Readers will recall the vigorous discussions centred on Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation back in 2012 – opinion was divided about whether his being a practising Mormon should count or not when casting a vote.
No, of course not, tends to be the standard liberal democratic response. Religion is a private matter. It has nothing to do with whether someone can do the job or not, and that is all that should count.
Richard Dawkins was not so accommodating when he threw in his sixpence worth:
If you knew that one of the candidates you’re contemplating voting for believed that in the 19th century a man called Joseph Smith dug up some golden tablets which he translated [into 17th century English] and then conveniently lost … [who] believes that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, believes that native Americans are the lost 10 tribes of Israel, believes that Jesus visited North America … I mean, these beliefs are barking mad! … Isn’t it a fair defence for him to say, “Oh, don’t worry, I won’t let my beliefs interfere with my policies”? … But do you want to vote for a candidate who’s capable of holding in his head such unrealistic nonsense? Do you want a President who believes palpably foolish things?
I will go a step further than Dawkins: can you believe that candidate when he says that his beliefs won’t influence the way he does his job? A conundrum presents itself here: if he is truthful in making that claim, he is obviously not sincere in his beliefs; if he is not being truthful, he is lying. Either way, he is not worthy of the trust invested in him by society in placing him in a high position of authority.
I am not suggesting for one moment that people with religious convictions should be barred from holding office. Moderates such as David Cameron and John Howard are as fit to lead a country as anyone else, indeed more so than most. The key distinction is that they believe in the separation of Church and State and they practise what they preach. But can we trust members of the wacky religious periphery to observe the same rule?
The same line of argument goes for judges. One case in this regard that sticks in my mind is that of Sarah Catt in the UK 8 years ago. She had done a late-term home termination job using a labour-inducing drug procured from India, and had reported that the child had been stillborn. When the matter came before a court, she had the misfortune to come before a judge who was also a leading light in the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, an extreme fundamentalist group that lobbies against abortion. While delivering the maximum sentence at his disposal, the judge opined that
… in my judgement all right thinking people would consider this offence more serious than manslaughter or any offence on the calendar other than murder.
The three judges of the Court of Appeal did not appear to be “right thinking people” as they drastically reduced her sentence, noting that it had been “manifestly excessive”.
That judge should not have presided over her case. There was very obviously a conflict of interests between his duty to apply the law and his personal religious beliefs as those pertain to abortion. The latter had prevailed. As noted by Ben Quinn and Owen Bowcott in The Guardian,
There is nothing wrong with a judge being a Christian, but that is a very different thing to being a 'Christian judge' who wants to apply biblical principles to judgments when those principles might not accord with the civil law that he or she is charged to uphold. (from https://www.theguardian.com/law/2012/sep/21/judge-jailed-abortion-woman-christian)
That brings me to Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s choice for the vacancy in the US Supreme Court left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a Roman Catholic, which is not necessarily a big deal, although it can be – orthodox Catholics believe that they are above ‘Man’s law’, and we reinforce that delusion by observing the ‘seal of confession’ which means that Catholic priests are absolved from having to divulge details of confessions of the most serious wrongdoings to the State authorities, including courts. More importantly, however, she is a member of the ‘People of Praise’, a branch of the Pentecostal movement that operates largely within Catholicism. That raises a red flag.
Pentecostalism involves beliefs and practices verging on the insane. One of their quaint rituals is entering a trance-like state and babbling incoherently – they call it ‘being filled with the Holy Spirit’ and ‘speaking in tongues’. It is not unusual to see someone writhing on the ground during a Pentecostal meeting as a sign of being ‘filled with the spirit’. The People of Praise appear to be into these larks. From their website:
Like hundreds of millions of other Christians in the Pentecostal movement, People of Praise members have experienced the blessing of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts as described in the New Testament.
Quite frankly, it is only the cloak of religious freedom of expression that shields them from being apprehended by orderlies in white coats and being bundled into vans headed straight for Funny Farm.
I don’t know whether Ms Barrett personally indulges in those esoteric pastimes, but the fact that she is willingly affiliated with a crowd like that raises huge questions not only about her sanity but also about her fitness to hold high public office in a secular system of government.
She is on record as saying that she will not allow her religious beliefs to influence her decisions as a Supreme Court judge. Is she not sincere about those beliefs, then? Or is she trying to pull the wool over our (and maybe her own) eyes?
Joan Walsh in an article titled “Amy Coney Barrett’s extreme religious beliefs merit examination” in The Nation of 26 September cogently argues that
Her Catholicism is irrelevant. The worldview of the fringe right-wing sect she has grown up in definitely isn’t.
She is … a hypocrite. She has written that Catholic judges who believe their church’s teachings against the death penalty should recuse themselves from death penalty cases, but she goes out of her way to get involved in cases involving abortion. If she believes her religious views would prevent her from impartially enforcing secular law on capital punishment, why can’t she admit they do the same when it comes to women’s established legal right to make their own health decisions?
Believers – especially the more articulate ones – have an uncanny ability to convince themselves, and others of like mind, that the reasons for their decisions and actions arise from outside their belief system even when it is patently obvious to a detached observer that they don’t. An excellent recent example of this tendency was the Irish Attorney-General’s denial of the recognition of a marriage conducted in a polygamous jurisdiction on the grounds that the marriage would not have been allowed under Irish law (for details see my article “Ireland and Canada grapple with polygamy”, Breaking View 6 August 2017). The A-G, a devout Catholic, was way out of order and ended up being rapped over the knuckles by the Irish Supreme Court.
People in high places in a democracy under the Rule of Law must set aside their personal beliefs to a certain extent when exercising that authority. They may hold eccentric views as citizens of a democracy but they should not impose those views through the exercise of their public duty. It is a matter of the rights of the person versus the duties of the persona. But I have difficulty seeing how committed members of loony-fringe fundamentalist sects who essentially do not believe in secular law can possibly make a distinction between the two, as they would be betraying their faith by doing so (see also my articles “The non-religiousorigins of law” and “The bibliolatrouspolitical right”.
When evaluating candidates for public office, I do look at their religious beliefs. If I see a mainstream religious moderate, I ignore that idiosyncrasy when deciding on how to cast my vote. If I see a member of the deranged fringe, I cross that person off my list, as I do not trust that character to uphold the principle of governmental secularism. If I had any say in the matter, Amy Coney Barrett would not be going anywhere near a courtroom in a judicial role, let alone the Supreme Court – a court which can override legislation emanating from elected legislatures.
This has not been an easy article for me to write. I am of a morally conservative bent and am favourably inclined towards the ‘pro-life’ camp in the abortion debate. Barrett is Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court and if I were American I would be voting for Trump in November. But on my scale of priorities, defending the principle of the separation of Church and State trumps both considerations (no pun intended).
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org