This is not about religion. This is about oppression.

On Oct. 11, 2019, the crowd gave a standing ovation for their famous — some might say infamous — guest from Washington, D.C. The mostly Catholic law students of Notre Dame sat back down as Attorney General Bill Barr began by thanking his hosts. However, his actual speech was anything but gracious. For the next half hour, Barr — sounding more like a Fox News host caught in the breakroom on a hot mic than the leader of the Department of Justice — painted a fundamentally inaccurate and detached portrait of this country. The attorney general raved about the “steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system,” which he claimed was under siege by militant secularists on a “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order.” He cited examples of our “moral upheaval” ranging from the rise of illegitimate births to record levels of mental illness to the opioid epidemic. 

Now it’s easy to dismiss these comments as the views of one singular right-wing nut, but dismissing Barr’s beliefs out-of-hand allows speeches such as that one to go ignored, all while the Republican Party has undergone a seismic shift that now imperils the country. 

Before we go any further, let me make this crystal clear. As a practicing Catholic myself, I have no issues with religion or the Church. I have an issue with the false grievance politics present in modern conservatism, which are poised to drive the installation of an unqualified religious zealot on the Supreme Court, despite there being plenty of more qualified and equally, if not more, conservative judges on appeals courts across the country. This is not about religion or conservative ideals, this is about the Republican Party’s strategy of characterizing white Christians as oppressed and preying on the group’s fear of being replaced in order to win elections, erode our democratic institutions and retain power, despite representing a slowly shrinking minority of the population.

Amy Coney Barrett was born in 1972 in New Orleans, La. The eldest daughter of a lawyer for the Shell Oil Corporation, Barrett grew up comfortably before obtaining a B.A. from Rhodes College and a J.D. from Notre Dame Law School. From there, she went to clerk for a circuit court judge from 1997 to 1998 and “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” opponent Antonin Scalia from 1998 to 1999. Then, following a brief stint in private practice, Barrett settled in law school in 2002, developing a breadth of controversial scholarship.

After Barrett, a lifelong member of the conservative Federalist Society, was nominated by Donald Trump to sit on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, this scholarship formed the basis of several legitimate claims opposing her nomination. These claims were specifically amplified through a contentious exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., which instantly made Barrett a conservative media sensation.

When questioned about one of her own law review articles, which argued that Catholic judges should recuse themselves in cases regarding the death penalty, Barrett claimed that her views had evolved. The two sparred for a couple more minutes as Feinstein probed further into Barrett’s religious beliefs, and the exchange ended with Feinstein saying, “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.” The statement — a de facto insinuation that one cannot be both a Catholic and an impartial judge — incensed right-wing media, going viral on Twitter and being plastered across Fox News and other conservative outlets. However, this outrage was completely manufactured and, at its core, untruthful. 

Feinstein, who, herself, went to Catholic school, has voted to confirm hundreds of Catholic judges to the courts and had never shown an anti-Catholic bias in her five terms before then. Similarly, Catholic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., questioned Barrett during her confirmation about her self-identification as an “orthodox Catholic,” identifying as Catholic himself. However, those comments received next to no coverage by conservative outlets. Why? Well, simply put, that question from a fellow Catholic does not fit with the narrative that those networks and the party they support would like to portray. 

Fox and other conservative media outlets wanted to portray the hearing as the powerful, scary, elderly Jewish senator attacking the young Catholic judge because of religious hatred, despite this narrative clashing violently with reality. However, the conservative audience, which loves to see themselves as victims, did not examine the coverage closely, instead succumbing to confirmation bias and rallying around Barrett. This popularity made Barrett the apple of Trump’s eye, and, on Sept. 26, Scalia’s golden child — despite having next to no experience in the judiciary and next to no belief in voting rights — was announced to replace the notorious RBG.

Normally, in the profile of a political figure, this is when I would talk about Barrett’s draconian judicial philosophy — which we should all examine more closely — or maybe poke fun of her Karen-esque persona, but that’s not really the point. The point of this article is much larger than just Barrett. It is about the system that put her in a position of power. It is not the Federalist Society or her clerkship with Scalia. It is not her short stint in the federal judiciary or her conservative credentials as a judge. It is about the false grievances of the few white Christians who feel threatened by the societal advancements made by minorities and other “untraditional” groups. Sadly, these increasingly disconnected people have corrupted the ranks of the Trump administration from top to bottom.

The current vice president is a far-right conservative who supports conversion therapy and opposes “Mulan.” The secretary of state is a climate change denier who believes that Trump was sent by God to save the Jews from “the Iranian menace.” Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director — a scientist — doubts the efficacy of condoms in slowing the spread of AIDS. These radicals have led executive agencies to embrace conspiracy theories, reject science and wage a protracted war against the progress marginalized groups have made in this country over the last 50 years in order to benefit the racist, nativist and white supremacist portion of their base. Next time Trump emboldens the Proud Boys, remember the people surrounding him.

This administration is the result of a decades-long concerted effort by conservatives to transform the federal judiciary and degrade our democratic institutions through constant attacks on voting rights. The crowning achievement of this movement will be in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 12, and likely on the Supreme Court by Nov. 3. Though she did not earn this seat, much like her counterpart Justice Brett Kavanaugh, conservatives think she’s entitled to it. Now, we all must ask ourselves what she would be willing to do to keep it.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at

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