Brooke Gladstone: Just hours after the deaths of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week, Mitch McConnell announced his intention to swiftly confirm a nominee to fill her seat, and so the rush began.
Speaker 1: Mitt Romney has announced he will not oppose a vote on President Donald Trump's Supreme court nominee.
Speaker 2: Meantime, many on the left furious with Republicans plan to fill the now-vacant Supreme court seat.
Brooke Gladstone: Trump has said his pick will be a woman and among the front runners is Amy Coney Barrett, Notre Dame law professor now a judge on the US court of appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Her record is troubling to many Democrats. Should courts halt the deportation of an immigrant who faces torture at home? Should they shield prisoners from unjustified violence by correctional officers? Should women be permitted to obtain an abortion upon discovering a severe fetal abnormality?
According to Mark Joseph Stern of Slate, Barrett said no to all of the above, but instead of pouring over her judicial record, many of Barrett's critics have taken to finding fault with her faith. It's a replay of sorts of her confirmation hearing for her appeals court seat in 2017.
Speaker 3: You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail. The dogma lives loudly within you and that's of concern.
Speaker 4: Do you consider yourself an Orthodox Catholic?
Amy Coney Barrett: If you're asking whether I take my faith seriously and I'm a faithful Catholic, I am, although I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge.
Brooke Gladstone: What conservative Catholics saw as an attack on their faith soon became a rallying cry. You can now buy t-shirts that read, "The dogma lives loudly within me." Now in 2020, the media have gotten wind again that Barrett belongs to a faith community called People of Praise, and they've run with it. There's no telling if she'll end up the nominee, but either way, she'll be remembered for inspiring some particularly bad takes on religion. Let's start with the first mistake the press has made in its coverage of Barrett. How did Newsweek get the idea that her faith group called People of Praise inspired Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale?
Michael O'Loughlin: Yes, that was a real doozy this week. I kind of cringed when I saw that People of Praise was back in the news.
Brooke Gladstone: Michael O'Loughlin is a national correspondent at the Catholic media organization, America.
Michael: This story traces its roots back to 2017 when the New York Times wrote an article about the secretive nature of it. It was described as an ultra-conservative Catholic group where members are not revealed, so we don't know who's in it and we don't really know what the activities are. From there, took a life of its own. This most recent article in Newsweek traced back people would praise falsely as the inspiration for The Handmaid's Tale, by making some leaps about different statements Margaret Atwood had made about her novel and then the TV show.
Margaret Atwood does appear to have familiarity with these Catholic charismatic groups. There's apparently a box of newspaper clippings that she used for inspiration in writing her novel that includes a story about one of these groups, though not the people that praise. This is outlined in a New Yorker article from the mid-2000s. They took that and applied it to people to praise and then said that this is the inspiration for The Handmaid's Tale. The big key component is in this group, People of Praise, men are assigned with men and women to women as sort of a mentor-type relationship. In a previous iteration of these kinds of relationships, the women leaders were called handmaids.
Brooke Gladstone: Men were called heads. Frankly, I think that would disturb a lot of people just on its face. It kind of bothers me.
Michael: Yes, it's true. It's a very traditional understanding of gender marriage roles, where the husband is head of household and the wife is deferential to his thoughts on family issues, social issues. There's an article from Slate in 2018 when this was all happening that points out the term handmaiden was picked by People of Praise 14 years before Margaret Atwood's novel and they've since dropped that. They no longer call the women in these relationships handmaids.
Brooke Gladstone: What do they call them now?
Michael: They're called women leaders now. This idea of handmaid comes from the Bible. Mary describes herself as a handmaiden of the Lord. It's something that they picked from the gospels and applied to their own community and they said that they dropped the name because of The Handmaid's Tale and the implications that that word connotes nowadays and said, it wasn't the same way that they view these relationships in their community.
Brooke Gladstone: I want to talk more about what People of Praise teaches, but first, let's go back to another media flashpoint, which was Coney Barrett's remarks at Notre Dame commencement when she told students at the Catholic University that they should always remember the quote, "A legal career is but a means to an end and that end is building the kingdom of God." Some people have taken that to mean she doesn't really respect the separation of church and state. Does she?
Michael: I don't think you can tell from that comment whether she does or not. I think that that phrase, "building the kingdom of God," is a very common phrase for Christians. Again, it's taken from the gospel as, what's the point of the Christian life? It's to serve God and serve your neighbor and building the kingdom of God is a short hand way to signify those beliefs.
Brooke Gladstone: The kingdom of God is a kind of heaven on earth, an earth that is based on the principles of Jesus?
Michael: That's a good summary. It's the idea that Jesus gave his followers certain teachings, that basically are summed up by loving and worshiping God and then doing charitable work to serve your neighbor, to serve people in need. The idea is that that will never be fully realized on earth, but Christians should do what they can to make that happen on earth. It'll ultimately be fulfilled in heaven, is what Christians believe.
Brooke Gladstone: You suggest Pearl clutching at that term, "kingdom of God," suggests a certain lack of religious literacy because President Obama has used the phrase. Do you think it's a much more interesting question to ask her what she understands the kingdom of God to mean?
Michael: I think that would be a much more insightful question about how she interprets her faith as guiding her life. Catholicism is a big church, there's a lot of different interpretations on what it means to be a Christian. Joe Biden is Catholic, talks about his faith a lot, Amy Coney Barrett is also Catholic, but they appear to have very different worldviews about what that means. Asking someone what they mean by that phrase whether it's former President Obama or Amy Coney Barrett, I think would elicit different answers and give us a better insight into how they view their faith compelling their work in the secular world.
Brooke Gladstone: What is, People of Praise? How is it different from more traditional Catholic communities?
Michael: People of praise grew out of a movement beginning in the 1960s, a group of people who are not content with going to church just on Sunday and going about the rest of their lives during the week and then going back for a refueling of their faith. It was born of a charismatic movement, so it's a group of people who come together for prayer on their own without a priest or religious authorities. These are lay people who take their faith very seriously.
It began in the seventies with just 29 people and eventually grew into groups all over the country with thousands of people. It would look much more Pentecostal and evangelical than Catholic. These are people who believe in the power of the Holy Spirit impacting their lives. You see things like praying in tongues, praise and worship music, almost like a trance-like experience, a very different form of prayer than you would see in Catholic churches.
Brooke Gladstone: Beyond traditional gender roles, do you have any more on what they actually believe?
Michael: This is an interesting question because it's not a group that teaches in the traditional sense like a church would. It's ecumenical in nature so members belong to different churches, though most of them are Catholic. They would say that they follow the teachings of their own church.
Brooke Gladstone: We don't know what those teachings are?
Michael: Well, we do in the sense that we know what the Catholic church teaches. It's where they put their emphasis. Family is very important to groups like this in a very traditional understanding of family where, like we said, the father is the head of the household and the wife should submit to his authority. Rearing children is very important. Having large families is important. That's a traditional understanding of Catholicism that they then bring into this part of their lives.
Brooke Gladstone: When you say they come from the sixties, they might share income and they might share homes with multiple families.
Michael: Yes. There's a communitarian ethos to these groups. They move into neighborhoods together where they can afford to buy homes where, like you said, they might share their home with a family, or they would be close neighbors with another member of the group. One member described it as having a large extended family of people living right near each other. I think the big important point is that these are groups that are independent of any church or any hierarchy. There is some room for abuse there and there's been charges of emotional manipulation by leaders who really aren't trained in what it means to be a religious leader.
That's where I think some of the trepidation comes from because these are pretty secretive groups, even though they have a website, and they give interviews and they've been in the news for decades. They don't talk about who their members are. They talk a little bit about what they do, but there is a we're set apart from the world so they don't open up too much about what they do, which leads to confusion. Maybe some people are a little scared because they are a little secretive.
Brooke Gladstone: Former members have compared it to a cult.
Michael: It's true yes, there's been charges of emotional abuse that some of the leaders become very controlling. There's been a couple former members who have left and said that the leaders of these are the women and men who are assigned to guide people through their life choices, that they can become manipulative and I interviewed someone who is still a member of one of these kinds of groups. He said that his own community went through a challenging time where the leader was too controlling, and essentially, the leader was removed, but it took a long time because there was no clear hierarchical order where someone could report abuse and then take action.
Brooke Gladstone: Well, we know that that didn't work all that great in the hierarchical Catholic Church.
Michael: Yes, and this is, again there's lack of transparency, I think is what makes some people skittish about groups like this.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's assume that her religious affiliation alone is too limited of view. Faith aside, Democrats would have ample cause for concern, and she's been Trump's pick for a long time. Trump put her on the appeals court bench. What questions should we be asking? Have you looked at her statements and at her decisions from the bench?
Michael: I have a little bit, and in your introduction, you made that good point that there is a way to get insight into how Amy Coney Barrett views law and how she would use law to impact the lives of Americans if she were to be appointed to the Supreme Court. There was an article in the Chicago Tribune that did just that. It talked about the controversy over her faith, but then went through her relatively short record as a circuit court judge in Chicago, and talked about how she has a narrow understanding when it comes to gun rights. She's described as an originalist who cited Old English law as the reason that people have a right to guns.
She does seem to have a conservative bent, which is not surprising given her educational background, her membership in the Federalist Society, speeches she has made. There are many clues into what her legal worldview is. It's just her membership in this group, and her faith might not be the best way to come to that conclusion.
Brooke Gladstone: Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice liberal group, was quoted in the New York Times saying that she seems to meet Trump's two main litmus tests. She's made it clear that she would invalidate the Affordable Care Act, and that she would undermine a woman's reproductive freedom. Do you think that's fair?
Michael: She has talked about Roe versus Wade. Obviously, this is the big question of what does she think of that in terms of precedent, and she has said in speeches as recently as 2013, that she did not think it was likely that Roe would be overturned.
Brooke Gladstone: That's different from saying what she would do if she had the chance.
Michael: It's true. There are clues that she is anti-abortion, she considers herself pro-life. Whether she imposes those views as a Supreme Court justice, we don't know. She did say in 2017, under oath that she saw no conflict between a sincerely held face and duties as a judge. She said that she would never impose her own personal convictions upon the law. Again, that's different from if did she think that there's no legal right to abortion, she could overturn Roe.
Brooke Gladstone: As you watch her coverage, can you point to other mistakes that the media have been making?
Michael: We hear a lot about a she's a mother of seven, two of her children are adopted. Instead of looking at her record, we're getting a lot of personal biography, which might not tell us as much about how she would rule as a Supreme Court justice. We want to know about her faith, we can look at old speeches, we can look at article she wrote, a legal article saying that Catholic judges might need to recuse themselves when it comes to sentencing phases of death penalty trials.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. Now, this is really crucial. In a paper she wrote with her mentor, now the president of Catholic University, John Garvey, which suggests she might recuse herself from a death penalty case on account of her faith. She says the Catholic church's opposition to the death penalty places Catholic judges in a moral and legal bind, and you suggest this indicates that her faith would play a role in recusing herself, but she certainly hasn't said that about abortion cases.
Michael: That's something I find curious that this article would focus on the death penalty and not other teachings of the church. The Church teaches a lot about all kinds of social issues, including abortion. The fact that they highlighted this one issue is interesting to me. Now, she has since distanced herself from the articles, she points out that she was a co-author and said, now that she's had 20 years experience in the legal world, she might not write the article the same way today.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, I think there are valuable things that can be learned by examining the biography of someone on the bench, it might have been useful to do that earlier, say, in the process of vetting Cavanaugh, and not that it probably would have made any difference, but it does have the potential to tell you some things, especially since as you say, her actual record of decision making is not all that long.
Michael: It's true. I have interviewed people who have said that you can't have it both ways. You can't on the one hand, say that someone's faith is an important part of how they live their life, but then say it's off-limits when it comes to question. Kathleen Caveney, who's a professor of law and theology at Boston College made that point that there is this idea that faith does motivate people to act a certain way and it's okay that people of faith should be in the public square. The trade-off of that is, you have to be willing to talk about that and explain how your faith impacts how you would be a judge or a political leader.
There's a way to do it and like we talked about, it might be better to ask that kind of question. What do you mean by the kingdom of God, rather than make an accusation that the dogma lives loudly within the US senator find signed it?
Brooke Gladstone: How do you think the current media coverage of Barrett actually works in Trump's favor?
Michael: I think that the President tries to paint democrats as being anti-religious and hostile to religion in attempt to shore up his own base, which is primarily religious voters. This coverage that casts aspersions on what many people consider to be mainstream Christian belief, that plays into it by saying, "I told you so." The President can say look at the media coverage of this. They're comparing, traditional belief about family to The Handmaid's Tale. They resent your faith, or they don't understand you. The reality is simply not true, Democrats have a lot of people of faith who vote in the party. One of the most religious groups we know is African American women, who vote largely democratic.
Democrats nominated a practicing Catholic, Joe Biden, who talks a lot about his faith on the campaign trail. This coverage, I think, just serves to reinforce the President's false narrative that religious people are not welcome to the Democratic Party.
Brooke Gladstone: When the mainstream media seems to look askance at a commitment to a religious faith, how does that position, reporters that have a commitment to religious faith or report for religious publications?
Michael: I think this coverage puts religion journalists, and people of faith generally, in an awkward position where we're forced to almost defend religious communities and ask people to explore the nuances of what's actually happening, which can come off as defending the person themselves or what they believe, even though we might say, no. There's perfectly good questions to ask about what a nominee like this would do to the rights of Americans, but then we're in this awkward position where it feels like we're defending the entirety of this person's background when in reality we're just saying let's ask better questions.
Brooke Gladstone: Michael, thank you very much.
Michael: Thank you, Brooke.
Brooke Gladstone: Michael O'Loughlin is a national correspondent at the Catholic media organization America and host of the podcast Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church. Thanks for listening to this podcast extra, and tune in to the Big Show Friday around dinnertime, and early next month, we'll have a whole hour devoted to the coverage of religion.
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