Facebook Twitter
AP20271068716183.jpg

Judge Amy Coney Barrett listens as President Donald Trump announces Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Politics is about religion — even if the Supreme Court confirmation shouldn’t be

Debates about Amy Coney Barrett’s faith are more often surrogate skirmishes for larger conflicts about who in American life rightly owns the judiciary

SHARE Politics is about religion — even if the Supreme Court confirmation shouldn’t be

Don’t be fooled. The impending confirmation battle over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, has everything to do with religion — just not in the way many are currently talking about it.

Indeed, it wasn’t long after news broke about Barrett’s nomination that talk show host Bill Maher dubbed Barrett an “(expletive) nut.” Maher described the sitting federal judge as “Catholic — really Catholic. I mean really, really Catholic.” As commentator Timothy Carney points out in the Washington Examiner, the message here seems to be, “being Catholic is OK, but being SO Catholic is kinda creepy.”

Of course, Article VI of the Constitution forbids any “religious test” for office. However, that doesn’t mean religion is irrelevant in who is confirmed to the Supreme Court or how subsequent decisions are perceived or interpreted.

In Maher’s comments, for example, we find embodied the fear that Barrett’s personal religious beliefs could impact rulings on sensitive culture war issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Many others have cheered Barrett’s nomination precisely because they hope she will influence such decisions.

Thus, the lens through which we view Barrett’s nomination seems inevitably tinged by one’s place on the political spectrum.

For her part, Barrett has said, “It’s never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge’s convictions, from faith or anywhere else, on the law.”

But, debates about Barrett’s faith are more often surrogate skirmishes for larger conflicts about who in American life rightly owns the judiciary or American politics generally.

One does not need to “take back” the country unless one feels like somebody took it in the first place. This tug of war has been going on for years, but the stark contrast between the likes of Maher and Barrett today expose the nation’s political dividing lines.

Maher is a coastal dweller; Barrett a Midwesterner. Maher is single; Barrett is married. Maher is childless; Barrett has seven children.

And importantly, Maher is agnostic, while Barrett’s religion, in the words of Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, “lives loudly.”

Maher and Barrett are different, to be sure. But research suggests that they aren’t outliers in the United States.

In a forthcoming report for the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, we analyzed data from 16,474 survey participants in 11 countries. Compared to the religious makeup of other nations, the United States stands alone with relatively similar numbers of secular people and weekly church attenders.

For instance, the percentage of people who attend church at least weekly in the United States is similar to the percentages found in Colombia and Peru. But the United States also boasts a large number of seculars, with nearly 30% of the population reporting no religious activity. 

0928BarrettHal_02__1_.jpg

In other words, these two groups — the seculars and the highly religious — fall into two distinct, nearly equal-sized cohorts that have increasingly defined and driven some of today’s most pressing culture war issues.

Maher is a highly “secular” type, likely engaging in no religious practice and living near the urban coast. Barrett, on the other hand, worships in the home and attends church, actively practicing her faith while living within America’s vast middle and southern regions.

For perspective, there are now approximately 103 million seculars and some 86 million active religious participants in the United States. 

That’s a lot of people. 

Put differently, there are more highly secular people in America than there are people in all of France (almost 67 million); and, by the same token, there are more highly religious citizens in the United States than the entire population of the United Kingdom (also roughly 67 million).

But, due to geographical and residential segregation, these important facts about American demography are sometimes invisible to the nation’s own citizens. Coastal seculars may look around and see a social landscape almost entirely devoid of the highly religious. In contrast, religious conservatives in rural America may have little perspective on how seculars live.

They both can rightly say, “Their America isn’t my America.”

Consequently, coastal elites wishing for a France-like liberal utopia are shocked when a highly religious individual is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. And by the same token, religious conservatives may come to resent the seculars presiding over the nation’s economic hubs filibustering the appointment of someone who shares their values. 

Knowing that American citizens differ so dramatically from one other should inspire a bit more humility and even curiosity rather than ire or political animosity.

In other words, America is nearly equally divided between the highly religious and the staunchly secular. But, its religious patterns resemble other devoutly religious nations (and even exceed places like Ireland and Argentina) while still having a sizable number of nonreligious citizens. It’s precisely this balanced mix that makes the United States exceptional among its peers.

So, is America a secular nation? Yes. Is it a religious nation? Of course. Most other developed Western countries simply don’t strike this same demographic balance. 

And knowing that American citizens differ so dramatically from one other should inspire a bit more humility and even curiosity rather than ire or ideological animosity. The American project, after all, has (at its best) been about ensuring that everyone finds their own “vine” and “fig tree” while weaving unity out of diversity.

The motto e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) still graces the nation’s great seal. How we approach Barrett’s nomination may reveal whether we still believe it.

Spencer James, Hal Boyd and Jason Carroll are faculty members in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. They are each affiliated with BYU’s Wheatley Institution. Their views are their own.