A Religious Litmus Test Won’t Stop the Organized Power of the Right

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice and liberal feminist hero, has paved the way for Donald Trump to nominate the third Justice of his tenure as President. Though a few Republicans initially held out on pledging to allow the nomination a floor vote or to approve the nominee, as of last week top Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that the nomination is effectively a done deal. And that was before Trump confirmed what many had previously suspected—he intends to nominate Amy Coney Barrett, currently seated in the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court, to replace Ginsberg.


Barrett’s nomination shouldn’t surprise anyone. She is a young, well-credentialed Christian conservative. She is a woman, which is a PR necessity for Republicans, given the drawn-out nightmare that was the Brent Kavanaugh nomination hearing. Most importantly, her judicial record and social conservatism are perfect for shoring up Trump’s support from the religious right, a segment of the Republican base that has recently been declining in support for Trump’s nationalist, white supremacist campaign.


Much of the media focus on Barrett’s ideology and judicial record strongly emphasizes her Christianity and her conservatism. Special attention has been given to her affiliation with the People of Praise, a U.S. based lay ecumenical organization that is home to mostly conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians. Most of the mainstream media’s attention to Barrett’s Christianity and specifically her Catholicism results in alarmism and reductivism, especially when they equate her religiosity with her opposition to abortion rights, trans rights, workers rights, and other progressive causes.


Barrett’s nomination and likely succession to the Court should cause deep concern for progressives and leftists, and they should resist her nomination. But the left must recognize that it will have little success in combating the rightward lurch of the judiciary if it fails to better understand the nuanced relationship between Barrett’s particular brand of conservatism and religion—in this case, Catholic—faith. Barrett’s ascendance is the culmination of centuries of conservative Catholic education and organizing, both in and outside of the U.S. Whereas the right is quite conscious of this history, liberal politicians and pundits regularly overlooks it, which clears the way for a culture war over the importance of religious commitment—a war that the right knows all too well how to win.


From the reactionary era of Rerum Novarum to the concordat with Fascist Italy to cooperation with the military government of Argentina, conservatives in the Catholic Church, including clergy, have historically had a close connection with the forces of the political right. The main center-right party in many European countries is a “Christian-Democratic” one, often with roots in that country’s Catholic Action group or another lay organization born in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. These parties also advocate for a “natural” social order rooted in hierarchies of traditional associations, uniting their nations by excluding political “others,” from Communists to Muslims.


In South America, the same tactics conservative Catholic theologians used to censure and silence “heterodox” opponents (both Catholic and Protestant) were applied to national political dissidents. Members and leaders of the Catholic Church created categories of internal enemies who had to be stopped before their perspective infected the whole community, thus helping to fuel what came to be known as the Dirty Wars, a brutal decade in which thousands of Argentinians were “disappeared” and murdered by a right-wing military dictatorship.


In the U.S. a disproportionate number of the major players in the establishment of the New Right—Phylis Schalfley, Paul Weyrich, and William F. Buckley Jr. to name a few—were deeply conservative Catholics, demonstrated most clearly in their appeals to traditional gender roles, social hierarchies and strong political authority. Trump’s victory in the 2016 GOP primary and Presidential election directly resulted from their preparations and advocacy for a united conservative Christian politics, ironically embodied in one of the most irreverent and irreligious politicians the U.S. has ever seen.


During the Cold War, conservative Catholicism united the political right-wing from Vietnam to Brazil to Poland to Germany to the U.S. Just as “anti-Communism” provided a coherent foreign policy framework for the right, in many countries a traditionalist or reactionary Catholic theology provided a domestic policy playbook focused on “defending the family” and the “unborn,”  protecting the right to religious education, and, depending on whether or not Catholics were the majority in the country in question, on religious freedom.


Many of these political battles continue to play out, especially in countries with Catholic hyper-majorities such as those in Latin America, where freedoms that are entirely mainstream even on the religious right of the U.S., such as divorce, are still legally and politically contentious. And in the U.S. we can credit this same political movement with everything from the school voucher movement to the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment.


Still, it remains difficult for Democrats, liberals, and the left in the U.S. to talk about the legacies of these political and theological movements without walking directly into the trap of being accused of applying a “religious test” to those who seek political or judicial appointments. Indeed, given the Democrats’ tendency to talk about religion and politics in zero-sum terms, some commentators have begun to suggest that the Democrats’ refusal to accept a candidate who opposes abortion rights means that they would refuse to accept any practising Catholics—Justice Sotomayor apparently notwithstanding.


The point is this: without understanding the history of conservative Catholic organizing as organizing, as an intentional political and ideological campaign like any other, most observers miss the nuances within the Catholic Church’s ideological spread. It is a two-millennia-old social institution replete with both reaction and struggles for emancipation and, in the modern age, the result of centuries of internal conflict and argument that produced both Liberation Theology and justifications for murderous dictatorships. The aforementioned People of Praise, a focal point for media commentary on Barrett, bears out this history: an ecumenical Catholic lay community would have hardly been imaginable before the Second Vatican Council and was only possible after long ecclesial struggle against centuries of clericalism and political authoritarianism. 


Only by understanding the nuances, complexities and popular struggles of the Catholic Church—to say nothing of Christianity as a whole—will it become possible to talk about Barrett’s conservative Catholicism without erasing the voices of liberal and left Catholics and Christians. Unfortunately, most  coverage of Barrett in the U.S. contributes to just this kind of erasure, foreclosing the possibility of a leftist Christian faith and effectively handing conservatives and the right-wing everything they need to rhetorically skewer the left for completely misunderstanding the role that religion plays in many people’s political lives.


Failing to understand that Catholics, or Muslims, or any other religious group aren’t a monolith but instead a social group with internal factions, disagreements, and histories, results in embarrassing own-goal for the left. As Barrett’s confirmation hearings approach, liberals and the left risk being painted as “anti-religious” because of their equation of religion with regressive politics, when in fact many members of Barrett’s own church disagree strongly with her stances on precisely these issues, the Democrat’s nominee for the President among them.


Although conservatives’ are leaning hard on the tried-and-true method of playing the victim, Barrett and other conservatives aren’t victims on the wrong side of a religious litmus test. They’re part of a decades and centuries long struggle for political power—and a very successful one at that. Only by fully covering and acknowledging their role in our collective histories can we unseat them from their pedestals and normalize them as political opponents. They are, after all,  just some of the current players in the milenia of struggle over the meaning and implications of Jesus’s message.


Craig Johnson is a PhD candidate in Latin American History at UC Berkeley. He studies right-wing politics and conservative Catholic theology in Latin America and Spain. He’s also the host of “Fifteen Minutes of Fascism,” a weekly podcast covering the global rise of the radical right.


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