October 14, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Why Amy Coney Barrett won’t surprise anyone

Her fear-based religious background makes her predictable.

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I’m guessing TH Luhrmann was trying to be reassuring. In a piece published Tuesday in The Atlantic, the Stanford professor of anthropology argued that Amy Coney Barrett, as the next justice on the US Supreme Court, will be less predictable than her critics contend. This is because of “the possibility that she will interpret God as speaking in ways that she, and the broader conservative world, might not have anticipated.”

Amy Coney Barrett is a woman who has lived out a radical critique of the modern world. She will be less vulnerable to the peer pressure of other judges than many might be, because she has a powerful moral compass, developed out of her own experience in prayer. Yes, she will likely oppose Roe v. Wade if the opportunity arises. Yes, she will likely take conservative positions. But she has a radical streak and an intensely personal God, and we should expect some surprises from her.

What matters is obedience. To obey is to be good. To disobey is to be bad. Love is fear. Morality is authority.

Like I said, I’m sure Luhrmann meant well, but she isn’t skeptical enough. It’s one thing to say Barrett comes from People of Praise, “one of many communities formed in the heady days of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when many Americans became hippies and then Christians, drawn by a radical critique of the mainstream world and the sense that by living differently together, they could bring change into the world.” It’s another to presume that will matter to a 48-year-old woman who will help shape American jurisprudence for two generations. Power has a way of changing people.

In Luhrmann’s piece, moreover, I detect a specter haunting the public square when it comes to the Christian faith. How can Christians of all people be all right with taking health care away from 20 million Americans? How can Christians condone taking babies away from emigrating mothers? How can Christians tolerate banning Islam? How can these people, who profess to believe in love and kindness, do such things? The answer comes in two simple parts. One, Christians can be terrible people. Two, Christians can be terrible Christians. Who they say they are might not be the same thing as who they really are. Faith, as we Unitarian-Universalists like to say, doesn’t mean much till it’s in practice. Only then can we assess whether it’s good or bad.

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Fact is, for lots of Christians, especially the anarchic sort with whom Barrett has chosen to associate, loving God isn’t the point so much as fearing Him. God, they believe, will damn them to an eternity of pain and suffering if they don’t do as He says. This version of God is petty, vindictive and mean—and an outrage to anyone of any faith worshiping a loving God—but that doesn’t matter. What matters is obedience. To obey is to be good. To disobey is to be bad. Love is fear. Morality is authority. “A powerful moral compass,” as Luhrmann said it, sounds great, but on whose authority? Since Donald Trump was elected, Barrett has been talked as a potential Supreme Court pick, and there’s a very good reason for that. She’d be the final step in a decades’ long series of steps to not only overturn Roe but also establish a de facto state religion.

I’m obviously taking a liberal view of conservative Christian theology, but as it happens, it’s a popular one. Most Christians, and most religious Americans, do not and will not worship a vindictive God. They worship one who calls on them to act in love. This theological schism—between worshiping a God of the past prepared to punish you forever and worshiping a God of the present prepared to love you no matter what—is critical to bear in mind. One is pre-modern. One is modern. The entire point of People of Praise, and other separatist groups, is standing in opposition to modernity, which is to say, taking a religious position against democratic politics. As Luhrmann said, “Barrett is a woman who has lived out a radical critique of the modern world.”

That’s the problem.

Her religious background makes her predictable.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:21 pm

    I was raised in a religious family and every time I see Barrett, creepy Stepford Wives music plays in my head.

  2. hw on July 30, 2021 at 11:21 pm

    Personally, I continue to believe that it’s Occam’s Razor. The GOP has used religion and religious values as a veil for their lust for money and power. The Koch brothers recognized that control of the courts was key to reshaping America for kleptocracy. Barrett is a logical extension of this 40-year assault on democracy. Her religious beliefs allow her to pursue anti-democratic legislation without acknowledging the unfathomable suffering her decisions will unleash. For whatever psychological reasons, humanity seems to rebel only when we have hit the proverbial ‘bottom’. For the 2nd time in its history, the US has hit bottom. Unless there is a movement that continues far beyond 2020, this won’t be the last time this country falls into the abyss. Even if Biden wins and the Senate flips and we survive a post-election implosion by Trump and the GOP, will Biden rebalance the Court? Will the sane majority continue to push to rebalance the district and appellate courts? Will there be scrutiny and accountability in state and local courts? If people don’t continue to advocate for a fair and just government on a continual basis, then we are headed into ever-more dangerous times, as the impact of global warming explodes in the next 5 years.

  3. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:21 pm

    John, I agree with much you’ve written here. (Also, I haven’t watched any of her interview today and only some of it yesterday and I haven’t read the piece in the Atlantic.) I do want to say, however, that in my view faith and obedience for the real followers of Jesus cannot be separated. And in addition to that Jesus taught that all other religious laws are summed up in loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. I believe the fear factor so many who think of themselves as Christians is not a part of Jesus’ teachings. Fear was added on later by mostly males who came mistakenly to believe the notion that people who did not follow their rules would after they die burn in hell for eternity.
    I do not know what Barrett believes about that. Seems we’ll have to wait and see. It is impressive that she and her husband have adopted so many children whose lives would be suffering greater than most of us who read The Editorial Board. I also wonder how she ever came to trump’s attention. She will probably be confirmed by the Senate. I’m hoping she will be guided by the unconditional love Jesus actually taught rather than the fear of the kind of “Christians” who will probably vote for trump because of their absurd notion that their god chose him to be president.

    • David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:21 pm

      “It is impressive that she and her husband have adopted so many children…”

      Look up Kentucky’s last governor, Matt Bevin. He adopted too. And couldn’t have been a bigger jackass of a politician. And on his way out pardoned molesters and murderers.

      • Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:21 pm

        I didn’t realize that.

  4. abbyinsm on July 30, 2021 at 11:21 pm

    I didn’t know your faith identity is UU. Mine too. I was raised Catholic and had the financial and spiritual support of my priest when I had my first abortion at age 17. Unitarian Universalism is full of people who grew up Catholic but couldn’t abide the misogyny and homophobia. In recent years the Church has gone down the anti-science road, too. My current obsession is whether Catholic hospitals are consistently anti-abortion to the extent that they do not allow treatment with Regeneron.

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