It was difficult to take seriously even for daytime TV–all that doggerel of dodged questions, of toadying and grandstanding senators that were the Amy Barrett hearings. Barrett’s dogmatism should not be, though conveniently for her choreographers, the election-year politics of her appointment have obscured her subservience to regression.
The two issues are unrelated. Whether this was year one or the last month of his presidency, the acting president had every right to nominate her. The Senate has every right to confirm her, as it will. Of course it’s a stolen seat, as was Neil Gorsuch’s, as was John Marshall’s in 1801, when John Adams appointed him Chief Justice with just days left in his term. But it’s not Republicans’ fault that they have the majority. Democrats would have stolen seats of their own if they’d had the chance. They wouldn’t be talking court-packing otherwise. Thankfully no court-packing scheme will happen on Joe Biden’s watch. He knows his FDR.
Barrett answered no questions. She didn’t have to. Her record is clear enough. It leaves us with a replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as cynical as George Bush’s replacement of Thurgood Marshall with Clarence Thomas in 1991–a mullah replacing a justice in both cases, or fundamentalism hiding under the hijab of originalism. Except that when Thomas was appointed the court was still fairly balanced and not yet a vassal to the religious right. With Barett’s appointment, Thomas is no longer the sadist from the fringe. He’s the originalists’ second coming, with Barrett as handmaid.
Sexist as this may sound, it’s central to Barrett’s biography, or at least those parts of her biography that, submissive to political correctness when convenient, her coddlers on the Senate Judiciary Committee never dared ask her about. Her People of Praise church in Indiana had anyway scrubbed almost all evidence of her role there. It was not a flattering association–not if the last 60 years’ advances in women’s rights, civil rights, marriage and gender equality mean anything.
People of Praise’s version of Catholicism is debatable: the church is given to speaking in tongues, celebrating misogyny, banning gays and lesbians, relegating contraception and abortion to red-light districts, if that, deriding all things secular as inferior to a a life in Christ, requiring insular allegiance from its members and exercising authoritarian methods to ensure it. Barrett herself was a so-called “Handmaid” of Christ in the church’s leadership–a term not taken from Margaret Atwood’s novel about the transformation of America into a Wahhabi-style theocracy, where women are reduced to vessels for procreation, but from the membership directory of Barrett’s church in Indiana. (It’s not clear what inspired Atwood to use the word handmaid.) Having been raised Catholic and suffered the overzealous rigors of its enforcers, especially in school, some of that culture is grimly familiar to me. Most of it is not, at least not as Catholicism.
People of Praise’s theology is closer to Islam in most regards. Not that it’s any more or less of a disqualifier, on its face. But imagine if Barrett were a devout, hijab-wearing Muslim. She’d be smeared the way Keith Ellison was when he became the first Muslim to serve in Congress, the way Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib still routinely are by Trump and his brown shirts even though these individuals “are in fact archetypes of moderation and secularism compared with Judge Barrett,” as the Muslim playwright Wajahat Ali wrote. So let’s not suddenly discover the evils of religious discrimination just because Barrett is the Trump credo’s triptych of untouchable iconography–white, Christian, Republican.
Had she been a member of a club that banned blacks or Jews (or Catholics, for that matter, as they once so often were), even a nostalgic for “the good old days of segregation” like Lindsay Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, would have found it impossible to confirm her. Yet she was an actual member of the board of a school that expressly bans children of unmarried or gay parents, which is no different than if it banned black or non-Christian children. Didn’t matter. She’s a Christian, and Christian bigotry gets a pass. Analyze, criticize, object, and you’re branded an anti-Catholic. What convenient immunization, not from bigotry, but for bigotry.
We don’t have to imagine what Barrett’s jurisprudence will look like regarding gay rights, abortion, women’s rights, sex discrimination, even human rights and the separation of church and state. Reactionaries can party like it’s Deuteronomy again. Her theology would have been unrecognizable, at least in judicial robes, to conservatives like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford, and to Republican-appointed justices like Lewis Powell (whose famous memo her sycophancy for business she could nevertheless recite in her sleep), Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens or Sandra Day O’Connor. None of them was dim to the respect for all creeds that church-state separation represents, or to the centuries of bloodshed that made it necessary. “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question,” O’Connor had written in her concurrence of a decision finding the posting of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courtroom unconstitutional. “Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
Barrett might have been more recognizable to Ronald Reagan, the genesis of the GOP’s turn toward Bible-thumping fantasies, though for Reagan it was more Machiavellian expedience than conviction. She would be a lot more recognizable to the second Bush, whose own appointees have been chiseling at the wall with little hammers. But as with all things Trump, his appointees favor wrecking balls.
Barrett now seals the votes to return not only commandments to courtrooms but Bibles to classrooms, school-sponsored prayer, unbridled taxpayer support for madrassas, thus deepening the plunder of public schools, a long-term goal. “I hope to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have public schools,” Jerry Falwell had sermonized in 1979, back when he was inseminating the religious right. “The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be.” The ground around his oval Hades in Lynchburg must’ve raptured when news of Barrett’s nomination sank in. “When a group of nine idiots can pass a ruling down that it is illegal to read the Bible in our public schools,” Falwell had also said, “they need to be called idiots.”
Falwell’s math is Trump’s calculus. The “idiots” are down to a minority on the Supreme Court. That’s the numerology behind Barrett’s appointment. And “The Handmaid’s Tale” is no longer fiction. It’s about to be serialized in judicial opinions.