Amy Barrett is a nominee for a federal judgeship. During the confirmation hearings, on September 6, Senator Dianne Feinstein said to Barrett, “. . . when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.”
The reactions to that statement came from different angles. Many Catholics took Feinstein’s declaration as anti-Catholic bigotry. They flocked to the hashtag #DogmaLivesLoudly and found ways to puncture the statement, or to attempt to puncture it. The National Review also attacked it as bigotry. Other conservative media saw the statement as violating the spirit of the First Amendment. The president of Notre Dame echoed both themes in a letter to Feinstein.
While the First Amendment would render unconstitutional any law barring a candidate or nominee from office on religious grounds, neither that amendment nor any law prohibits a voter from voting against a candidate on the basis of the candidate’s religion, nor prohibits a senator from voting against a nominee on the basis of the nominee’s religion. Since we do not know what goes on in people’s hearts, after all, such a law would be unenforceable. But certainly to announce that one is using a nominee’s religion as a test of their qualification for office would violate an unspoken norm.
The basis for a “concern” by Feinstein or anyone about a candidate or nominee’s religion would of course be the idea that an officeholder’s religion might influence their policy decisions in adverse, perhaps unconstitutional, ways. (Indeed, such an outcome hardly seems an impossibility.) That concern is said to have cost Al Smith, a Catholic, the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928. John Kennedy’s general-election campaign was in danger for the same reason in 1960, and he gave a major speech in which he said:
I do not speak for my church on public matters. . . . Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views [his views that church and state should be separate], in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.
Whether or not those words are completely convincing (considering that one’s conscience is probably shaped by one’s religion), Kennedy got elected. And though we never really know what is in the hearts of voters or of senators when they cast their votes, this same kind of formula seems to have served Catholic candidates and nominees well since that time.
But I would like to look at Feinstein’s words from a different angle yet. I would like to look at her words as an argument for abortion rights. Considering that Feinstein said, “that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country,” her statement can only be understood in relation to gay rights or abortion rights, and when The National Review solicited and received a statement from Feinstein’s office, the statement said in part: “. . . Senator Feinstein questioned [Barrett] about whether she could separate her personal views from the law, particularly regarding women’s reproductive rights.”
Now, Feinstein could possibly be of the belief that officeholders’ policies should not be based on their religious doctrines regardless of whether those policies happen to be good or bad. But common sense tells us that Feinstein would be unlikely to object to a policy she agreed with, merely because an officeholder had arrived at the policy via a religious route. Moreover, doesn’t the word “dogma” have a negative connotation? Would Feinstein use the word “dogma” for a religious teaching that she, as a Democrat, liked – perhaps Jesus’s teaching that people should pay their taxes (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”)?
The word “dogma” in its origin had a neutral meaning. It simply meant principles laid down by some authority as incontrovertible. But it is now generally used in a pejorative way. The Collins dictionary says, “If you refer to a belief or a system of beliefs as a dogma, you disapprove of it because people are expected to accept that it is true, without questioning it.” If Feinstein meant the word in a pejorative way, then she certainly meant that any distaste for abortion on Barrett’s part should be looked at with suspicion.
But let’s interpret Feinstein’s words in a minimally speculative way. In an abortion context (which Feinstein’s office admitted was the context of the statement), the literal words “the dogma lives loudly within you” merely register the fact that any distaste for abortion that might exist on Barrett’s part would happen to coincide with Catholic doctrine, which Barrett happens to strongly feel. But why would such a coincidence be a cause for “concern”? It would not be. “Concern” makes it clear that Feinstein was saying, in effect:
“We can assume that Amy Barrett would not have come to any distaste for abortion without Catholic doctrine. She would not have come to it through a rational process. I believe that an anti-abortion view is irrational and that nobody would come to it if not for some irrational doctrine.”
What Feinstein is trying to say, most fundamentally, is not that opposition to abortion is a Catholic idea, but that it is a bad idea.
That is a statement we can come to grips with. The issue is not whether an idea happens to be the doctrine of a particular church, or of any church. The issue is whether an idea is, from a rational point of view, good or bad. Let Sen. Feinstein debate a thoughtful pro-lifer, religious or atheistic, and we will find out whose ideas are bad.
Yet there’s no denying that Feinstein’s argument, or “argument,” will be effective with some people. The incident points up once again the urgency for the pro-life movement to escape from its religious image. Catholics have held the line against abortion around the world for decades, but in the US the image of the “Catholic hierarchy” has always been ammunition for the abortion side. Many Catholics and other Christians understand this as well as secular pro-lifers do.
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Some future posts:
A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature
Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party
The Motivations of Aborting Parents
Why Remorse Comes Too Late
The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill
Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation
The Woman as Slave?
Abortion and the Map of the World