RBG and ACB: Double Standards and Dual Legacies
On Saturday, President Trump introduced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nomination to the Supreme Court. Barrett is an eminently qualified judge from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the mother of seven, a devout Roman Catholic, and one of the brightest legal minds of her generation. In his endorsement, John Garvey, the president of the Catholic University of America and former law professor at Notre Dame, described her as “the best student I ever had” when he recommended her to clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia.
Shortly after the president made his remarks, Barrett stepped to the podium to accept the nomination, thank her family, and introduce herself to the nation. In her acceptance speech, she previewed her personal character and judicial philosophy; “And if the Senate does me the honor of confirming me, I pledge to discharge the responsibilities of this job to the very best of my ability. I love the United States, and I love the United States Constitution.” She made clear that the role of a Supreme Court justice is to serve the people of the United States, not any specific group, but the entire nation; “I would discharge the judicial oath, which requires me to administer justice without respect to persons, do equal right to the poor and rich, and faithfully and impartially discharge my duties under the United States Constitution.”
Barrett defined her judicial philosophy as a continuation of the late justice Antonin Scalia, whom she clerked for; “A judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold.” Originalists believe that laws should be interpreted according to the “original public meaning” of the statute, (which is both broader and more easily ascertained than the “author’s original intent”). Barrett has a record of originalist interpretations, but she is no Scalia clone. She will bring a fresh originalist vision to the court alongside justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh.
The significance of Barrett’s tenure on the court will be a bulwark of originalism against the tide of judicial legislation and activism. As she said in her speech, the judiciary does not make the laws, they interpret them. If she does that, she’ll leave an excellent judicial legacy on the Supreme Court and that will just be the beginning of her legacy in American life.
The opposition to Barrett has continued to gain steam in the media. When it comes to political messaging, Democrats have decided to make Barrett’s confirmation all about healthcare. In a note to Senate Democrats, Sen. Schumer said the best way to keep the pressure up during the pandemic is to focus on the threat to people’s healthcare. With the individual mandate portion of the ACA coming before the Supreme Court after the election, Dems have zeroed in on the blow Barrett could deal to the Obama administration’s signature legislation, forecasting millions losing their insurance.
Some Democratic leaders have cautioned against making personal attacks against Barrett. This is the way congressional hearings should typically work, but after Kavanaugh how could anyone expect otherwise? These calls may be too little too late as Barrett has already faced a barrage of attacks over her religious commitments, the size of her family, adopting two children from Haiti, her respect for her husband, and her commitment to the constitution. Every one of these attacks likely plays well for Republicans.
The personal attacks revive discussions about religious life in America. It’s interesting that Democratic leaders like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have made it clear that they believe themselves to be “devout” Catholics but they vigorously oppose Barrett’s nomination to the court. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s comments about Barrett ring loudly in the ears of every religious person in America, wondering not just about anti-Catholic bias in America, but anti-religious biases of all kinds. Elizabeth Bruenig has pointed out that Catholicism and American Democracy have always been in tension, and Barrett’s appointment highlights some of the differences. America’s elite classes have quickly become completely unfamiliar with true religious belief. The next two weeks will serve as a Rorschach test for American perceptions of religion and its role in the nation’s highest offices.
A Feminine Icon
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was praised as a “feminist icon” and it’s a sign of the times that Barrett isn’t being given the same honors. She’s a smart, successful woman getting ready to be confirmed to the highest court in America; there’s no doubt she should be revered in the same way. As some feminists have sought to define their vision around abortion and the LGBTQ agenda, the place for femininity defined by the traits found in faith, motherhood, marriage, and the nuclear family has begun to evaporate. With Barrett’s appointment the question arises, is there a place for this kind of femininity in American life?
In an essay for Politico, Erika Bachiochi considers how Amy Coney Barrett will “serve as a catalyst for rethinking the most powerful social movement in the last half-century: feminism.” It’s a courageous question to pose in such a prominent media outlet. As she points out, Ginsburg’s brand of feminism was premised on pro-choice advocacy and breaking out of “caretaking” stereotypes. Barrett certainly represents a different approach. She’s personally pro-life and believes in the biblical understanding of sexuality. Whether or not she would adopt the “feminist” label, she’s certainly championing a biblical and beautiful vision of femininity. There’s a wide road running between the Women’s March and the patriarchy, and Amy Coney Barrett may be just the person to draw our attention to it.
The pushback against Barrett demonstrates just how feeble our social conceptions of feminine success have become. We live in a society that despises femininity for its own sake and on its own merits - and I’m not just talking about the transgenderism movement, the deconstruction of gender binaries, or the drift toward androgyny in American advertising - just ask J.K. Rowling. In a world that wants to do away with gender, it’s women who suffer the most. It’s their identities and opportunities that are being erased.
Success for women has been fashioned to look exactly like success for men. We know what it means to be successful, but is it possible anymore to talk about a successful woman without reaping the whirlwind? Money, power, and promotions are the patron saints of secular success. In the corporate world especially, being a successful woman means beating men at their own games, and more and more women are doing so. But there’s a difference between celebrating things like equality of opportunity in the workplace and higher graduation rates for women in professional degrees and making those categories the standards for success. These are real wins, but they only display one aspect of femininity. As we work to mend injustices in the marketplace, let’s not abolish the dignity of the home.
Contrary to popular opinion, the problem isn’t that Christians believe women must be forced to stay at home and raise children; most Christians do not believe this as a universal principle. The problem is that when Christian women do decide to devote themselves to raising their children, our society often supplies one of two explanations: either they must not be ambitious or they must be being forced into that decision by their fathers, husbands, or religious principles. These damnable lies prove how far we’ve drifted from God’s design for human flourishing.
Christians believe that success should be defined by completely different metrics; there is dignity, power, and honor in the domain of the family that supersedes the modes of success displayed in the marketplace. While this is true for men and women, biblically speaking, it’s particularly evident in the lives of women who chose to make the family their primary focus and who use their gifts, talents, and passions to steward the gifts God has given them in their home.
Our secular society has no category for this. What would they even make of the woman in Proverbs 31? Of Prisca, Ruth, Deborah, or Lydia? It’s one of the reasons Barrett is such an inspiration, and such a target for attack. It’s not in vogue to view motherhood as a more central and important calling than serving on the Supreme Court, but in a speech at Notre Dame last year Barrett said, “What greater thing can you do than raise children? That’s where you have your greatest impact on the world.” Barrett has chosen to pursue her career and she treasures the even higher calling God has given her as a mom. That’s something to be celebrated.
One of the storylines going unnoticed in a lot of the coverage is Barrett’s son Benjamin, who has Down Syndrome. The abortion rate for children with Down Syndrome is one of the darkest spots in American life. Nearly 67% of these babies are aborted in the US. Barrett isn’t just a pro-life judge, she’s a pro-life mom. When the Barretts found out their youngest son would have special needs, they welcomed him as a gift. After the devastation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, they found ways to make sure they could adopt two children, one of whom was so malnourished that doctors said she might never walk.
In today’s world, we hardly have a category for a woman who graduates at the top of her class in law school, clerks at the Supreme Court, and wants to be a mother of seven, but it’s something worth talking about. Outlets like the New York Times have no category for this, safely limiting Barrett’s appeal as an inspiration to “conservative Christian women,” but this is an insult to women who aren’t conservative Christians. Barrett is a model, not just in her particular calling and career choices, but in her character, ambition, and faith, especially to our young women, but more generally, to all of us.
In the coming weeks, attacks and celebrations of Amy Coney Barrett should remind us of the starkly different vision of the world we have as Christians. The Bible is clear that men and women are different, equal in dignity and honor, both created in the image of God, and both necessary for the flourishing of the other. The family is the core unit of society in the biblical worldview, children are joyous gifts from God, we work to bring God glory and to build his kingdom here on earth. Husbands and wives should love and respect each other, honor and serve one another, and take joy in God’s provision and gifting. Maybe Amy Coney Barrett will transcend RBG, if not as a “feminist icon,” then as a “feminine icon.”
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.