My question is prompted by the nomination and likely approval of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court and the reactions to that. She is, without question, a conservative. Some ascribe that conservatism to her deeply held religious beliefs. Some believe that those beliefs make her unqualified while others all but completely hold the opposite view. I confess that I don’t have strong opinions on the matter because I don’t think that the composition of the Supreme Court matters nearly as much as many others do. I’ll return to that below. But I am very interested in understanding the place, significance and potential of religion in American society. I have come to think that the typical liberal/progressive representation of religion is mostly a product of willful ignorance and, worse still, of hostility to deeply held religious convictions. I’d like to explore a different way of thinking about it.
I think it’s helpful to situate religion in this country in historical contexts. Many of the early European immigrants to the US were fleeing religious persecution of one kind or another—often enough at the hands of some of the believers in other faiths who fled to America. I guess it’s good that they settled in different colonies—otherwise, they might have continued trying to kill each other. On the other hand, perhaps continued religious wars might have spared the Native Americans some of the barbarous genocide they suffered.
The so-called “founders” were all nominally Christian adherents of one or another church. At the same time, it appears that they were not especially religious and were inclined to what they believed to be a more “rational” interpretation of things. For the moment, we can suspend judgment on the quality of their supposed rationality.
In any case, the result of all this was a quite early insistence on the separation of church and state—unlike, for example, England where the Anglican Church was the state religion and, to this day, the monarch is the head of the Church. Better still, there was no prohibition of electors or the elected on religious grounds. Instead, only owning property would matter. Perhaps the most important property of all was the ownership of slaves which was enshrined in the Constitution by way of the three-fifths compromise.
In spite of the separation between church and state (embodied in the First Amendment), the nation acquired a deep Christian sensibility that provided its writers and public speakers with a common language. As a result, the US is traditionally seen as a very religious country in comparison, for example, with much of Europe. Thus, sessions of legislative bodies typically open with a chaplain’s prayer and politicians of all stripes will often end their speeches with a plea for god to bless America.
Support for slavery within the churches occurred from the beginning. But, early on, there was also opposition. Take, for example, the remarkable case of the deeply faithful Quaker Benjamin Lay, a dwarf with a hunchback who tormented the slave owners of that denomination. In September of 1738, he attended the yearly meeting of the Philadelphia Society of Friends. He wore a large coat which hid a military uniform and a sword. Inside the coat, he had a hollowed out book, into which he had stuffed an animal bladder with deep red juice. Soon after he rose to condemn slavery and those who owned slaves, he surprised the hell out of the Meeting. The historian, Marcus Rediker, described the scene:
In a rising crescendo of emotion the prophet thundered his judgment; “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” He pulled out the sword, raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. The people in the room gasped as the red liquid gushed down his arm; several women swooned at the sight. To the shock of all, he spattered “blood” on the heads of the slave keepers. Benjamin prophesied a dark and violent future: Quakers who failed to heed the prophet’s call must expect physical, moral and spiritual death. 
Religious opposition to slavery took a very different direction when religion was employed by slaves determined to end their enslavement. In 1831, Nat Turner led a rebellion against slavery in Southhampton County, Virginia. His motivations were fundamentally religious. He wrote: “I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.”
Later on, Calvinists were among those in the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Many readers might cringe when they hear “Calvinists” but their reactions are all but certainly mistaken. Calvinists do take their religion seriously. Calvinism was not only defined by strict moral strictures; it contributed both to the development of democratic ideas and the cultivation of the human intellect. Marilynne Robinson has convincingly argued that Calvinist colleges in the mid-West were centers of abolition and liberal learnedness.
The 19th Century abolitionists raged against the complicity of the Christian churches in slavery at the same time as the slaves getting ready to rebel or flee made use of religion to inspire and explain themselves. In 1831, Nat Turner explained the origins of the rebellion he had led:
For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew – and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens, it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.
Both John Brown and Abraham Lincoln were religious and that explains much about the permanent anti-slavery commitments of the one and the eventual commitments of the other. Brown was a man of action, not of many words. But at his trial, after the Raid on Harper’s Ferry, he addressed the court:
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done–as I have always freely admitted I have done–in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments–I submit; so let it be done!
Lincoln spoke thus in his Second Inaugural Address:
Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
The centrality of religion to the cause of freedom was evident again during the Civil Rights movement. While many groups, known and unknown, played central parts, perhaps no organization was more central to the Civil Rights movement than the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The centrality of the church in the movement was first brought home to many of us in 1963 when four girls were murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Martin Luther King tended not to speak in the fiery language of his religious ancestors but his words were just as powerful: “By opening our lives to God in Christ, we become new creatures. This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists … Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.”
And, of course, there was Malcolm X—certainly no Christian, but still someone deeply inspired by the tenets of his Islamic faith.
Although Catholicism is the foundational root of all Christianity, it has often been somewhat apart from the other Christian churches in America. Some of this was self-imposed but much was the result of anti-Catholic hysteria. The connection to the papacy loomed large—whom did the Catholics in America obey? By way of comparison, most other religious groups lack a unified command and control operation. The Anglicans come a bit close but the Archbishop of Canterbury is seen as the first among equals and he is certainly no pope. Other Christian faiths and the non-Christian ones in the US foreswear any allegiance to a single authority.
I might also note another distinctive characteristic of Catholicism—at least when I was growing up. Catholics never read the bible. At the Sunday mass, there was only a short reading from the Epistles and a snippet from one of the Gospels. I should know—I was an altar boy at hundreds of masses. The first time that I read the bible was when I went to college and read the Old Testament in one semester and the New in the next. I was genuinely surprised by much of what I read.
In spite of being non-biblical, the Catholic Church held together for a long time. But in the 1960s, the apparently frozen solid world of the Roman Catholic Church was upended by the decisions of the Second Vatican Council. Church customs and traditions that had been dutifully observed by many millions were stricken—it was no longer necessary to abstain from meat on Friday; it was no longer required to fast from midnight if one wished to receive Communion at Sunday mass. Most visibly, the church altars were turned around to face the churchgoers and the language of the liturgy was changed from Latin to the vernacular of each community. Many saw these developments as a kind of Protestantization of the Church and the pope’s embrace of ecumenicalism reinforced that understanding. In any case, the changes resulted in a profound weakening of the God-like authority that had been vested in the papacy, hierarchy and clergy. Many thousands of priests and nuns departed, often enough to marry each other.
The Council, along with the somewhat simultaneous Civil Rights Movement in the US, also had spillover effects on the issue of race within the Church. While previously the Church had nominally supported equality for blacks, it did so primarily to support its missionary activity among African-Americans. For the most part, the Church did little to integrate its parishes in northern cities and those efforts were usually spearheaded by black church members. But in the late 60s, newly active clergy and lay people raised the banner higher.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Coney Barrett is a devout Roman Catholic and has been consistently opposed to abortion as a matter of her religious beliefs. In addition, it is likely that she is a member of a charismatic group called the People of Praise. The group typically advocates for laws and judicial decisions that are aligned with what might be considered the official views of the Roman Catholic Church on matters such as homosexuality and abortion rights. Thus far, the judge has not answered questions about her membership and the group apparently has a long-standing policy to honor individual preferences about such matters. However, her parents are rather prominent long-time members and she has served on the board of a private school that the group established.
Does conservatism adequately describe the group’s beliefs and actions? In part, but hardly completely! People of Praise was founded in 1971, after a small group of interested individuals had prayed and studied the Bible together for seven years. It was part of a growing movement of lay ministries within the Catholic Church, inspired by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. While such lay ministries often took on a political cast, many did not; People of Praise is determinedly a-political.
The organization has two surprising historical roots—the Azusa Street Revival among poor African-Americans in Los Angeles in the early 20th Century and the cursillo movement, launched by Catholic laymen on the Spanish island of Mallorca during the 1940s, in silent opposition to the Catholic Church’s subservience to the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. Neither movement had any traditional political goals.
People of Praise take the political and economic world as it is. Thus, their commitment to include both rich and poor as members does not imagine the end of poverty. Instead, some members serve as missionaries in very impoverished neighborhoods.
In an odd way, the People of Praise reminds me of Jonah House, a group that my wife’s brother joined in the 1970s as a way to become involved in direct action against militarism. Jonah House was established in 1973 (not long after the People of Praise formed). As I recall, its residents survived on basically nothing and devoted themselves to preparing for nonviolent civil resistance against war and weapons. Jonah House is still around.
Here’s a bit of how the people of Jonah House now describe their beliefs about faith and community:
We learned slowly and are still learning that community is vital to our nonviolence and resistance. The essence of community for us is breathing together on behalf of life (which is the meaning of conspiracy). The Jonah House Community shares a common purse and consistently resists the hierarchies and exchange values of the dominant culture. Decisions are made together. Work is shared in all its aspects. Study, prayer, writing, teaching and manual labor are all important components of our life.
Jonah House is a faith-based community. While the majority of people at Jonah House have been Catholic with an emphasis on the anti-war social justice teachings of the Church, people of all faiths are welcome. We pray together each weekday at 7 a.m. and host a house church on Sundays at 10 a.m. that features scripture study and table fellowship, followed by brunch. 
Both People of Praise and Jonah House may well be sect-like but they are not all that bad in comparison to left sects that I have known. Some may even consider them fanatics. Arguably, the most important fanatic in American history was John Brown, whose religious intensity might have driven most of us from the room if he were not talking about ending slavery. But it was Brown’s religious intensity that made him such an unwavering opponent of slavery. 
Joel Olson, a good friend of many of the Hard Crackers editors, consistently argued that fanaticism is an approach to politics; it is not reducible to specific political positions. Instead, fanatics are determined to divide friends and enemies by attacking those who are the moderates. Joel applied the same analysis to the extreme abortion opponents as he did to the militant abolitionists. 
Perhaps some of the same can be said about religion. It’s a way of living life seriously and is not reducible to specific political views.
In the US, over time, the dominance of religious groups over what should be purely secular matters—such as school prayer, the display of the Ten Commandments in public places, the regulation of marriage, and contraception–has been eroded. That has been accompanied by a significant decline in the number of people who regularly attend religious services. Nonetheless, some religious groups continue to fight to restore the power of religion and their battles have become enshrined even in trivial things like Trump’s call for saying “Merry Christmas” rather than wishing people “Happy Holidays”.
The preoccupation with the Supreme Court and prospective judges’ views on Roe v. Wade has deflected our attention from the much more important matter of a defense of abortion rights as a matter of the emancipation of women and the overall expansion of human freedom. Those who oppose abortion have largely had the philosophical/political debate all to themselves. Those who equate defending women’s freedom with defending Roe v. Wade, with its narrow emphasis on protecting privacy rights, are all but admitting that they don’t have good arguments for women’s liberation.
In addition, the effective elevation of one of the most undemocratic institutions in the world, the Supreme Court (only nominally better than the various remaining royal families–because positions on the Court are not inherited), into a hallowed institution makes us all dumb and dumber. Beyond that, it is surprising how often Supreme Court decisions go in the opposite direction of what had been anticipated. There have been a few recent examples involving Chief Justice John Roberts.
Perhaps the most important instance occurred in 1954 when a very conservative court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legal segregation of public schools. At the time, it was clear that the US was rapidly losing the battle of world public relations with the then-Soviet Union because of its segregationist practices. I don’t know if anyone from the White House or the State Department spoke to anyone on the Court about the need to change the law but the imperative was clear. When circumstances demand it, the members of the Supreme Court then and now understand that they have a responsibility to preserve the underlying conditions for American capitalism—even when they have to vote the wrong way.
Whenever the terms of debate on serious matters are effectively set by the limits of contemporary liberal constitutionalism (as is the case in most discussions about religion and politics), we will not get very far in advancing the prospects of emancipation. And whenever we fail to appreciate the complex motivations and reasons for religious beliefs, we will underestimate the capacities of many millions of people to be part of the struggle for a new future.
*The image is from Jacob Lawrence, The Legend of John Brown: 13. John Brown, after long meditation, planned to fortify himself somewhere in the mountains of Virginia or Tennessee and there make raids on surrounding plantations, freeing slaves, 1977.
 Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. Boston: 2017. P. 2.
 Calvinists are not members of a distinct denomination. Their adherents can be found among the Reformed, Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches, along with some other smaller ones.
 Marilynne Robinson, “Waiting to be Remembered,” Amherst Magazine. 2007. Available at https://www.amherst.edu/amherst-story/magazine/issues/2007_summer/remembered.
 For a profoundly moving account of John Brown’s life and actions, I recommend Russell Banks’s 1998 novel, Cloudsplitter.
 Joel died at the age of 44 in 2012. For an interview with him on the topic of fanaticism, go to https://revolutionbythebook.akpress.org/2010/05/radically-democratic-extremism-an-interview-with-joel-olson/. And for more information about his life and work, go to https://joelolson.net/