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Amy Barrett and the relationship between religion and politics

What makes religious conviction “practically meaningless” in modern liberalism stems not from a separation of politics and religion. Rather, religion becomes subsumed within the political.

Amy Coney Barrett is pictured in this undated photo. She is a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. A Catholic, she is on President Donald Trump's list of of potential nominees to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant by the Sept. 18, 2020, death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (CNS photo/Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame via Reuters)

During Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing for Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, held on September 6, 2017, Senator Chuck Grassley posed the following question to the nominee: “When is it proper for a judge to put their religious views above applying the law?”

Barrett replied, “Never. 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.”

Barrett’s answer deserves significant attention. As C.C. Pecknold understands, the overarching question that pervaded much of the confirmation hearing concerns the nature of political theology. In the modern liberal account, law is considered to be secular, devoid of any religious influence or reference to the divine. The deepest worry here is that Barrett will impose her “personal religious convictions” as the standard for either applying or undermining the law.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Two Cities

Opponents of Barrett’s appointment fear that she holds an understanding of politics and faith that corresponds to a type of unity, a political theology whose judgment regarding the law comes from a divine, not secular, source. This supposition corresponds with Senator Diane Feinstein’s remark that Barrett’s religious faith is a dogma that “lives loudly within” her.

The image could not be clearer: liberal political thought inaugurated the needed division between politics and religion. Amy Barrett appears to be aiming for a union of politics and religious faith. What is at stake here is the very achievement of modern liberal democracy itself.

The irony in such a narrative is that, in fact, Barrett is the one arguing for the truth that religion and politics need to be separated. And this impetus towards seeing the separation between religion and politics comes, for Barrett, precisely as the result of her Catholic faith.

The Catholic Church teaches that the salvific message of Jesus Christ transcends the political; salvation is not dependent upon the condition of one’s political society. The fullest meaning of Christianity ensures that the spread of its healing doctrine not be tied to a political regime. To be a citizen of a particular political order does not make or break one’s eternal beatitude. Salvation can be had in any type of regime, be it good or bad.

At the same time, as St. Augustine argues in The City of God, patriotism may be an obstacle to our salvation. Augustine was certainly a realist in affirming that most regimes would fall short of justice. This is why he drew such a sharp distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. The City of God is a transpolitical reality, and something to which human beings are ordered as their ultimate end. Following in the footsteps of Plato and the classical tradition of political philosophy, Augustine believed that it was necessary to ask what the best regime would be. Yet he also agreed with Plato that such a perfect regime is impossible to create in this life and that attempting to bring it about would destroy actual regimes.

In his letter to the Emperor Anastasius, Pope Gelasius I articulated this twofold distinction between the spheres of religion and politics. For Gelasius, political authority is honorable, and given for the purpose of having care for human affairs in the temporal order. However, in matters that transcend the polity, a political ruler needs to recall that he shall “bow [his] head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of [his] salvation.” While acknowledging the legitimacy and necessity of the political order, the Pope is nonetheless echoing Augustine in upholding the supremacy of the religious and transpolitical sphere. Political rulers must take care not to impose their will and authority over spiritual matters that are the proper sphere of the Church.

The City of God and Man Become One

For all our contemporary invocations of the separation of church and state, this distinction between the City of God and the City of Man has actually been undermined in modernity. Describing Augusto del Noce’s insights into the modern age, Michael Hanby observes that, for Del Noce, modernity is

predicated upon the attempted elimination of every form of transcendence: the transcendence of truth over pragmatic function, the transcendence of the orders of being and nature over the order of historical construction, the transcendence of the civitas dei over the civitas terrena, the transcendence of eternity over time, the transcendence of God over creation. Every form of transcendence save one, that is. For once real transcendence is eliminated or suppressed, political order itself becomes the transcendental horizon, assuming sovereignty over nature, truth, and morality—over anything that would precede, exceed, and limit it.

This elevation of the political order as supreme is one of the first principles of the modern age. Praxis usurps the primacy of the contemplative or theoretical order as being the highest good for human life. What follows logically from this principle will be that the political order reigns supreme.

The foundational claim of modern political thought is that it inaugurated the separation between religion and politics. This is how we have been instructed to read modern political thinkers such as Machiavelli, Locke, and Hobbes. Yet there is a strange anomaly in this narrative of modern thinking.

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes goes so far as to argue that scripture supports a combination of politics and religion. Yet the last two parts of Leviathan reveal that Hobbes is not writing about a rational, secular political order. Instead, Hobbes is writing in the arena of political theology precisely as a theologian. Understood in this context, it may be surprising to discover that Hobbes’s primary intellectual target is the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine. Why? Bellarmine was arguing for the Augustinian position that the spheres of politics and religion were not the same.

In his Letter on Toleration, John Locke initially sounds as if he is endorsing such an Augustinian understanding, arguing that the spheres of politics and religion are utterly separate and immovable. He warns against jumbling “heaven and earth together,” those two societies that “are in their original, end, business, and everything, perfectly distinct and infinitely different from each other.” Yet Locke’s fundamental understanding regarding the purpose of religion actually aligns quite well with the overarching aims of a liberal political order. Toleration, according to Locke, is the very substantive core of the gospels.

Thus, in both Hobbes and Locke, the supposed division between politics and religion has collapsed: the political and the spiritual are brought together, and such a joining is ultimately confirmed in the name of religion.

Is Catholicism Safe in Modern Liberal Democracy?

In his illuminating 1998 essay, “Transforming Constitutionalism and the Case of Religion: Defending the Moderate Hegemony of Liberalism,” Princeton political theorist Stephen Macedo makes the following observation about modern liberal democracy and its relationship to American Catholicism in particular:

We might almost say that American Catholics (though perhaps not Fundamentalists as of yet) have come to accept the American rather than the Catholic position on the separation of church and state. To be American is to have a religion (we have very few village atheists these days), but any religion at all will do.

In assessing the kind of struggles that Catholic candidates for public office have had to endure, Macedo goes on to claim that the litmus test for such service must presuppose “the practical meaninglessness of their religious convictions.” In other words, Macedo claims that religious practice will inevitably disqualify one from public office since, following the liberal stance, religion and politics are utterly separate.

However, this outward appearance of separation neglects a more subtle reality that may be overlooked: religious practice would be acceptable insofar as it holds to the liberal position of toleration and any of its other ultimate “virtues.” What makes religious conviction “practically meaningless” stems not from a separation of politics and religion. Rather, religion becomes subsumed within the political. Religious practice will be allowed space if its aims are tied with the principles of modern liberal politics.

And so we return to Amy Barrett and her political interlocutors. Barrett was pressed about whether she considers herself an orthodox Catholic. This is the central question, not just for her, but for our entire political and social order. Perhaps it will provoke us to reconsider the degree to which orthodox Catholicism can truly be tolerated in modern liberal democracies. The argument that needs to be heard, for the health of both religion and politics, insists that the things of Caesar and those of God are not the same. For Barrett, this teaching is at the heart of the Catholic faith, and it is thankfully a dogma that lives loudly within her.

(Editor’s note: This essay was published originally in slightly different form on The Public Discourse site on October 8, 2017.)


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About Brian Jones 26 Articles
Brian Jones is ia Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His works have appeared in The Public Discourse, Strong Towns, and The American Conservative.

20 Comments

  1. In addition to appealing to St. Augustine and the two realms, the BETTER TACK might be to argue that in the United States the sacrosanct “wall of separation” was breached by the United States Supreme Court when it “established” (!) Secular Humanism as the national religion.

    This imposition done NOT be the Congress (prohibited by the First Amendment), but, again and instead, by United States Supreme Court FATWAS such as Roe v Wade (1973), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and Bostock v Clayton (2019).

    TRANSLATIONS: under the “wall of separation” (a legal dogma found not in the Constitution of 1787, but—as is well known—only in a private letter penned by Jefferson in 1802) and under pretended “neutrality”—(1) unborn children do not exist, so off with their heads (“follow the science?”); (2) traditional marriage exists only as a “homophobic” residue (Justice Kennedy); and (3) binary human sexuality is subsumed under alphabetical gender theory (specifically under the retroactively and judicially gang-raped Civil Rights [civil “rites”?] Act of 1964).

    With Brian Jones: “religion [itself] becomes SUBSUMED within the political”. In Senate confirmation hearings, some will front for this now-“established” subterfuge by crucifying any nominee whose mere presence might turn the lights on.

    With George Orwell, NEUTRALITY means all religions are equal, but some are more equal than others.

    • Very well said. I’d also like to add in response to the article that Timothy Gordon’s book, “Catholic Republic,” essentially states that the American Constitution was created (albeit ripped off) based on natural law, and has very Thomistic principles. Obviously our mostly protestant American forefathers, many of whom were Freemasons, would never admit this. I believe this also contributes to the fact that they considered “almost any religion would do.” This would bode well for ACB, and for any of us who want a real “Constitutionalist” on the SC, very much in the same vein of the late Justice Scalia.

    • We pray, do we not, to our Almighty Father that His “Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” ? I don’t think that allows much for laws that contravene His Will. And I don’t think it allows much for Supreme Court judges to go along with laws that contravene His Will.

  2. If “practice will be allowed space if its aims are tied with the principles of modern liberal politics”, then “The argument that needs to be heard [to reconsider] for the health of both religion and politics, is that the things of Caesar and those of God are not the same”. Catholics who have followed modern liberal principles have permitted their faith to be subsumed, that is they have willingly repudiated their faith on Abortion and homosexuality to find that political space. Brian Jones perceives a solution to that repudiation in simply retaining the distance of religious conviction from judicial decision. The question remains, How then does a Catholic Amy Barrett [When is it proper for a judge to put their religious views above applying the law? Barrett replied, Never], John Roberts, Samuel Alito remain both loyal Catholic and unbiased jurist? Chief Justice Roberts appears, on occasion, to favor a modern liberal vision of permissive judicial liberty suited to the times and the majority opinion of the people. For example on abortion and same sex. Barrett if nominated will likely appeal to Natural Law principles embedded in Common Law tradition. Abortion is not entirely a religious issue. Abortion, the purposeful killing of an innocent human life is a first principle Justice issue. Same sex however while under the purview of Natural Law ethics is also a liberty issue. Except that a privacy liberty issue does not include a right to impose itself as a civil rights anti discrimination issue. Natural Law, the inherent law ordained by God within human nature in which we find our human rights is the very basis of Justice in both civil law and religious practice.

  3. As it was with Justice Kavanaugh, this will come down to one word – abortion. To the democrats that is their holiest of sacraments, and it must be protected at ALL costs.

  4. Notwithstanding the adage that courts do not (or should not) “create” law, they in fact do and have done so since the country was founded. It’s called common law and case law as distinguished from statutory law.

    • Mortonjay Common Law is not invented law, such as was the case in Roe v Wade. Common law refers to that body of governing principles, mainly substantive, philosophical, ethical, cultural traditions, expounded by the common-law courts of England in deciding cases before them. After independence States adopted the previously imposed [by Great Britain] Reception Statute. Reception means adoption of the Common Law of England as the basis for colonial judicial decisions. After the 1776 American Revolution, one of the first legislative acts undertaken by each of the newly independent states was to adopt a reception statute that gave legal effect to the existing body of English common law to the extent that the legislation or the constitution had not explicitly rejected English law. Some states enacted reception statutes as legislative statutes, but other states received the English common law by provisions of their constitution or by court decision. British traditions such as the monarchy were rejected by the US Constitution, but many English common law traditions such as habeas corpus, jury trials, and various other civil liberties were adopted in the United States. Significant elements of English common law prior to 1776 still remain in effect in many jurisdictions in the United States because they have never been rejected by American courts or legislatures. For example, the New York Constitution of 1777 provides that: [S]uch parts of the common law of England, and of the statute law of England and Great Britain, and of the acts of the legislature of the colony of New York.

  5. “Barrett replied, ‘Never. 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.'”

    Given that judges aren’t legislators this is true. However, one’s faith should matter to the judge because he can’t disobey his conscience by enforcing an unjust law or making an evil false judgment (e.g. Roe vs. Wade). If only judges were to adhere to this truth. They will be answerable for their actions at THEIR judgment.

    “The foundational claim of modern political thought is that it inaugurated the separation between religion and politics. This is how we have been instructed to read modern political thinkers such as Machiavelli, Locke, and Hobbes.”

    Religion can’t be totally separate from politics. They join together in the idea of realization of virtue of JUSTICE. If politics is ethics writ large and ethics is another word for moral theology, then the two can’t be morally separated to the extent that evil liberals believe think that they should be.

    The biggest example of this is the family. If a spouse wants to get a “divorce,” to whom does he go to first: the state or the Church? The implications are radical. If the state has control over marriage, then there is not much else left for it to control.

    Given that all three of the above mentioned authors have works on the Index of Forbidden Books, it is unlikely that the Church has ever believed that her children should believe much of what they say. All of Hobbes’s works are forbidden.

    “Toleration, according to Locke, is the very substantive core of the gospels.”

    Hopefully it is obvious that Locke was wrong. This shouldn’t be surprising given that he has more than one of his works on the Index of Forbidden Books. Tolerance can’t be a fundamental reason for the gospels because truth is intolerant and the gospels are part of God’s revealed teaching for mankind. Personally no person who is not a moral relativist, a radical skeptic, or illogical can have any tolerance of error when it comes to his personal beliefs. The state itself should not tolerate the spreading of error. It has probably been a murky or nonexistent understanding of this truth (or its realization) which has almost inevitably lead us into the moral mess that exists today. Ideas have consequences.

    “In assessing the kind of struggles that Catholic candidates for public office have had to endure, Macedo goes on to claim that the litmus test for such service must presuppose “the practical meaninglessness of their religious convictions.” In other words, Macedo claims that religious practice will inevitably disqualify one from public office since, following the liberal stance, religion and politics are utterly separate.”

    Macedo might as well have admitted that he believes that politicians needn’t be moral. If that is the case, would he consider accepting bribes to be wrong? I suspect that this is universally considered a crime (it certainly is a sin) in all jurisdictions. To be a crime in the vast majority of cases the conduct must FIRST be a sin.

    Another way in which politics is tied to religion by way of morality is in the creation and execution of laws. An unjust law can’t be morally created or enforced. Furthermore, I believe that to fail to pass certain laws can implicate one in committing a sin of omission. There is evil conduct that demands redress that only the state can provide. Principally this is in the realms of business and the creation of human life.

    Historically, the reverse was true. One unjust (and therefore invalid) aspect of the Constitution is that one can’t require any religious test for public office. Back around the founding it was – as far as I remember – considered essential that a politician believe in heaven and hell because otherwise they wouldn’t be moral in office. This would certainly preclude allowing any atheist to obtain political office.

    “Perhaps it will provoke us to reconsider the degree to which orthodox Catholicism can truly be tolerated in modern liberal democracies. The argument that needs to be heard, for the health of both religion and politics, insists that the things of Caesar and those of God are not the same. For Barrett, this teaching is at the heart of the Catholic faith, and it is thankfully a dogma that lives loudly within her.”

    The first sentence reminds me of the saying that calls attention to a modern hypocrisy: the only thing that won’t be tolerated is intolerance. Catholic dogma is intolerant. The only way that everything could be tolerated is if no one believed that anything was evil. Tolerance presupposes that one knows that there is good and evil and that one chooses to avoid punishing those who are evil and/or in error.

    It is true that the functions of the Church and the state are separate, but they must cooperate on certain things. The state must support (not financially, I understand) the Church and listen to her teaching in framing laws. It also must recognize her jurisdiction over Christian marriage and its own internal affairs. Further, the state must help combat religious error which should include laws against spreading heresy or religious infidelity and the promotion of demoralizing ideas which lead to the same or to sins of the flesh. This list isn’t exhaustive and doesn’t pretend to be.

  6. As RBG stepped into the boat recently to have Charon row her across the river Styx.Who did she see,but Judge Blackmun waving from the flaming inferno on the opposite shore.

  7. If one ever thinks that the Supreme Court and the Justice system is unbiased, they need to review case law. The question of how he would address abortion was posed to Justice Kavanaugh in his Senate hearing. Kavanaugh responded Roe was “settled law”. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh urged his colleagues in a series of private memos this spring to consider avoiding decisions in major disputes over abortion and Democratic subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records, according to multiple sources familiar with the inner workings of the court.

    AG Barr performed his allegiance to Trump by firing federal prosecutors in the SDNY’s investigation into Trump’s releasing of his taxes and financial records. Barr misled the public on Bob Mueller’s report redacting all sentences referring to Trump.. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh urged his colleagues in a series of private memos this spring to consider avoiding decisions in major disputes over abortion and Democratic subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records, according to multiple sources familiar with the inner workings of the court.

    Barr’s maneuverings have been pilloried as so baldly questionable and advantageous to Trump that his prosecutors have resigned in protest from at least three high-profile cases.

    Trump and Barr have defiled our constitution and the rule of law. So badly that our democracy may never recover.

    And on and on…

  8. When Sen. Feinstein made her comment, “Dogma lives large in you” to Judge Bryant in 2017, I was deeply offended and angry. Not only Catholics, but people of Goodwill, reacted.
    And yet, if Satan can quote Sacred Scripture, as in the Temptation of Christ in the desert, then certainly she can also promote dogma, which flows from God’s Love.
    What Sen. Feinstein called dogma, we say “evangelization”. We manifest God’s love! Well done, Judge Bryant!
    I hope that when I go to my Maker, he says, “Michael I see that Dogma, which comes from Love, lived largely in you!” ”
    Welcome Home, buddy.”

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