In late 2018, after Brian Buescher was nominated to serve as a district judge in Nebraska, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled him over his membership in the Knights of Columbus, suggesting that his Catholic views made him unfit to serve on the bench.
“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” Senator Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) asked him, among similar questions. Senator Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii) suggested that she would withhold her vote from Buescher unless he promised to withdraw from the organization entirely.
I wrote at the time that one way of understanding this line of attack was as a test run in blocking the eventual Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who had been confirmed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals a year before. During her hearing, several Democrats questioned her about her Catholicism, suggesting that her religious beliefs might be disqualifying.
In perhaps the most well-known line she’s ever uttered, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) told Barrett, “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that is a concern.”
In my 2019 article, I wrote, “The Democratic furor over Barrett in 2017 and over Buescher now was not about troubling activities on the part of People of Praise or the Knights of Columbus; it was about their fear that judges who are committed Catholics would refuse to uphold the judicially imposed regime of abortion on demand.”
That appears to be the case still. When President Trump announced Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, this strategy was immediately on display from much of the news media, which began churning out pieces critical of her membership in the lay Christian group People of Praise.
Plenty of outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post published deep-dive articles on the group and Barrett’s involvement, many of which contained significant factual inaccuracies and unfounded assertions about the group’s supposed treatment of women. The strategy was obvious: They were coordinating an effort to smear Barrett as guilty by association — though what exactly either she or the group were guilty of, aside from embracing basic Christian theology and having practicing Catholics as members, never became clear.
But despite the fact that these attempted hit jobs appeared nearly every day for two weeks, not a single Senate Democrat took up the issue of Barrett’s membership in People of Praise during the Judiciary Committee hearings. A few members pressed Barrett about a letter she had signed affirming Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human life, but at least one senator prefaced his question on the topic with repeated assurances that he wasn’t criticizing Barrett’s personal religious beliefs.
And Senator Feinstein — who with her “dogma” remark arguably did more than most to ensure that Barrett would someday be Trump’s pick — went above and beyond to be polite to Barrett, praising her career, her motherhood, and her family. There were no further derogatory comments, from Feinstein or any other Democrat, about Barrett’s Catholicism or her embrace of Church dogma.
What had happened was fairly clear: Democrats were afraid. Though they were desperate to stop Barrett from being confirmed, they had been scared off from grilling her about her faith by the pushback they got when they first attempted this strategy.
When Harris and Hirono questioned Buescher about the Knights, for instance, Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) led Republicans in calling for unanimous consent on a resolution affirming the unconstitutionality of imposing religious tests for public office. It was a bold strategy that paid off, demonstrating to Democrats that if they followed the media’s lead in making any nominee’s faith the centerpiece of a campaign against them, it would be met with fierce opposition.