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Trump pick Amy Coney Barrett's Christian 'handmaid' history matters

Conservatives may disagree, but how Barrett's spiritual beliefs shape her judicial philosophy and how they align with democratic norms are legitimate questions.
Image: Senators Meet With Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barrett
Judge Amy Coney Barrett meets with U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 1, 2020.Anna Moneymaker / Pool via Getty Images

During Wednesday's vice presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence issued a warning to Democrats in advance of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, which begin on Oct. 12. The “brilliant woman” and mother of “a sizable American family” deserves a respectful and fair hearing without being subjected to “attacks on her Christian faith,” Pence said.

For many Democrats, Barrett’s faith raises serious questions about her ability to faithfully interpret the Constitution.

For many Democrats, however, Barrett’s faith raises serious questions about her ability to faithfully interpret the Constitution. To begin with, there is the matter of her past role as a “handmaid” in the conservative Catholic group People of Praise, a term that conjures dystopian fantasies torn from the pages of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” (The group no longer uses the term.) The fact that People of Praise is a closed group organized around a patriarchal leadership structure and bound together through vows of submission only escalates concerns that, once ensconced on the court, Barrett could turn dystopian fantasy into reality — or at least move America in that direction. Coupled with Barrett’s characterization of her legal career as a means to “building the Kingdom of God,” her nomination has heightened fears of impending theocracy.

To conservative Christians, such alarmism only shows how out of touch liberals are with basic Christian teachings. Patriarchal leadership, female submission and talk of building God’s kingdom are widely accepted concepts among conservative Catholics and Protestants alike, and for this reason, many conservatives interpret liberal outrage over Barrett’s nomination as an assault on their own faith. Those who feel sidelined by shifting societal standards have all the more reason to attempt to secure a majority on the court in order to protect their right to live according to their values, however unpopular those some of those values are becoming.

Given this polarized context, it’s no surprise that leading Democrats have signaled a reticence to confront Barrett on the issue of her faith. Yet the precise nature of her beliefs, how those beliefs shape her judicial philosophy and how they align with democratic norms remain legitimate questions, particularly at a moment when American democracy appears less than resilient. Any exploration of these questions, however, must be done with precision, guided by an understanding of the religious movement that has shaped Barrett’s beliefs, and also with an awareness of how that tradition intersects with American Christianity more broadly.

Barrett’s People of Praise community traces its roots back to the interdenominational charismatic renewal that swept through American Christianity in the 1960s. Within this revival there emerged a “shepherding” discipleship movement; seeking to provide order and discipline, this movement established hierarchical structures of authority and submission that critics have compared to “a pyramid scheme for discipleship.”

This philosophy of “shepherding and discipleship,” or “headship and submission,” took hold within evangelical charismatic networks such as Maranatha Christian Churches and C. J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). It also influenced charismatic Catholic “covenant communities” such as Mother of God, located along with SGM in the Washington D.C. suburbs, Word of God in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Barrett’s People of Praise, founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana.

Sharing a commitment to patriarchal leadership, these communities asked members to covenant with one another — to enter into a lifelong vow of service to one another and to God.

Sharing a commitment to patriarchal leadership, these communities asked members to covenant with one another — to enter into a lifelong vow of service to one another and to God, spiritually and financially, and to submit to designated authorities. This hierarchical structure of spiritual authority, however, was susceptible to abuse, and in time, allegations of exploitative and authoritarian practices began to surface within the various communities.

Maranatha Christian Churches mostly dissolved in 1989 after coming under fire for its alleged “authoritarian orientation,” including pastors’ penchant for exerting control over minute details of members’ lives. In the 1990s, allegations of surveillance, financial abuses, and authoritarian practices led the Archdiocese of Washington to intervene and largely disband Mother of God, and similar allegations prompted an investigation of Word of God. In 2011, allegations of bullying and blackmail led C. J. Mahaney to take a leave of absence, and the following year a class-action lawsuit was brought against Mahaney and SGM for cultivating a patriarchal and authoritarian culture that was “conducive to and protective of physical and sexual abuse of children.” (SGC Fairfax executive pastor Vince Hinders denied the allegations at the time, telling Washingtonian Magazine: “We want you to know that we never covered up or tried to cover up child abuse of any kind in our church.”)

The influence of the shepherding movement was not limited to formal communities. Particularly within conservative evangelicalism, its teachings spread far and wide. Mahaney, for example, was closely connected to other New Calvinist pastors who reshaped the landscape of conservative evangelicalism through organizations like Together For the Gospel (T4G) and The Gospel Coalition. The evangelical men’s movement of the 1990s, too, served as a vehicle for the broader transmission of these teachings. Before he converted to evangelical Christianity and founded the Promise Keepers movement, Bill McCartney was a devout Catholic who had been discipled by the Word of God community. Changing the language of covenant to that of “promise keeping,” he promoted male headship and female submission within his organization and incorporated a hierarchical leadership structure that tasked “shepherds” with holding others accountable.

Tied to conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers was never as apolitical as McCartney claimed. Still, the movement encompassed diverse views. Many participants embraced conservative politics and rigid gender hierarchies, while others found the teachings compatible with more progressive causes and more egalitarian gender roles. Herein lies the challenge in deciphering the social and political implications of religious teachings: the same words can mean vastly different things to different people.

For some, language about “building the Kingdom of God” entails nothing more than loving one’s neighbors and working for human flourishing. For others, it might entail imposing theocracy or promoting an exclusivist interpretation of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Some may pay mere lip service to language of male headship, while others might work to impose hierarchical gender roles within their own families and within society at large.

As I argue in my book “Jesus and John Wayne,” this variation in meaning is often lost on those outside religious circles, but even among those on the inside, the distance between extreme and more innocuous expressions is not always apparent. As a result, more moderate adherents end up providing cover to more extreme applications; many, too, interpret criticism of extreme expressions as an attack on faith itself.

This is the conundrum that Democrats now face. Precisely because of the varied applications of conservative religious commitments, it is appropriate to ask Amy Coney Barrett to address, in specific terms, her own convictions and how her faith shapes her judicial philosophy. Doing so, however, will certainly elicit heated resistance from fellow conservative Christians. Democrats may well deem it politically expedient to skirt the issue entirely, but American citizens are right to want to weigh her answers.