Pro-life demonstrators carry a banner past the U.S. Supreme Court during the annual March for Life (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters).

Does Linda Greenhouse have a problem with Catholics? Or just with religion in general? Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was the Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times for thirty years, retiring in 2008. She now teaches at Yale Law School and is still a prolific Times opinion writer. Her writing also appears widely elsewhere. She has long been a vehement abortion-rights advocate, who regularly supported Planned Parenthood financially and once attended an abortion-rights demonstration even while covering the High Court’s abortion cases. She insists that her views on abortion never influenced her reporting.

I read Greenhouse’s opinion pieces because she is an uncommonly clear explicator of legal questions, and I share her worries about what the current Court will do when it comes to environmental, corporate, and voting-rights law. However, it is impossible to ignore the deep suspicions she harbors about the Supreme Court’s Catholic justices or her conviction that religion should be an entirely private matter in a “secular” society like ours. The Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe, which she rightly predicted once all Trump’s nominees were placed on the bench, has infuriated her. In the wake of that decision, she has ventured some dubious assertions about the justices’ thinking and the place of religion in American democracy. In a November article in the Atlantic (“What in the World Happened to the Supreme Court?”), Greenhouse writes that the fact of being raised Catholic is “a convenient proxy for the ‘Will you promise to overturn Roe?’ question no president could ask directly.” She makes no similar charge about the influence of religion on a justice’s pro-choice views when she notes that Justice Elena Kagan had obliquely criticized the Court’s Dobb’s decision while speaking at New York’s Temple Emanu-El. Perhaps Greenhouse believes Kagan’s view is based on reason, not the teachings of her own religious tradition, while the Catholic justices are enthralled by Church dogma or something worse. But the Jewish allowance for abortion is based on tradition and Scripture, not secular reason.

In a 2021 column for the Times, “God Has No Place in Supreme Court Opinions,” Greenhouse decries the intrusion of religion into politics and the courts. “Republican officeholders are no longer coy about their religion-driven mission to stop abortion,” she writes, somewhat cryptically describing herself as someone who rejects “the notion of God as the ultimate personnel administrator.” Writing about another recent abortion case, she complains that “the fact that the [sic] four of the court’s six Roman Catholic justices and a fifth who was raised Catholic but is now Episcopalian, all conservative, allowed a blatantly unconstitutional law to remain in place pending appeal has barely been noted publicly.” She seems to think the Court’s refusal to act was done for explicitly religious reasons. She asks, “what reason other than religious doctrine is there” for opposing abortion rights? In her most recent column, “The Crusade to Place Religion over the Rest of Civil Society,” she warns that the Court is about to expand the scope of religious exemptions workers can seek from employers, while lamenting the loss of a time when the Court supposedly treated religion “as nothing particularly special.” She ends the column by repeating her claim that Roe was overturned for religious rather than legal reasons.   

Getting religion out of American politics is like getting salt out of the sea.

It seems Greenhouse has never met an agnostic or atheist who opposes abortion on moral or philosophical grounds, or, for that matter, a Catholic who opposes abortion because he or she regards it as a violation not of divine revelation but of natural law. In any case, Greenhouse is of the firm belief that religious views must remain someone’s “personal business,” not something that should be brought into the public square. She also sincerely seems to believe that the country is “lurch[ing] toward theocracy” because of the activism of religious believers on issues such as abortion, women’s rights, and same-sex marriage. “It’s incumbent on the rest of us to call out those who invoke God as their legislative drafting partner,” she writes.

The list of people Greenhouse would have to call out is a long one, beginning with nearly all the Founding Fathers, who were outspoken Deists, and including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan, and Martin Luther King Jr., who all invoked God with particular eloquence. Getting religion out of American politics is like getting salt out of the sea.

We have a separation of church and state, but not a wall between them. That separation has helped religion flourish in the United States, while the established state churches of Europe have largely been reduced to irrelevance. Greenhouse is right to be concerned about political overreach by Christians. Prohibition and the Scopes Trial remind us of the damage religious fundamentalism can do. But nearly every progressive political movement in U.S. history has had a strong Christian component—none more so than the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, which became the model for the women’s-rights movement that Greenhouse identifies with.

In a 2022 Times column, “Religious Doctrine, Not the Constitution, Drove the Dobbs Decision,” Greenhouse again reminds readers that five of the justices who overturned Roe “were raised in the Catholic Church” and argues that their decision reveals more about their motives than they “may have intended.” She then cites the response of a Protestant minister who accuses the justices of “moral bias,” because they allegedly showed more “concern for the lives of fetuses” than for the “lived experience” of women. Greenhouse’s point seems to be that Catholicism itself cares more for fetuses than for the lives of women.

Without the professions of faith made by those who fought to end legal segregation just a few decades ago, this would be a much less democratic country.

According to Greenhouse, “the norms of secular society” require the sort of access to abortion protected by Roe. I wonder if she realizes how closely that statement about “norms” resembles the sort of dogmatic claim she finds so objectionable in religion. In a recent review of three books on Christianity and secularism in the New York Review of Books, “Victimhood and Vengeance,” she writes that conservative Christians believe “religious ideas are both relevant to public policy and excluded from critical evaluation.” This has led to blatant professions of faith by politicians, professions that Greenhouse thinks should be disqualifying.

Greenhouse is right to warn against those Christians who insist that the United States has always been a Christian nation governed by Christian morality and should remain one. But she is wrong to think religious faith should or could be confined to the private sphere. Without the professions of faith made by those who fought to end legal segregation just a few decades ago, this would be a much less democratic country. “We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said. “Their powerful gospel put an end to such barbaric evils as infanticide and bloody gladiatorial contests. Finally, they captured the Roman Empire for Jesus Christ.” One wonders if Greenhouse would regard King, too, as a theocrat.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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