Much of what has been written about Amy Coney Barrett—whose confirmation hearing to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is currently underway— has investigated whether Barrett belongs to a Charismatic Catholic group called People of Praise, and examines the similarities between People of Praise and other Charismatic Catholic groups that may have inspired Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. But what these comparisons of her religious affiliations to Atwood’s novel miss is the fact that, in reality, Amy Coney Barrett herself has become a lightning rod for fears from both the left and right. On the left, is the plausible fear that Barrett, a former member of “University Faculty for Life” at Notre Dame University, will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. On the right, a refusal to appoint Barrett to the Supreme Court on any grounds would provide a platform for Republicans to drum up some manufactured panic from its anti-abortion, religious voters by claiming religious persecution from the left. All of this does exactly what it is intended to do—sew the seeds of chaos in the days before the election and divide Catholic voters, often along racial lines.
Conservatives have framed the hearings such that any discussion of Barrett’s religious practices is presented as religious persecution. But in reality, Barrett’s very selection for the vacant Supreme Court seat is designed to trigger a backlash. The conversation around People of Praise in the press invites discussion over whether the group’s strict adherence to Biblical gender roles within its community will affect Barrett’s Supreme Court decisions, which in turn gives Republicans the ammunition to cry “religious discrimination”—despite the fact that the question of a potential Justice’s beliefs are valid and common during the nomination process—for evangelical voters who have long believed that refusal to adopt anti-abortion laws rooted in religious objections is tantamount to persecution.
“When you tell somebody that they’re too Catholic to be on the bench, when you tell them they’re going to be a Catholic judge, not an American judge, that’s bigotry,” Missouri Senator Josh Hawley said at Monday’s confirmation hearings. But Republicans, who currently control the American government with Catholics comprising the majority on the Supreme Court, aren’t worried about discrimination—they just want religious voters to be.
The chaos caused by injecting conversation about anti-religious bias into the confirmation hearings is by design: If Barrett is denied a seat on the Supreme Court, though an extremely unlikely outcome, evangelical and a faction of Catholic voters will take it as a blow against religious liberty. If she is voted in, the same group will take it as a win in the culture wars and a crucial step toward overturning Roe v. Wade. Either way, Amy Coney Barrett wins Republicans further fealty from the religious right and capitalizes on a growing alignment of conservative, anti-abortion, and primarily white Catholic voters and like-minded evangelicals, who are primed to believe that their power is under threat, even if they’re disproportionately represented.
Recently, Retired Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput decried the “virus” of anti-Catholic “bigotry” that he perceives in the criticism of Barrett. Vice President Mike Pence, who has also described himself as an “evangelical Catholic,” brought up anti-Catholic sentiment during his debate with Democratic Vice-Presidental nominee Kamala Harris, despite the fact that presidential hopeful Joe Biden is also Catholic. Barrett’s nomination divides Catholic voters into two groups—those who will potentially vote for Biden in hopes of ending family separation at the border and those who see Amy Coney Barrett and Mike Pence as Catholics working in government to restrict abortion access and also view any resistance to those stances from the left that mention evangelicalism or Charismatic Catholicism as anti-religious discrimination.
“Race is a big part of it,” says Dr. Tricia Bruce, an affiliate of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society and adjunct research associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. “I think it’s sort of playing to a white Catholic base that is not dissimilar to what we saw the base of Trump supporters he was able to mobilize in Pennsylvania—begrudged, persecuted, victimized, that same sort of narrative, pushed to the back of the line. I don’t hear the same kind of story resonating with non-white Catholics who are an increasing majority of the church at this point.”
But Barrett’s nomination only highlights a divide between many groups within the charismatic community and other Catholic voters that has existed for decades, though perhaps never more apparent than in the days following
what is likely a calculated appointment.
“It’s almost like it splits Catholics, and half of them suddenly become united with evangelicals in really powerful ways that do help promote the agenda of Trump’s administration and the other half are disgusted or pushed back.,” Dr. Bruce says. “Both Biden and Amy Coney Barrett are Catholic, but the conversation is hugely different.” And Republicans are attempting to capitalize on the fissure in the scant days leading up to the election.
The story of People of Praise’s origins is also the story of differing conversations between Catholic voters in America. People of Praise is a charismatic group that describes itself as non-denominational, though many of its members are also Catholic. To understand the divine nature of People of Praise, both within the Catholic community and in the conversation around Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, one has to first understand the charismatic movement, which is most commonly associated with the global rise of Pentecostalism beginning in the 1960s, though it is embraced by many branches of Christianity. Anthropologist Joel Robbins describes the movement as a “form of Christianity in which believers receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and have ecstatic experiences such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophesying.”
While the movement is most often connected to evangelical fundamentalism that took off in the early 20th century and was booming by the 1960s, the Catholic Church also officially endorsed the ecumenical charismatic movement at the Second Vatican Council in 1962. In America, the 1960s idea of intentional communities, or communes, also influenced ideas around “covenant communities,” or charismatic groups, often primarily Catholic, who opted to live in close-knit communities based on “what they perceived to be the message of the New Testament,” according to Dave de la Fuente, who is writing a dissertation on Pentecostalism and racial justice at Fordham University. Sometimes, though not always, these communities were based on literal interpretations of Paul and Biblical messages such as “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” in much the same way other evangelicals, such as some Pentecostal groups, interpreted those passages.
“Early documentation on the first charismatic covenant communities show that many leaders read Paul as definitive about wives being subordinate to your husbands because there is an analogy between that and Jesus in the church and they consciously modeled it,” de la Fuente says.
And though many of these covenant communities had dissolved by the 1980s, People of Praise remains one of the few exceptions. People of Praise was an early charismatic covenant community founded in 1971. Today the group claims 1,800 members in 22 cities across the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. In much of the writing about the group, its commitment to Pauline ideas around order and structure has come under a microscope, with many publications pointing out that until very recently female mentors within People of Praise were called “Handmaids,” which calls to mind Margret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the hit TV series of the same name, though People of Praise says the title is a reference to Mary, Mother of Jesus as “the handmaid of the Lord.”
People of Praise member Joannah Clark told the AP that the exclusion of women from leadership positions over men within the church is simply a reflection of the way the group views the ideal leadership structure for families:
“In a marriage, we look at the husband as the head of the family. And that’s consistent with New Testament teaching,” said Clark, who is the head of Trinity Academy in Portland, Oregon [named a “National Blue Ribbon School “by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and which also recently boasted Barrett as a board member]. “This role of the husband as the head of the family is not a position of power or domination. It’s really quite the opposite. It’s a position of care and service and responsibility. Men are looking out for the good and well-being of their families.”
These divisions are a frightening callback to Atwood’s novel to much of secular America. But to many Christians, especially evangelical Christians who often rely on fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, these roles are culled directly from the Bible and not necessarily threatening. “People hear terms like Handmaid or head of the household or the language of religion, and in many ways it’s a reminder if we’re outsiders observing a world that we don’t understand the language can be offputting or scary,” Dr. Bruce says.
And the scrutiny of these terms, along with the gendered hierarchies within People of Praise, has to some rightwingers become evidence of religious discrimination from the left against Catholic and evangelical communities, even if this fear has been weaponized by cynical Republicans. Just after Barrett’s nomination Bill Donahue, president of the anti-discrimination group the Catholic League, called for Senators Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin, Mazie Hirono, and Kamala Harris to recuse themselves during the nominations for perceived anti-Catholic bias.
But the fear of right-wing religious groups—whose interests are currently represented by majorities in the Senate, the White House, the majority of governorships, and state legislatures—that a refusal to allow Barrett a seat on the Supreme Court is tantamount to some symbolic religious discrimination brings to mind a popular saying thought to be derived from a Margaret Atwood lecture: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” If evangelicals and Charismatic Catholics are afraid a rejection of Barrett is a rejection of their dogma, Democrats are afraid that Supreme Court Justice Barrett means an end to their bodily autonomy, right to marry, and overall security.
“They’re scared that clock will be turned back to the time when women had no right to control their own bodies, and when it was acceptable to discriminate against women in the workplace,” Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said during Monday’s hearings. “They’re scared that a time when we’re facing the perilous impacts of climate change, bedrock environmental protections are going to be destroyed. And they’re scared that your confirmation will result in the rolling back of voting rights, workers’ rights, and the rights of the LGBTQ community to equal treatment.”
Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination is symbolic even if it’s not a one-to-one example of Atwood’s novel come to life. Instead, she symbolizes what the Trump administration does best—creates divisions between Americans based on fear, then uses the ensuing panic to grab more power.