Michael Cromartie was a rare figure in public life. An evangelical Christian, he devoted much of his work at the Washington-based Ethics & Public Policy Center to shedding light on issues that too often fueled the angriest culture-war disagreements over the place of religion in the public square. Until his recent death after a long struggle with cancer, he was rightly hailed as a bridge builder between journalism and religion. Twice annually, he hosted the Faith Angle Forum, which, as Ross Douthat explained in a eulogistic column for the New York Times, invited “prominent journalists, members of one of America’s most secular professions, into extended conversation with religious leaders, theologians and historians, the best and brightest students and practitioners of varied faiths.” In a tribute on the website Real Clear Politics, journalist Carl Cannon wrote that “Cromartie did more to ensure that American political journalism is imbued with religious tolerance, biblical literacy, historical insight, and an ecumenical spirit than any person alive.”
I found myself missing Cromartie as I watched (and participated in) the reaction to New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein’s description of the religious community of Professor Amy Barrett, nominated by President Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. (Barrett’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee garnered some attention after Senator Diane Feinstein opined: “The dogma lives loudly within you.”)
Goodstein’s article has many problems, but what made me think of Cromartie was what the article and some responses to it revealed about the deep misunderstandings and biases of some of America’s more prominent religion journalists about some of the most basic practices of millions of American religious believers. These kinds of misunderstandings are all the more troubling at a time when the words and actions of our president have exacerbated divisions in our nation.
To start with Goodstein’s piece and the section that most struck me:
Ms. Barrett told the senators that she was a faithful Catholic, and that her religious beliefs would not affect her decisions as an appellate judge. But her membership in a small, tightly knit Christian group called People of Praise never came up at the hearing, and might have led to even more intense questioning.
Some of the group’s practices would surprise many faithful Catholics. Members of the group swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another, and are assigned and are accountable to a personal adviser, called a “head” for men and a “handmaid” for women. The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.
Current and former members say that the heads and handmaids give direction on important decisions, including whom to date or marry, where to live, whether to take a job or buy a home, and how to raise children.
Legal scholars said that such loyalty oaths could raise legitimate questions about a judicial nominee’s independence and impartiality. The scholars said in interviews that while there certainly was no religious test for office, it would have been relevant for the senators to examine what it means for a judicial nominee to make an oath to a group that could wield significant authority over its members’ lives.
“These groups can become so absorbing that it’s difficult for a person to retain individual judgment,” said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t think it’s discriminatory or hostile to religion to want to learn more” about her relationship with the group.
The practices Goodstein described are common to many religious communities. What is more, they build 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 Goodstein appeared to be citing them to raise questions about Barrett’s judicial temperament. (This questioning would have been out of line even if the religious practices were less common, unless Goodstein had evidence that they would affect Barrett’s judicial competence.)
In the discussions surrounding Goodstein's article, religion reporters such as Jack Jenkins (the senior religion reporter for Think Progress) and Daniel Burke (the religion editor at CNN) echoed her concerns.
When I pressed her on some of her claims, Goodstein responded: “I do not think you can claim it is common to have taken an oath to a group that assigns you an advisor to guide your life.” This was a revealing assertion, and I was not the only one to observe that such oath-taking is common across a variety of religious traditions. As one person noted, “You’re literally describing confirmation.” Meanwhile, CNN’s Burke concluded that the negative responses to the article must have been "a well-coordinated response" by the Federalist Society, a group of conservative and libertarian lawyers and legal thinkers.
These reactions suggest on the part of the journalists a lack of understanding of basic religious practices of millions of Americans. So does their shared sense that the only plausible explanation for the negative reactions to the piece was conservative "coordination." Goodstein’s article not only demonstrated her lack of awareness of how widespread certain religious practices are, but she framed them as somehow impugning Amy Barrett’s judicial competence. And other religion reporters agreed.
These criticisms are not easy to make. With Goodstein, I find them hard on a personal level: I usually like her work, and she kindly moderated a recent panel on one of my books at the Newseum (cosponsored, perhaps ironically, by the Federalist Society). I don’t know Jenkins or Burke, but as someone who not infrequently weighs in publicly on matters of law and religion, I like to maintain good relationships with journalists and editors who cover these issues. But in this current climate of distrust and suspicion, I fear that Goodstein’s article and the defenses of it suggest a growing lack of empathy and understanding on important matters of faith.
And that’s just one reason to miss the late Michael Cromartie, and to wish the best to his successor, Peter Wehner, in keeping the much-needed Faith Angle Forum alive.
John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis.