern processes. If someone believes in a literal account of biblical creation, then he’s rejecting modernity and threatens technology, medicine, and comfort.
That sounds like a fringe argument, but its spirit is gaining hold in settings like Senate confirmation hearings. It’s easy to see where the demands of this absolute thinking can lead:
Do you believe in the Virgin birth? Then how can we trust you to oversee HHS programs and youth sex education? If you won’t swear untainted allegiance to the principles of biological reality and sexual autonomy, then you are an unfit menace.
Do you believe there was a Biblical flood? Is that established in the geologic record? How can you be trusted to oversee the Department of the Interior, the Geological Survey or BLM?
Did Moses part the Red Sea? You must be kept away from the National Weather Service.
Do you believe Jesus walked on the water to his disciples in the boat? Then how can you oversee a Navy that relies on conventional flotation physics to design its ships?
Do you believe He ascended after His resurrection? You are unfit to command the Air Force: It relies on Newtonian physics to harness aerodynamics.
Do you believe in resurrection at all? How can we trust you to make decisions affecting life and death if you believe life is just a dress rehearsal and we all get a do over?
Only creativity limits the attacks on traditional faith and the grounds to exclude believers from public responsibility.
If the Left has its way, the only learning and belief that will be safe to adhere to is what comes from public school. That must eclipse and silence anything offered in Sunday School.