Amy Coney Barrett reads US Constitution the way Christians read the Bible

The Supreme Court of the United States looks like getting a new Bible-reading Associate Justice. Amy Coney Barrett is a Catholic charismatic, a group that like their protestant equivalent, Pentecostals, has a high view of scripture.

Attempting to insult her, Senator Dianne Feinstein told Coney Barrett to her face at the 2017 hearing that saw Barrett appointed to the Seventh  Circuit Court of Appeals: “The dogma lives loudly within you.”

Barrett had a measured response: “If you’re asking whether I take my Catholic faith seriously, I do, though I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear on the discharge of my duties as a judge.”

The contender for the Supreme Court has clearly thought through how to be both a loyal Catholic and a loyal citizen or judge. A USA Today fact check that examines Coney Barrett’s use of religious language points to her handling of the death penalty – a big issue for Catholics with a consistent pro-life position. “In 1998, soon after finishing law school, Barrett co-authored an article titled ‘Catholic Judges in Capital Cases,’ which ultimately concluded, ‘that Catholic judges (if they are faithful to the teaching of their church) are morally precluded from enforcing the death penalty.’

“That same article determined that for Catholic judges who were morally incapable of enforcing capital punishment, ‘the proper response is to recuse oneself.’”

People of Praise, an ecumenical Christian Community that Coney Barrett belongs to, places itself squarely in the charismatic stream of Christianity. “Like hundreds of millions of other Christians in the Pentecostal movement, People of Praise members have experienced the blessing of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts as described in the New Testament,” their website FAQs state.

“This is a source of great joy for us and an important aspect of what God is doing in our world today.”

It is reasonable to conclude that any charismatic group, especially one that draws people from different denominations as this one does, takes the Bible as authoritative. People of Praise also describe themselves this way: “The People of Praise is a charismatic Christian community. We admire the first Christians who were led by the Holy Spirit to form a community. Those early believers put their lives and their possessions in common, and ‘there were no needy persons among them.'”

It is clear they desire to live like the early Christians and hold that God’s expectations of how we should live, therefore, have not changed. What the Bible asked the first Christians to do, is what People of Praise understand we are called to do today in sharing community, living simply and helping the needy.

Not every Bible-believing Christian will read it the same way as the People of Praise. Not every Bible believer seeks the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Not every Bible believer seeks to live in community the way People of Praise do. Not every Bible believer will be as ecumenical as they.

But what we can see is a determination to do what the Bible calls them to – doing what the early church did. And what the New Testament asked the early Christians to do, is the same as what Christians should seek to do today. The Bible has not changed its meaning.

This places Amy Coney Barrett in the same “taking the Bible seriously” stream as Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Conservative Catholics.

To take terms that US lawyers use, Coney Barrett is “originalist” or “textualist” in her use of the Bible.

We derive the meaning of our lives from the one we meet through Scripture.

Here is how Neil Gorsuch, who made it onto the Supreme Court as a Donald Trump  appointee ahead of Coney Barrett, describes that legal doctrine:

“Originalism teaches only that the Constitution’s original meaning is fixed; meanwhile, of course, new applications of that meaning will arise with new developments and new technologies. Consider a few examples. As originally understood, the term ‘cruel’ in the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause referred (at least) to methods of execution deliberately designed to inflict pain. That never changes. But that meaning doesn’t just encompass those particular forms of torture known at the founding. It also applies to deliberate efforts to inflict a slow and painful death by laser. Take another example. As originally understood, the First Amendment protected speech. That guarantee doesn’t just apply to speech on street corners or in newspapers; it applies equally to speech on the Internet. Or consider the Fourth Amendment. As originally understood, it usually required the government to get a warrant to search a home. And that meaning applies equally whether the government seeks to conduct a search the old-fashioned way by rummaging through the place or in a more modern way by using a thermal imaging device to see inside. Whether it’s the Constitution’s prohibition on torture, its protection of speech, or its restrictions on searches, the meaning remains constant even as new applications arise.”

To this reader, it is striking how close to Evangelical or Pentecostal treatment of Scripture this is. We face new temptations, COVID has made us do church in a very different way, we praise God in new ways – or old ways – but we derive the meaning of our lives from the one we meet through Scripture.

Jesus has not changed. The stories we know about his life have not changed. The pivot point of the universe is still his death and resurrection.

If that is your view of Scripture, in whole or part you are an “originalist” – in whole or in part. Welcome to Amy Coney Barrett’s world.

Feel free to differ from her on some of the issues – even all the issues – that face her as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. But recognise that you drink from the same stream, that recognises that truth can come in the form of words that don’t change.

(NOTE: A short rebuttal of “originalism” is here. This non-lawyer is clearly an unsuitable person to say how lawyers should read documents, which is not the point of this story – but I am keen to suggest we should take Scripture seriously)

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