A Double Standard on Faith
Democrats and Catholicism
Amy Coney Barrett and Joe Biden are remarkably similar in their views of the relationship between their faith and their work. Both are believing Catholics who think abortion is wrong. Both claim that they are bound by their professions—Barrett as a judge; Biden as a senator, vice president, and now would-be president—to respect a wall of separation that prevents their religious beliefs from determining their professional behavior. But the different reception their faith receives from the Left is striking.
“Judges cannot—nor should they try to—align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge,” Barrett wrote in a 1998 law review article. Asked by Senator Durbin in her 2017 confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on her nomination to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals whether she was an “orthodox Catholic,” Barrett replied, “I am, although I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge.” Later she asserted that “It’s never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge’s personal convictions, whether they derive from faith or anywhere else, on the law.”
Biden has repeatedly said essentially the same thing. “My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my view on the rest of society,” he wrote in Promises to Keep , his 2007 political autobiography. In his 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan, Biden repeated that “I accept my church’s position on abortion. . . . Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.”
Biden is the latest in a long line of Catholic Democratic politicians to invoke this mantra, initially handed down by former New York governor Mario Cuomo in a widely reported and highly regarded 1984 speech at Notre Dame, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspectives.” Cuomo’s argument, developed with rhetorical polish, now sounds familiar: “I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do? By law? Our public morality,” Cuomo insisted, “depends on a consensus view of right and wrong.”
Cuomo’s acolytes have repeated this argument ever since. Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 vice presidential candidate, “while personally opposed to abortion,” did not believe that she could impose her view on others. John Kerry, campaigning for president in July 2004, said, “I oppose abortion, personally. I don’t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception. But I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America.”
Senator Timothy Kaine, running for vice president in 2016, said, “I’m kind of a traditional Catholic. I don’t like it personally. I’m opposed to abortion. So I’ve taken a position which is quite common among Catholics. I’ve got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right role for government is to let women make their own decisions.” And Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, defending his support for the abortion-protecting Reproductive Health Act, 2019, averred, “my Roman Catholic values are my personal values. . . . My oath of office is to the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York—not to the Catholic Church. My religion cannot demand favoritism as I execute my public duties.”
Since both Barrett and Catholic Democrats in the Mario Cuomo mold claim to believe in a wall of separation between their personal or religious views and the execution of their public responsibilities, what explains the intense, fearful opposition to Barrett’s nomination?
One obvious possibility is simple partisanship. Another is anti-Catholicism, represented by Senator Diane Feinstein’s infamous comment in Barrett’s 2017 Judiciary Committee hearing that “the dogma lives loudly within you.” Revealing that she was as uninformed (or possibly mendacious) as bigoted, Feinstein added that Barrett was a “controversial” nominee “because you have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail” over the law. Barrett has a long history, of course, of arguing exactly the opposite.
Anti-Catholic prejudice was also on display in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Judge Barrett’s nomination has merely renewed attention to a fundamental conflict, centuries underway, between Catholicism and the American ethos,” asserted the author (who noted that she is Catholic). A saving grace, however, is that this un-Americanism is attenuated by “the logic of partisanship,” which “has replaced the moral primacy of the faith. That means that, for most Catholics, their religious beliefs never clash with their civic interests in a disruptive way.”
It appears, then, that the only Catholic judges who don’t threaten “the American ethos” are either those whose belief in the Church’s teaching about abortion is not very strong or whose beliefs never clash with those of the Democratic Party. The Democrats today have no doubt that Barrett believes what her church teaches. What they do doubt is that she can, as she claims, follow the law when it conflicts with her own preferences. Their doubt is no doubt produced in large part by projection: they know that their own judges either stealthily or brazenly do not refrain from allowing personal values to shape their interpretations.
Unlike Barrett and other conservative judges, the judges nominated by Democrats believe in a malleable, “living” Constitution. They believe that statutes are to be “construed liberally,” not read literally—unlike Barrett, a committed textualist, who has written that “the bedrock principle of textualism . . . is its insistence that federal courts cannot contradict the plain language of a statute, whether in the service of legislative intention or in the exercise of a judicial power to render the law more just.”
Let us accept at face value—or perhaps as a matter of faith—that pro-choice Catholic Democrats really oppose abortion as much as they’ve all said they do—though it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that if they believed abortion was as evil as slavery they would not have refrained from attacking it. Even Mario Cuomo himself did not adhere to his own doctrine of separation between personal and public morality. He was, for example, devoutly opposed to capital punishment and was undeterred by public support for it. Over the course of his governorship, US News pointed out, “Cuomo never wavered in his abolitionist views…. He vetoed 12 bills that would have reinstated the death penalty in the state—one for every year he was in office.”
In any event, the reason these politicians refuse to attempt to abolish abortion, or even restrict it very much, is not because of a principled objection to “imposing” their personal views on a multicultural public. It is because protecting the right of abortion has become a central article of faith of their political party. Today’s “personal-opinion-but” Catholic Democrats do not follow their church’s anti-abortion teachings—or fear judges who might follow them—because of a belief in the separation of church and state. They have remained devoted soldiers of the one true church while simply changing churches. They may still attend services on Sunday, but their primary moral compasses are now provided by the Democratic Party.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).