The appearance of Judge Amy Coney Barrett on President Trump’s shortlist of candidates for the Supreme Court has turned a spotlight on the small, previously obscure religious group she belongs to and sparked a contentious shouting match between those asserting “She’s in a cult” and those answering, “No, you’re a bigot!”
Skeptics of Barrett’s involvement with a group called People of Praise, which has roughly 1,700 members, mostly but not exclusively Roman Catholic, have questioned whether the group has demonstrated cultlike elements. Barrett’s supporters have charged back that delving into the details of her spiritual life is reminiscent of the anti-Catholic bias that has haunted American politics in the past.
But with this crucial difference: In the 20th century, Catholic political figures, including presidential candidates Al Smith and John F. Kennedy, were suspected of harboring a secret loyalty to the Pope. Barrett’s Catholicism, per se, shouldn’t be an impediment to her nomination or confirmation. Anthony Kennedy, the justice she would replace, is a Catholic, as are four other incumbents, including the chief justice, John Roberts.
But People of Praise is a lay group, outside the church hierarchy, formed at a remarkable moment in American religious history in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was at the vanguard of a cultural and religious phenomenon that ultimately became known as “The Jesus Movement” and was featured on the cover of Time and Life.
Many Christians view this time as a bona fide revival, a unique manifestation of God’s power, similar to the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries.
This context — the intensity and earnestness of that time — helps explain some of the more esoteric and sometimes concerning elements of religious practice that have been attributed to People of Praise. The group’s public reticence has contributed to accusations by former members that it attempts to influence the lives of its members in ways that in the past have crossed over into control and manipulation.
Even in one of the most rigorous critiques of Barrett’s group — a 152-page booklet written in 1997 by a former member named Adrian Reimers — there are numerous references to the powerful experience that swept up so many young people of faith during that time.
Reimers notes “the strong sense of euphoria that permeated the movement, not only in South Bend, [Ind.,] but all across the country.
“It seemed that the Holy Spirit was carrying us along, that all we had to do was to respond to His manifest leadings,” Reimers wrote of that time.
And Reimers describes “charismatic Masses, prayer meetings and large rallies” in which participants felt “an almost tangible sense of communion.”
“Standing in a large arena full of fellow Christians singing and praising God in unison, it is easy to imagine that Christ himself is there embracing all and ready to welcome them into his Kingdom,” Reimers wrote.
What is striking about People of Praise is that unlike many charismatic Christian groups of the time, its members tended to be highly educated.
“It is a mistake to see these groups as populated with dysfunctional misfits looking for sure answers to uncertain times and a firm guiding hand through a perilous world,” Reimers wrote. “Rather they are usually highly motivated and idealistic, wanting for themselves a deeper life of faith and also an opportunity to serve Christ and the Gospel more completely.”
“Covenant community, with its demands offered a chance for Christian heroism,” he wrote.
The tradition of intellectual and academic rigor is carried on by the Trinity high schools founded by People of Praise communities in places including South Bend, Northern Virginia and the Minneapolis suburbs.
But Reimers also shows what he considers a darker side to People of Praise, a controlling and unhealthy environment for people who committed themselves to the community. All members were assigned a “head” to advise them, and because the group believed itself to be divinely inspired and directed, this structure of personal oversight often became oppressive and intrusive.
This was most clear in the way that wives were told to submit to their husbands.
“This teaching, that the husband is spiritual head or pastor to his wife, is one of the most firmly held and foundational teachings in that community,” Reimers wrote. “The wife, as a good member of the community, has a prima facie obligation to obey her husband as the bearer of God’s will. In practice, this means that the two do not — indeed, cannot — relate as equals. His will reveals God’s to her, whereas her will is merely human. The two cannot meet as equals, because the husband always has divine authority on his side.”
Barrett, 46, a mother of seven children, was confirmed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago last October, after 15 years as a law professor at Notre Dame. Barrett is married to a federal prosecutor, Jesse Barrett, who is listed by the Notre Dame law school as a 1996 alumnus. He has served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Northern District of Indiana since 2005.
Despite insinuations by Barrett’s opponents, it’s unclear what impact her membership in People of Praise would have on her jurisprudence. There have been intimations that because members of the group have depended so heavily on the counsel of their assigned “head” in the past, Barrett’s decisions in key cases would lack independence.
One of Barrett’s defenders, fellow Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett, wrote last fall during her confirmation hearings for the 7th Circuit that “it is not inappropriate, for senators to question judicial nominees … about their understanding of the judicial role and their views about the relationship between a judge’s religious commitments (if any) and his or her understanding of that role.”
But during her hearings, Garnett said many Democratic senators relied on “activist groups’ willful misrepresentations of a nominee’s (20-year-old, co-authored) law-review article as the basis for repeated … charges regarding the nominee’s views.”
At issue was a 1998 paper written by Barrett when she was a law student when she and another student argued that in a small number of cases, judges might be obligated to recuse themselves from death penalty cases if they felt their faith conflicted with a legal obligation to impose the death penalty. But, they wrote, “judges cannot—nor should they try to—align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge.”
With Barrett’s People of Praise connection now under the microscope, conservatives like David French believe that a lack of familiarity with Christian practice is making innocuous elements of regular spiritual life appear nefarious. “Why do some progressives single her out for particular scorn? It turns out that she’s a faithful Christian who lives a Christian life very similar to the lives of millions upon millions of her fellow American believers,” French wrote.
Similarly, John Inazu, a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis, argued that the original New York Times story from the fall of 2017 exaggerated the importance of a promise that People of Praise members make to devote themselves to the community. “Such oath-taking is common across a variety of religious traditions,” Inazu wrote.
Pledging one’s self to a religious community, Inazu said, is something that builds “on longstanding practices of fidelity and accountability present in all of the great wisdom traditions. At their best, these practices guide adherents toward honesty, humility and charity.”
Yet many questions do remain unanswered about Barrett’s role in the group. She said on her Senate questionnaire for confirmation to the 7th Circuit that she was a trustee of a Trinity School. And there were photos of Barrett in the magazine, Vine & Branches, published by People of Praise. But the link to those issues of the magazine were removed from the Internet and are no longer available, the New York Times reported last fall. It is not even clear how long Barrett has been affiliated with the group.
When I asked the group’s current leader, Craig Lent, about whether the group continues to practice control over members’ lives in the ways described by Reimers’ paper, he declined to talk on the phone.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with interviews over the past several days and I’m going quiet now to get some work done,” said Lent, who is a physics professor at Notre Dame. He added that the critiques leveled by Reimers came from someone who said he left the group in 1984.
Lent has not said much publicly about the degree to which People of Praise has changed or evolved since its early days. He told the Chicago Tribune that the group is “big on personal freedom.”
“Obey your conscience. The only person you can control is yourself,” he said. And Lent told the National Catholic Reporter that the religious community is “always growing up in the Lord.”
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