In questioning Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s devotion to her faith in 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein uttered a memorable phrase that would soon debut on hoodies and T-shirts.

“The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said during Barrett’s confirmation hearings for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but some Catholics embraced the phrase, and Feinstein’s line of questioning was criticized by some as an attack on Barrett’s faith and that of others in the largest religious denomination in the U.S.

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Feinstein said “dogma” like it was a problem, at least when it comes to judicial nominees. “That’s of concern when it comes to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for in this country,” she added.

But in fact, dogma isn’t exclusive to religion, nor is the word a pejorative in dictionaries where it’s defined as a deeply held conviction or belief, sometimes handed down from an authority.

“Liberals have dogma. Atheists have dogma. Everyone has dogma, but it doesn’t mean that they’re dogmatic,” said David Rubin, an Israeli-American and author of the 2018 book “Trump and the Jews.”

With the Senate gearing up for what promises to be a contentious hearing over Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement, Barrett’s faith is again in the spotlight, and her involvement with the Catholic charismatic movement has made some of her critics, including political comedian Bill Maher, apoplectic. (Maher called her a “nut.”)

But Bonnie Kristian, writing for The Week, noted that “Barrett’s charismatic faith looks entirely normal to millions of people around the world — and on American voter rolls.” In Christianity that is flourishing around the world, it’s not unusual for people to worship exuberantly, to believe that God heals, and to live within close communities of faith.

And in being public about her faith and its importance to her life, Barrett fits within a sizable group of Americans that evangelical leader and researcher Ed Stetzer calls “convictional Christians.” Convictional Christians, according to Stetzer, span a wide range of denominations and make up about a third of people who identify as Christians. They are, he says, people “who are actually living according to their faith.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 10, 2017. Catholic leaders and university presidents objected to Feinstein’s line of questioning for one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, arguing the focus on her faith is misplaced and runs counter to the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests for political office. On Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, Trump nominated Barrett to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. | Cliff Owen, Associated Press

Moral questions

Feinstein’s concern, as expressed during the 2017 hearing, is that Barrett, a mother of seven and former law professor at Notre Dame University, would inject her religious beliefs into her judicial decisions.

“Dogma and law are two different things,” Feinstein said. “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 when it comes to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for in this country.”

But analysts on both side of the political aisle this week spoke highly of Barrett, and Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior correspondent for Religion News Service, wrote that Barrett’s faith is “important but irrelevant.”

“To argue that a person’s religious beliefs are not or should not be influential in how they approach judicial questions shows an ignorance of history and politics. Politics is the way in which we make decisions binding on the members of our political community. It is all about ‘What should we do?’ — a moral question by its very nature. Any sentence with a ‘should’ in it is a moral statement. It is judgment about what is right and what is wrong,” Reese wrote.

And Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law professor writing for Bloomberg, said, “Barrett is also a profoundly conservative thinker and a deeply committed Catholic. What of it? Constitutional interpretation draws on the full resources of the human mind. These beliefs should not be treated as disqualifying.”

Feldman added that he doesn’t agree with Barrett’s judicial philosophy and expects to disagree with her opinions, but that he believes she will “decide cases in good faith, applying the jurisprudential principles to which she is committed.” He said he hopes the Senate treats her with respect.

Past Senate confirmation hearings have not been respectful, said Rubin, the former mayor of Shiloh, Israel, who recalls the contentious proceedings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 and also for nominee Robert Bork in 1987, whose nomination was voted down in the Senate. (Bork’s name later became slang for someone publicly vilified and kept out of office.)

But the past also points to evidence that public perception of a judicial nominee’s influence may not always pan out.

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Richard W. Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and former colleague of Barrett, remembers seeing protesters hold signs during Justice David Souter’s confirmation hearing that said Roe v. Wade would be overturned if Souter, an Episcopalian, was seated on the Supreme Court. That was in 1990. Souter retired in 2009 with Roe intact.

Garnett said although everyone lives by dogmas of some kind, “in American history, it’s true that the word has usually been used to refer to Catholics, just like words like ‘edict’ is usually reserved for things popes and bishops say.” (The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the pope is infallible, which has been the central sticking point for Catholics in public office.)

Public fear of adherence to dogma dictated from Rome is one reason that Catholic immigrants to America suffered so much discrimination, Garnett said.

“In part this was because people thought they would be bad citizens because they were in the grips of dogma, whereas to be a true citizen, one needed to be free from those kinds of things,” he said, adding that “there is something kind of funny about that. Everybody has commitments and deeply held beliefs to which they’re committed, but they can’t prove under a microscope. Human beings generally have a need for some kind of religious commitment, and if it’s not filled by traditional religions, it’s going to be filled by something else.”

‘Everyone has a belief system’

Nancy Ammerman, professor emeritus of sociology of religion at Boston University, said that Americans are famously protective of the separation of church and state, but that the principle is often misunderstood.

“We invoke this notion of the separation of church and state, which has to do with using the power of the state to limit the free exercise of religion of the individual. But that’s not what people worry about. Most people worry that religion isn’t supposed to have an impact on politics, that you’re supposed to keep them separate. The reality of the matter is that there are all kinds of ways in which people’s religious faith influences how they think about political issues,” Ammerman said.

In fact, the framed poster outside of Ginsburg’s office read, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” came from the book of Deuteronomy.

Critics of Barrett should not infer that any of her decisions may be based on Catholic teachings, Garnett said, nothing that American Catholics as a whole are not predictable when it comes to polling and don’t always line up with the church’s official positions.

“American Catholics behave politically, and hold beliefs politically, in the exact same way that American people do at large. Some Catholics might regret this, but there’s endless polls on this.”

As to Barrett’s upcoming confirmation, Rubin said, “Everyone has a belief system. It’s going to color their world view. But the only important thing here is whether the nominee will interpret the Constitution as written.”

Barrett has vowed to do that. Replying to Feinstein in 2017, she said, “I would decide cases according to rule of law, beginning to end, and in the rare circumstance that might ever arise — I can’t imagine one sitting here now — where I felt that I had some conscientious objection to the law, I would recuse. I would never impose my own personal convictions upon the law.” 

Correction: A previous incorrectly said that Robert Bork withdrew from consideration from the Supreme Court. He was voted down by the Senate in 1987.