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The question of whether the U. S. Senate should even consider Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court this essay will not address. Instead I wish to examine another question: How can people who possess many fine qualities, like personal kindness, be so wrong--to my mind--about political matters? How can any such people, for example, vote for Trump? 

As a progressive, I have often wondered about this. Perhaps many other progressives have too. Much of recent media reporting about Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s choice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, has led me to reflect further on this.

According to various media reports, Barrett takes her Catholicism seriously and tries to be a good Catholic. Many of her fellow judges and professors at Notre Dame Law School, including some liberals, think she is a fine person. One of them, O. Carter Snead, has written in The Washington Post, “I have many progressive friends who, already anxious about our country, are finding the possibility that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might be replaced by Amy Coney Barrett almost too much to bear. But . . . . I can assure worried liberals that there is nothing about the prospect of a Justice Barrett that should cause them to fear.” He goes on to say, “Even more reassuring to Barrett skeptics should be her remarkable humility. There are plenty of smart people in elite academia and on the federal bench, but few with Barrett’s generosity of spirit.” 

Although I am willing to concede that Barrett may be a fine person in many respects, Snead’s assurance that progressives or liberals (not really the same) have no reason to be anxious or fearful about her nomination is more problematic.

Perhaps better than most progressives, I think I understand where Barrett is coming from. With devout Catholics I am very familiar. All of my schooling, from grade school through graduate school, was Catholic. Like her role model, the now deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, I received a degree from Georgetown (he an undergraduate and I a graduate one). My first three years of college teaching were also at a Catholic college, Wheeling Jesuit.

Although no longer a practicing Catholic, I have great respect for many fine Catholics I met during these numerous years of close contact with them--of course, there were also other Catholics who were not so admirable. I also think very highly of the present Catholic pope, Francis, including his views on capitalism and the environment.

Indeed, it is one his sermons that helps me best explain how some people who possess many virtues like personal kindness can be so wrong about political matters. In a 2013 sermon he warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . Ideology chases away the people. It creates distances between people. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”

The central question regarding Amy Coney Barrett is whether as a Supreme Court justice, she would be an ideologue or a pragmatist seeking the common good.

Back in 2012 I wrote on LA Progressive, “There was once a time when we associated ideology more with the Left than with the Right, with Democrats more than with Republicans. No more. The rise of the Tea Party, the actions of Congressional Republicans during the Obama presidency, and the 2012 Republican Platform have made that clearer than ever.” I also quoted former President Bill Clinton’s words: “This is a practical country. We have ideals. We have philosophies. But the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you’ve already decided you’ve got to have.”

Since 2012 I have often encouraged a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to politics, one that prioritizes truth-seeking, furthering the common good, humility, tolerance, and a willingness to compromise. Earlier this year in “Dogmatists of the Left?I indicated the left, as well as the right, could sometimes be too ideological, too dogmatic. That essay also quoted the conservative Russell Kirk (d. 1994): “Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation … Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy…[but] the prudential politician…is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall.”

“Dogmatists of the Left” also cited Pope Francis’s 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, where he urged political dialogue, openness, and pragmatism as opposed to an ideological approach to politics. 

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The central question then regarding Amy Coney Barrett is whether as a Supreme Court justice, she would be an ideologue or a pragmatist seeking the common good. To my mind, her Catholic religion should not disqualify her or the fact that she might let her beliefs influence her judicial decisions. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Cuomo, five of the present eight Supreme Court justices, and many other Catholics operate in the political arena, and their beliefs influence their politics. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister, and his religious views certainly influenced his political thinking.

But letting your religious beliefs influence your political views is one thing. Being dogmatic, ideological, and close-minded is another. If seated on the court, which path would Barrett follow? The pragmatic, truth-seeking one that seeks the common good or the dogmatic, ideological one?

If the Senate confirms Barrett, I hope Snead is right (see above). Justices sometimes surprise us. For example, Earl Warren, former Republican governor of California and Republican candidate for vice-president in 1948, turned out to be more liberal than Republicans expected as he served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1953 until 1969. 

But there is much in Barrett’s background to worry progressives. Her great admiration for Antonin Scalia, for whom she clerked, is one thing. Just recently, after being nominated, she said, “his judicial philosophy is mine too.” 

Putting aside Scalia’s very conservative views, let’s just examine whether he was open- or close-minded. One of the best works on him is Bruce Allen Murphy’s Scalia: A Court of One (2014), who thinks that Scalia’s judicial philosophy of originalism left him ample room to make judgments that confirmed his own conservative biases. With such phrases as “he was usually most pleased if the focus was on him,” Murphy also often alludes to Scalia’s oversized ego.

The problem with overemphasizing one’s own ego, as wisdom scholar psychologist Robert Sternberg has written, is that it hampers the development of wisdom--the supreme virtue we should desire in a Supreme Court justice. Other scholars have also commented on several Scalia’s biases, like the self-serving bias and the overconfidence bias, that Sternberg has recognized as impediments to wisdom.

Also worrisome to many progressives is how Barrett might rule on abortion questions that come before the court. Many Catholics separate their own personal opposition to abortion from their stance on a woman’s right to choose and Roe vs. Wade. Biden, Pelosi, Andrew Cuomo, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, all such Catholics, support Roe vs. Wade. Although in 2006 Barrett signed an add that stated she opposed “abortion on demand” and defended “the right to life from fertilization to natural death,” how she might vote on overriding or eroding that famous case is uncertain.

Besides Barrett’s likely future stance on abortion laws, her likely position on many other issues from health care to the environment worry progressives and liberals. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus writes that besides Roe vs. Wade, “also on the Barrett chopping block could be the right of same-sex couples to marry; the existence of affirmative action programs at colleges and universities; the constitutional protections against discrimination based on gender that Ginsburg made the center of her career; and environmental protections and other regulatory efforts enacted as part of the congressional power to oversee interstate commerce.” 

To ethical questions, there are different approaches. As I explained in a 2012 LA Progressive essay, I favor a consequentialist ethics. Therefore, I am troubled by the statement that if confirmed, Barrett “is likely to issue rulings that cause significant needless harm to innocent people and make the country a more unjust place, with rulings that erode the rights of workers, immigrants, criminal defendants, and, of course, those who need abortions. Sometimes her opinions have been downright cruel.”

In summation, we cannot be sure how Barrett would rule (perhaps for many decades) if she becomes a Supreme Court justice. She may have many fine personal qualities and virtues, but if she acts as a conservative ideological Christian, she could cause much harm to individuals (and our planet as a whole).

walter moss

Walter Moss

If the Senate does indeed vote on confirming her, the main task of senators should be to try to determine if she is more likely to be an ideologue or a pragmatist. If the former, they should reject her.

Walter G. Moss