Amy Coney Barrett and the “Kingdom of God”

Notre Dame Law School professor Amy Coney Barrett is on Donald Trump’s short list to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump met with Barrett yesterday.

Back in September 2017, I called your attention to political philosopher Bill McCormack’s piece at America. Read that post here.

I also wrote about California Senator Diane Feinstein’s claim that “dogma lives loudly” in Barrett. Read that post here. In that post I republished Notre Dame president John Jenkins’s letter to Feinstein. Here it is again:

Dear Senator Feinstein:

Considering your questioning of my colleague Amy Coney Barrett during the judicial confirmation hearing of September 6, I write to express my confidence in her competence and character, and deep concern at your line of questioning.

Professor Barrett has been a member of our faculty since 2002, and is a graduate of our law school. Her experience as a clerk for Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is of the highest order. So, too, is her scholarship in the areas of federal courts, constitutional law and statutory interpretation. I am not a legal scholar, but I have heard no one seriously challenge her impeccable legal credentials.

Your concern, as you expressed it, is that “dogma lives loudly in [Professor Barrett], and that is a concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” I am one in whose heart “dogma lives loudly,” as it has for centuries in the lives of many Americans, some of whom have given their lives in service to this nation. Indeed, it lived loudly in the hearts of those who founded our nation as one where citizens could practice their faith freely and without apology.

Professor Barrett has made it clear that she would “follow unflinchingly” all legal precedent and, in rare cases in which her conscience would not allow her to do so, she would recuse herself. I can assure you that she is a person of integrity who acts in accord with the principles she articulates.

It is chilling to hear from a United States Senator that this might now disqualify someone from service as a federal judge. I ask you and your colleagues to respect those in whom “dogma lives loudly”—which is a condition we call faith. For the attempt to live such faith while one upholds the law should command respect, not evoke concern.

Now Barrett is getting criticism for a remark she made about the “Kingdom of God.”

Christian conservatives like Barrett are not the only public figures who talk about the Kingdom of God.

Obama said this on the presidential campaign trail in 2007. At the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast, Obama said:

My Christian faith, then, has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years,” Obama said. “All the more so, when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we’re being true to our conscience and true to our God. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Jimmy Carter also believes that Christians should be working to promote the Kingdom of God. Here is an interview with NPR in which he talks about “God’s Kingdom on Earth.”

All Christians believe in some version of the “Kingdom of God.” Students of American religious history know that this phrase has been used just as much by Christians on the left as on the right. The idea of ushering in the Kingdom of God was at the heart of the early 20th-century movement known as the “Social Gospel,” a form of Christianity committed to bringing faith to bear on matters of poverty, racism, and other forms of injustice. In fact, the social gospelers talked about bringing God’s kingdom to earth a whole lot more than the Protestant fundamentalists. Most conservative Protestants in the early 20th-century showed little concern for social issues. They just wanted to get people “saved” and ready for the rapture.

But how does Amy Barrett use the phrase “Kingdom of God?” The source of all the controversy today comes from a 2006 commencement address to the graduates of Notre Dame Law School. You can read that address here. A taste:

Sometimes we’re tempted to say that a Notre Dame lawyer is a different kind of lawyer because he or she is an ethical lawyer. But that can’t be right. Our profession is in pretty deep trouble if the only ethical lawyer is the different one. When you leave here, hold yourselves to the highest ethical standards, and be leaders in that regard. But maintaining high ethical standards ought to be something that characterizes our whole profession—not something that causes Notre Dame lawyers to stand apart.

So if being a different kind of lawyer is not defined by the body of knowledge you have mastered or by the ethical standards you are expected to maintain, might it be defined by the kind of law you choose to practice? The banner hanging in the main reading room says, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Surely we can expect that, as a Catholic law school, our commitment to social justice will lead a higher-than-average percentage of you to choose to work on behalf of the disadvantaged and oppressed. We can expect Notre Dame lawyers like my own classmate, Sean Litton, who left a successful and lucrative practice at Kirkland & Ellis to work for a human rights organization with the mission of eliminating sexual trafficking in southeast Asia. Many of you, like my classmate Sean, will work in the public interest sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you. But many of you will work in the private sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you too. It cannot be that being a different kind of lawyer is defined by the kind of law one practices, for that would leave too many of our graduates out of the definition.

So what then, does it mean to be a different kind of lawyer? The implications of our Catholic mission for your legal education are many, and don’t worry—I’m not going to explore them all in this short speech. I’m just going to identify one way in which I hope that you, as graduates of Notre Dame, will fulfill the promise of being a different kind of lawyer. And that is this: that you will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as Father Jenkins told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.

As she closes her speech, Barrett encourages the graduates of this Catholic law school to:

  1. Pray about their calling as lawyers
  2. Give a percentage of their salaries to the church and other charitable causes
  3. Seek a Christian community that will assist them in advance their calling as agents of the kingdom of God.

I have written a lot at this blog about the “Kingdom of God.” My understanding of the meaning of this phrase is very similar to Barrett. While some might use the phrase “Kingdom of God” to promote some kind of theocratic takeover of government, this is not how most Christians use the term.

Christians believe that the Kingdom of God was initiated when Jesus died and rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order–the coming Kingdom– when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom. A longing for this kingdom is at the center of Christian hope. This is why we pray as Jesus taught us: “They Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Here is Oxford University historian and theologian N.T. Wright from his book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

The practice of the law is a way in which Christians can live-out their callings as faithful members of the God’s Kingdom. This is what Barrett was telling the graduates of Notre Dame law school.

The real question is whether or not Barrett, if nominated and confirmed, would confuse the Kingdom of God with her responsibility to interpret the law of the United States of America. They are not the same thing.

This clip has some of Barrett’s 2018 responses to the questions of Democratic Senators during her confirmation hearings. I’d recommend stopping it at about the 2:37 mark.

UPDATE: I just read Jack Jenkins’s piece on this at Religion News Service. It includes several quotes from Catholic theologians and other experts claiming that it is perfectly fine for Senators to ask Barrett if and how her faith will shape her legal decisions as a Supreme Court justice.