And here I thought that Donald Trump had passed up a golden opportunity to fire up his faith-based voters by passing over Amy Coney Barrett. Thankfully, CNN’s Z. Byron Wolf comes along less than fourteen hours after Trump picked Brett Kavanaugh to resurrect the Catholic specter over the American judiciary. Why, he asks, do Catholics hold more seats on the Supreme Court while their numbers decline in the US?
If confirmed, Kavanaugh will replace Anthony Kennedy, who is Catholic. Trump’s other nominee, now-Justice Neil Gorsuch, replaced Catholic Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch attends Episcopal churches now, but was raised Catholic. CNN’s Daniel Burke has written that about Gorsuch’s faith, which he keeps private, and it is a complicated matter.
Every other Republican-appointed Justice on the court is Catholic. And Democrat-appointed Sonia Sotomayor was raised Catholic and during her nomination was described as a “cultural Catholic.” That means six of the nine Justices, two-thirds, have a Catholic background.
And … so? The premise of a “strong majority” is already flawed by this explanation, since Gorsuch attends a progressive Episcopal church and Sotomayor apparently no longer practices the faith, according to Time Magazine in 2009. That leaves four Catholics, who may themselves be practicing the faith in various degrees if at all, out of nine justices. That’s not a majority, let alone a strong one, even if Kavanaugh gets confirmed.
But what’s most curious is what drives this line of reporting at all. The CNN article gives no data whatsoever on how Catholics rule or opine differently from non-Catholics on the federal bench. There isn’t even any suggestion that Catholic jurists might see abortion differently than non-Catholic jurists as a function of their religion rather than as a function of their judicial philosophies.
In fact, nothing in the article even raises either question, but instead focuses on abortion and gender, with a big suggestion that the court isn’t representative enough. Wolf does include this completely unsupported attempt to cross those streams with a dishonest dodge:
But there is a perception that male Catholics on the court are more likely to vote against abortion and perhaps that plays a role among conservatives looking to chip away at Roe.
If you follow the link, the “perception” comes from one named source in the NPR article, a former clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, who prefaced her remark with “I think.” There isn’t even any polling to support this “perception” issue, which is the lever through which Wolf engages the Catholic-specter issue on abortion. And besides, would the “male Catholics” perception issue have inured Amy Coney Barrett to this kind of religious scrutiny?
Actually, we can infer the answer to that question from the article itself. Wolf does allow that “A justice’s religion does not, nor should it, matter,” but the disclaimer comes in the second-to-last paragraph. Well above that, Wolf describes Dianne Feinstein’s “dogma lives loudly within you” attack on Barrett’s faith as “well worth watching” in full in the context of Catholicism being an issue. The entire article is an exercise in arguing that religion does matter, especially in the context of religion but also in terms of demographics.
Get ready for a lot more of this line of “analysis” from the media between now and Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote. It’s nothing more than shorthand for abortion, and a signal that anti-Catholic rhetoric will get free rein in this debate.
Addendum: The demographic issue is even sillier in the political context. The Catholic vote regularly splits along the same lines as the general electorate. The evangelical vote goes much more dramatically in favor of Republicans, and did so especially for Trump. The preponderance of Catholics on Trump’s short list should demonstrate the seriousness of the list rather than an easy political sop to supporters.