President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, like much else that’s happened during his time in office, seems to be simultaneously taking place in two different worlds. In the right-wing alternative reality—the same one in which COVID-19 is less dangerous than the flu, U.S. cities are burned-over wastelands controlled by antifa, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is a raving socialist—Barrett is facing waves of bigoted attacks because of her faith. For inhabitants of this alternative reality, a handful of regrettable articles about the charismatic lay movement she reportedly belongs to, the People of Praise, the inevitable awfulness of social media, and a cheap comment from Dianne Feinstein in 2017 prove that anti-Catholicism remains a pervasive, outsized influence in our society. They see a Supreme Court with five sitting Catholic justices—Barrett would be the sixth—as an institution being jealously guarded by prejudiced, secular elites from the contaminating influence of religious faith.
This right-wing alternative reality is a world that begins anew every morning. Past positions are no guide to the present, and the only firm principle is the pursuit of power. The same conservative Christians who for decades lamented the rise of a “naked public square” and insisted that believers should not have to check their faith when entering political life now find unseemly, or worse, the possibility of asking Barrett questions about the way her religious commitments relate to her jurisprudence. The fact that her own published work raises such issues—she has suggested Catholic judges might have to recuse themselves from certain cases involving the death penalty, for example—is waved away, while any mention of her speeches to the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, founded to help students understand “how God can use them as judges, law professors and practicing attorneys to help keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel in America,” is denounced as a low blow. Nor do those embracing this alternative reality seem capable of grasping that their own support for Barrett often includes praise for the parts of her life they otherwise deem off-limits. In one testimonial, a former student of Barrett’s put it this way: “The ease with which she donates her time and energy to serving others comes from years of loving the Lord with her entire heart, mind, and strength, and loving her neighbor as herself.” It turns out Barrett’s faith is a pertinent consideration, even a qualification—if her supporters consider the optics helpful to her nomination. Pro-life activists are permitted to coo over a Catholic mother of seven, clearly one of their own, but any suggestion that her background might fortify an inclination to roll back Roe v. Wade is decried as ugly conspiracy mongering.
None of this matters to those living in the right-wing alternative reality, of course. So what if most reporting on Barrett has been responsible, and that countless commentators have insisted on the distinction between legitimate questions about Barrett’s faith and unfair sensationalism? Those are irrelevant details to people who understand themselves to be viciously persecuted even as they control much of the federal government and are set to dominate the Supreme Court for a generation. They thrive on grievance and seek to turn all political fights into culture-war theatrics—anything to steer attention away from their policies that harm the sick, the stranger, and the struggling. In the case of Barrett’s nomination, that means her Republican supporters are desperately trying to turn arguments about her disturbing judicial record into a controversy over her religious beliefs. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley already has written a stern letter to Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warning him not to permit any “anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-faith vitriol in the hearings to come.”