Amy Coney Barrett and the American Wars of Religion

Judge Amy Coney Barrett standing next to Senator Mike Crapo. Photo taken from the Office of Senator Mike Crapo, WikiCommons.

Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court is sure to touch off another battle in the long-running American wars of religion.  

Many Democrats, who just days ago were highlighting the role that Judaism played in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s worldview, will cast suspicion on Barrett’s Catholic faith with lines like Senator Feinstein’s, “The dogma lives loudly within you.”  

Republican supporters of Judge Barrett, including those who barely paused to pay respects to the pathbreaking Ginsburg, will no doubt cast themselves as champions of religion, even though many of them were quite happy to go along with Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.  

Subscribe now

The tragedy is that support for the ways that diverse faith and philosophical convictions shape American public life in general, and a range of political actors, in particular, should be a matter of bipartisan pride. Indeed, it is a signature quality of our country. 

The United States is the world’s first large-scale attempt at a religiously diverse democracy. Of all the various forms of identity that we speak of these days (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, disability, and so on), religious diversity may be the one that the European Founders came closest to getting right. These (generally) wealthy, (loosely) Christian, (presumably) straight, (most assuredly) white male slaveholders managed to create a constitutional system that protected freedom of religion, barred the federal government from establishing a single church, and prevented religious tests for office.     

Religious language has given the United States some of its most enduring symbols (“city on a hill”, “beloved community”, “almost chosen people”, “better angels of our nature”, “new Jerusalem”, “new Medina”), and is the inspiration behind many of our most vital civic institutions, including hospitals and colleges, disaster relief agencies and food banks. If you woke up tomorrow and discovered that all the institutions founded by religious communities in your town had disappeared, it would be unrecognizably different, and far worse off.  

The idea of dignifying diverse religious identities and encouraging them to make positive contributions to the nation was enacted, in part, as a strategy to avoid a reprise of the European Wars of Religion on this continent. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, “The degree of security … will depend on the number of interests and sects.” 

Sadly, religious diversity gets short shrift in our educational system. In an ambitious study of diversity issues in higher education by my organization, IFYC, in partnership with Professor Matt Mayhew at The Ohio State University and Professor Alyssa Bryant Rockenbach at North Carolina State, we discovered that while somewhere between 2/3 and ¾ of college students said that they spent time learning about race, nationality, and sexuality, fewer than half said that they spent time learning about religious diversity. 

If they had, perhaps they would have seen some interesting commonalities between Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Jewish faith and Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic experience. One such commonality is the manner in which both of those traditions were excluded from public and political life a century ago. America did not always live up to the ideals of our European Founders when it came to welcoming religious diversity. Indeed, a fierce Protestantism often violently excluded both Jews and Catholics from public life and political power, making a Justice Ginsburg or a Justice Barrett a virtual impossibility a century back, on account of both their gender and their respective faiths.  

It was a civic organization called the National Conference on Christians and Jews that emerged to battle anti-Catholicism and antisemitism. In the educational programs they spread throughout American schools, communities, and military installations, they referred to America as a Judeo-Christian nation. The phrase is neither especially theologically precise or historically accurate, but rather was a genius civic invention that accomplished dual goals: highlighting commonalities across Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and reminding Americans of the ideals of the nation when it came to welcoming religious diversity.    

There are now as many Buddhists in the United States as ELCA Lutherans and twice as many Muslims as Episcopalians. We are long past being a Judeo-Christian country and are now fully Interfaith America. No doubt an individual from one of these communities, or perhaps a Sikh, a Baha’i, a Hindu, an atheist, or an individual shaped by indigenous traditions, will one day be nominated to the highest court in this land. This individual might cite her convictions as inspiration for liberal political views, or for conservative ones. Perhaps she will belong to the equivalent of a praise group that is known for what might be called charismatic forms of worship – these certainly exist in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and indigenous traditions the world over.  

By then I hope that Americans will have developed the interfaith literacy about their own nation and its remarkably varied citizens to welcome whatever religious or philosophical conviction the nominee brings, and focus their fights on politics rather than faith.  


If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

The country's largest evangelical Christian adoption and foster care service provider may lead by example.
The Maryland suburbanites, both shooting with Canon cameras, set a couple of ground rules, the first being that they would strive to shoot together on what ended up being 26-weekend outings over almost a decade.
“The work of college and university chaplaincy today is a very hybrid kind of work,” said the Rev. Greg McGonigle, dean of religious life and university chaplain at Emory University.
According to The Washington Post, hundreds and thousands of vaccine-questioning posts by social media users are targeting Christians with misinformation.
Yes, there are extreme disparities between the Vatican’s resources and those of the homeless around Saint Peter’s Square; and yes, the Roman Catholic Church has been proactive, to varying degrees, in ameliorating these deep-rooted inequities.
Anna sits with Antonio De Loera-Brust, Mexican-American farmworker advocate, to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the farmworker community, the failure of the U.S. government to protect them, and his vision for the future of farmworker rights.
Several COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers used cells originally derived from tissue from an aborted fetus in the 1970s, but the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines used the cell lines only to test their vaccine.
Speakers JT Snipes and Zandra Wagoner use turns of phrase that likewise capture the very notion of an interfaith praxis that broadens perspectives in higher education.
Modah Ani is said immediately upon rising essentially before we get out of bed and should be the first words we utter every morning. When we recite Modah Ani we are essentially thanking God for giving us another day. We wake up grateful instead of...
"The incident comes amid a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans."
Besides any role models we find in our beautiful faith traditions, we serve as inspirations to one another. I firmly believe we can support our neighbors by stepping up to do our part in the fight against Covid-19.
Ghana received 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday and the Ivory Coast took delivery of 504,000 on Friday.
Through her reporting, Segura, 31, an opinion editor at National Catholic Reporter, has realized her faith has given her the language to talk about “why every person mattered” and “why God called us to care for the planet."
A suburban Texas church is helping a nearby mosque recover from the devastating snowstorms that hit last week.
Political scientist Henry Brady explores how trust has broken down in the U.S. and what we can do about it.
"Intel, which ranked second on the REDI Index last year, overtook Google, last year's top company, by 10 points in 2021. Intel’s public conference on religious inclusion earned it the extra boost."
"The letter says its signers feel compelled to condemn such expressions, "just as many Muslim leaders have felt the need to denounce distorted, violent versions of their faith" in previous years."
During the coronavirus pandemic, Moncayo has led the food distribution program through Mosaic West Queens Church in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
Raja writes about the usefulness or appropriateness of the term "BIPOC" - Black, Indigenous, People of Color- in discourse about race and justice, and how it relates to and reflects the politics of race and racism in the United States.
The river has been important since the dawn of civilization and has served as a commercial hub and lifeline for countless peoples over many millennia. Yet there has always seemed to be a justice that was out of reach for some.
"Many synagogues are leaning into the Purim tradition of giving gifts to friends and the poor— a custom known as “mishloach manot.”

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.