When Notre Dame law professor and possible Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett was nominated for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, her affiliation with a religious group called People of Praise raised red flags. It was some sort of cult, they implied. Sen. Dianne Feinstein famously reproved the nominee by intoning that “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”
It was an echo of the kind of anti-Catholic bigotry that characterized American life for centuries. When the Democrats nominated the first Roman Catholic for president, Al Smith in 1928, opponents warned that all Protestant marriages would be annulled and all Protestant children declared bastards if the Catholic were elected. Republicans circulated pictures of Smith posing before the almost-completed Holland Tunnel with a caption declaring that instead of emptying into New Jersey, it really led 3,500 miles under the Atlantic Ocean to the basement of the Vatican. After his loss to Herbert Hoover, Smith was reputed to have quipped that he had sent a one-word telegram to the Pope: “Unpack.”
But Feinstein’s comment and others’ insinuations that Barrett’s religion is somehow creepy or suspicious reveals a broader anti-religious bias.
Barrett and her family are reportedly members of a religious group called People of Praise. The New York Times implied that the group – most, but not all of whose members are Catholic – departed from mainstream Catholic ideas and doctrines. My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Ed Whelan disposed of those suggestions.
Curious, I looked at their website. I suppose it’s possible that the benign image they attempt to convey to the world is mere window dressing. But then again, Pope Francis appointed one of their members as an auxiliary bishop in Portland, Oregon. It seems doubtful, bordering on impossible, that he would have conferred that honor on a cult member.
Founded in 1971 as part of the lay Catholic ministries movement, People of Praise provides spiritual community, support for those in need, prayer and counseling, and guidance for successful marriages, among other things. More than 1,000 couples have completed their Marriage in Christ program that instills habits of prayer and – this is shocking – conversation to improve relationships.
The first thing you see on the People of Praise website is a Louisiana picnic attended by a notably interracial group. One might have thought that such membership groups are far too rare – especially in the current climate. As Dorothy Anderson, an older African-American woman put it: “In almost all of his speeches, Martin Luther King spoke about blacks and whites living together in unity. I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see it, but I saw it last Thursday night at the barbecue.”
People of Praise is ecumenical, with Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and other Christian members in addition to the Catholics. It contains both Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. Like churches, they send missions to needy communities in the United States. More than 100 members have helped to build and renovate homes, run summer camps for thousands of kids and found schools.
As for Barrett herself, it seems that she lives her faith. She and her husband have seven children, including one with special needs and two adopted from Haiti. Her former colleagues on the Notre Dame law school faculty, many of whom have disagreements with Barrett, unanimously endorsed her nomination to the Circuit Court, describing her as “brilliant” and also “generous” and “warm.” They wrote: “She possesses in abundance all of the other qualities that shape extraordinary jurists: discipline, intellect, wisdom, impeccable temperament, and above all, fundamental decency and humanity.”
If Barrett is a glazed-eyed cultist, she’s done an incredible job of hiding it. She fooled her fellow clerks on the Supreme Court when she worked for Justice Antonin Scalia. Dozens of clerks, including some who worked for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, endorsed her previous nomination, calling her a “woman of remarkable intellect and character.” She fooled her students, hundreds of whom signed an endorsement reading, in part, “Our religious, cultural, and political views span a wide spectrum. Despite the many and genuine differences among us, we are united in our conviction that Professor Barrett would make an exceptional federal judge.” And she fooled all of the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee along with three Democrats, who voted to approve her nomination.
The words “people of praise” raise hackles among secularists. Considering their charitable work and transracial, trans-class appeal, they deserve at least the benefit of the doubt. And that Barrett is reportedly a member is the best testimonial of all.