Amy Coney Barrett may or may not be President Trump's nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, but that hasn't stopped Republicans and conservative media outlets from cooking up a fake controversy about her potential nomination in the meantime.
Barrett, a circuit judge on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, is a devout Catholic and active in the Christian group People of Praise, a prayer organization that grew out of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement and which some have questioned due to its opacity and possible influence over its members. Although she has never ruled on a case directly concerning abortion rights, religious conservatives believe that Barrett would be a reliable vote to overturn Roe v. Wade when an abortion case comes before the high court.
Given that, conservative media and Republican politicians have spent the last week stirring up the false story that "the left" is waging an all-out anti-Catholic attack on Barrett, a deliberate move to distract from the real story — that Republicans outrageously plan to ramrod a Supreme Court nominee through the Senate just weeks before the election.
That story should be front page news everywhere. Not only is it a hypocritical about-face on the Republicans' so-called "McConnell rule" of 2016, it is the plainest example of the GOP's absolute corruption of our democratic processes and the norms that safeguard them. Instead, Fox News has, not surprisingly, put the Barrett story into overdrive, with regular segments on Democrats' supposed anti-Catholic assaults on the judge.
But even normally cooler conservative heads, like S.E. Cupp, have helped hype the hysteria. In her column for the New York Daily News, Cupp called the "anti-Catholic attacks" on Barrett "gross" and "shameful." Her evidence? One tweet from Reuters and three from individuals who hold no political office and whom most Americans have never heard of. In her piece, Cupp linked to an article from the Christian Broadcasting Network that brashly claimed the "anti-Catholic attacks" against Barrett "are already flowing." But the CBN article couldn't provide one example of that actually happening this past week. No one has shown any substantive proof that a coordinated and sustained campaign of religious bigotry against Barrett is underway. Conservatives' concocted crisis is mostly smoke and little fire.
That doesn't matter to the target audience, of course, who thrive on outrage rather than evidence. And the manufactured Barrett brouhaha isn't really even about the Supreme Court itself, since whoever Trump nominates will have enough Republican votes to confirm them. Instead, it's about the symbolic meaning of the Supreme Court to Trump's base of religious conservatives and how stoking cultural resentments has become the go-to electoral strategy of the right.
It's also a cynical response to an electoral reality. Among white Catholics, Trump's lead has collapsed to a slim five points, according to a recent poll — a huge decline from his 23-point advantage with this group in 2016. Facing a Catholic opponent in Joe Biden, Trump needs to do everything he can to maintain his edge with Catholic voters, but his fantasies that a Biden presidency would usher in a godless, secular dystopia surely seem preposterous to anyone not already inclined toward the president. Last weekend, Trump bellowed to a North Carolina crowd that "there will be no God" should Biden win, a comment not so much anti-Catholic against the churchgoing Biden as it was just straight up blasphemous.
More than Catholics, such comments are intended for Trump's strongest supporters: white evangelicals, a group primed to believe they are under persecution but one that also has their own long history of saying awful things about Catholics. Even now, some of the right-wing religious leaders closest to Trump, like Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, have a robust record of pronouncing that Catholics aren't Christians and are headed straight to hell, so there's plenty of anti-Catholicism closer to the Oval Office, if Republicans really cared to investigate.
All that said, the worries that Barrett might be subjected to unfair treatment for her religious beliefs aren't entirely unfounded. At Barrett's Senate confirmation hearing for her current court seat in 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein seemed to scoff to Barrett that "dogma lives loudly" within her, and Sen. Dick Durbin questioned whether she was an "orthodox Catholic," comments that conservative media have overplayed this past week in the absence of any new examples from Democrats.
Those questions and comments have no place in a Senate confirmation process and should be avoided if Barrett is the nominee — if there's even a confirmation hearing. Recent articles about Barrett's connection to People of Praise in the Guardian and Newsweek have, no doubt, veered into anti-religious terrain, but there's no reason to suspect Democrats would make such missteps if Barrett is the nominee, no matter how much Republicans hope they will.
No matter who Trump puts forward, Democrats should keep the attention focused on McConnell's defilement of the process rather than mount an offensive against whichever nominee emerges. That's an unusual approach to a Supreme Court selection, but these are unusual and perilous times that require spotlighting the far greater crisis at hand. Instead of warning about some specific danger that one individual justice poses for the future of the court, Democrats should keep hammering away at how the Republicans' willingness to steal a Supreme Court seat represents no less than an existential threat to the very future of American democracy itself. That's the right strategy not only for winning this election, but also saving a nation.
Democrats can't stop whichever justice Trump nominates. But voters can turn back Trump and his Republican enablers this November. If they don't, the outcome of this fight will hardly matter.