Cole Hartin: Coney Barrett's appointment is controversial. Her faith should not be
To question one’s fitness for public service because one is a charismatic Christian misses the fact that any half-hearted believer at least claims allegiance to Christ
Photo Credit: Fred Schilling
By: Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin
Amy Coney Barrett, newly appointed associate justice to the United States Supreme Court, took fire during her confirmation process for her associations with People of Praise, a “charismatic Christian Community.” The group was the focal point of Democrat critiques because of its traditional take on gender roles as well as its community covenant commitment, which “is made freely and only after a period of discernment lasting several years.” The commitment is “neither an oath nor a vow, but it is an important personal commitment.” This kind of commitment to another seems to have scared folks, especially those without much faith. The community evokes images of mutual submission, glossolalia, and patriarchy, along with traditional Christian commitments more generally, that do not sit well with the reigning Democrat orthodoxy.
After the initial onrush of concern, more measured looks at the “threat” that Coney Barrett’s participation in People of Praise surfaced. The Atlantic published an even-handed assessment, and David French pointed out the overreach of much of the hysteria. It’s somewhat understandable that Coney Barrett’s nomination received so much blowback from Americans, for reasons beyond the controversial circumstances of her appointment: Despite America’s deeply religious roots, the First Amendment is grounds for bifurcating public and religious life. Worries about the religious beliefs creeping into what should be objective decisions are not unfounded.
Coney Barrett’s participation with People of Praise might seem retrograde, with traditional gender roles outlined in the group’s self-understanding. But, as French and others have pointed out, this is not uncommon in many conservative evangelical bodies. Moreover, that religious convictions, however strong and however passé they may appear, should be cause for criticism reveals the way that many Americans, mostly Democrats in this case, fail to understand the significance of Christian belief, beyond a kind of waspish paraphernalia that one might take up to adorn the holidays.
I think at the heart of the concern of many of the critics of Coney Barrett is the fear that a woman in power might have fidelity to someone other than the state or contemporary cultural orthodoxies. The anthropology this reveals is telling: Each individual ultimately stands alone in relationship to the state, and in ultimate subjection to it. Whereas a more traditional understanding — a view with more purchase among conservatives — looks to the individual’s membership in a community. To be a human, in this perspective, positions individuals with obligations to family, friends, husbands and wives, children and so forth. Even the law recognizes that certain relationships augment the way individuals ought to be held to account, with spousal immunity, for instance.
And this is to say nothing of commitments of a religious nature.
I write as a Christian, and while I have my qualms with certain elements in charismatic Christianity, in order to be fair I have to recognize the way it pushed against the walls of segregation before the Civil Rights movement (look to the multiethnic worship as the Azusa Street Revival) and the way it propelled women into leadership before this was common in other fields. But to question one’s fitness for service to the state simply because one is a charismatic Christian is to miss the fact that any half-hearted believer is at least claiming to have allegiance to Jesus before anyone else.
Coney Barrett, along with millions of other Americans and Canadians, confess that Jesus is Lord each Sunday. Surely this has a personal element to it, “Jesus is Lord of my life,” and whatnot. But in addition to this, to claim as we do in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus is “our Lord” is also a political claim, that Christians have a fidelity to Christ before the state. In the early Church, this was cause for persecution against Christians by the Roman Empire. Further, this is why theologian Stanley Hauerwas can say, “I confess I often enjoy making liberal friends, particularly American liberal friends, nervous by acknowledging I am of course a theocrat. ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not my personal opinion; I take to be a determinative political claim.”
In fact, this fidelity to Christ before the state is what drove so many to North America in the first place. To pull at the thread of Coney Barrett’s belief will only begin to unravel the religious commitments of multitudes.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke's Anglican Church in the Parish of Portland.
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