The wrong way to attack Amy Coney Barrett
What Democrats should understand about the prospective Supreme Court justice's religious beliefs
Initial scrutiny has focused, as it did the last time her name was raised as a SCOTUS possibility, on Barrett's faith. She's Catholic, but she's also charismatic, reportedly a member of an intentional community group called People of Praise.
And that, I suspect, is where Democrats may get themselves in trouble — not with their takes on Barrett's Catholicism, which is where the debate over allegations of anti-religious bias among Democrats is now happening, mostly linked to widely rebuked 2017 comments to Barrett from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and/or pundit Hugh Hewitt's Wednesday claim that "Democrats and Blue Bubble media have begun to voice their anti-Catholic bias."
As has been widely noted, having a Catholic presidential nominee helps blunt charges of Democratic anti-Catholicism. It's rather Barrett's charismatic inclinations that are becoming the primary target for opposition to her candidacy. Her People of Praise membership has drawn media focus including false claims that the group inspired The Handmaid's Tale, with prominent progressive observers expressing outrage that the likely nominee is, as one incorrectly put it, "legit in a [sic] extremist religious cult that served as inspiration" for Margaret Atwood's dystopia.
That line of attack is both politically risky and a case of stereotypical American ignorance of the world beyond our borders. For Democratic senators to pick up on this messaging would be a strategic mistake.
Going after Barrett's charismatic faith will do nothing to block her progress through the Senate. It will not add to anti-Trump enthusiasm among the Democratic base, which has long since reached max capacity. But it could well alienate key voting blocs who don't find charismatic Christianity as weird and scary as many white progressives evidently do. I'm particularly thinking of Hispanic voters who are recent immigrants, children of immigrants, or otherwise maintain close ties to extended family in the Global South, because there is a strong chance those family members or these voters themselves are charismatic Christians, too.
"We are currently living in one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide," explains religion scholar Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom. "Over the last century," his landmark work demonstrates with exhaustive qualitative analysis, "the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably [to the Global South] ... If we want to visualize a ‘typical' contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela."
Geography isn't the only important thing to understand about this shift. The other huge difference is the kind of Christianity flourishing abroad. It's not the staid worship services white Americans like me prefer. It is, as Jenkins summarizes, "highly charismatic and Pentecostal ... ecstatic religious styles ... which span churches with very different origins and traditions. Pentecostal expansion across the Southern continents has been so astonishing as to justify claims of a new Reformation."
That typical contemporary Christian likely speaks in tongues, dances in church, believes in miraculous healing, and sees spiritual warfare as an imminent part of her daily life. She doesn't fit neatly into our political boxes; we would likely describe her as very liberal on economics but very conservative on socio-moral issues, including gender roles. She may well be part of a "base community" of Christians who are heavily involved in each other's personal and spiritual lives, gathering for Bible study and community organizing. She has, in short, quite a bit in common with Amy Coney Barrett and the People of Praise.
If anything, by that global standard, Barrett and POP are fairly sedate. As far as I can tell from credible reporting on the group, including this critical account from a former founding member published in a peer-reviewed journal, People of Praise is a moderate charismatic group with a robust but clearly voluntary community life centered on spiritual guidance and mutual aid.
They pray for miraculous healing but don't eschew regular medical care. Their past use of "handmaid" as a title for a spiritual director role smacks of the corny, over-earnest style of 1970s revivalism, and the portion of the membership covenant I've found is standard church stuff. That full membership requires a six-year process is a good sign POP isn't a cult, as cults are by design easy to join but difficult to leave. And while People of Praise has a conservative view of gender, remember that the group has come "to our attention [because] one of their female members is at the brink of the ultimate attainment in her profession," a position of immense authority, including authority over men.
All of this is to say Barrett's charismatic faith looks entirely normal to millions of people around the world — and on American voter rolls. "It's been wild to see some of the same folks talking about [the] importance of [the] Hispanic vote just tweet the most casually antagonistic stuff about charismatic/Pentecostal Faith," wrote Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for former President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign. "They may not know they're disparaging anyone but right-wing Republicans, but, uh, other people do." And some of those other people might not vote for a party screaming that their (or their mom's) faith is freaky.