GOP Senator to Biden Department of Justice Nominee: “Do You Believe in God?” July 29, 2021

GOP Senator to Biden Department of Justice Nominee: “Do You Believe in God?”

In 2017, when Amy Coney Barrett was a nominee to become a federal judge, she was rightly getting asked by the Senate Judiciary Committee about how her Catholics beliefs might influence her decision making. It was an absolutely fair line of questioning because Barrett had written papers discussing how Catholics like her should deal with parts of the law they don’t agree with. It was essential to find out how her faith might impact her views on abortion rights — and, of course, conservatives didn’t want anyone doing that. They wanted her to be elevated to the federal bench, believing she would undermine those rights, and anything exposing that might get in the way.

That’s why when Sen. Dianne Feinstein inartfully said to her, “The dogma lives loudly within you,” referencing how Barrett would try to overturn Roe v. Wade, Republicans jumped on it as an example of how Democrats were anti-faith. They ignored the context. They deliberately avoided talking about the many reasons her faith was relevant to the job she wanted. They just took that clip and ran with it. It worked. Barrett got the votes and rode that all the way to the Supreme Court where she’s been one of the justices repeatedly ruling on the side of religion no matter how much harm it causes.

If you listened to Republicans, though, the big takeaway from that controversy was that it was unfair to question any nominee’s religion and how it may impact their job. Faith was off limits!

In fact, here’s what Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said to Barrett during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings about that exchange:

“I know it must hurt for someone of deep Christian faith like yourself to be called a religious bigot and to have it implied that because you are a devout Christian that you’re somehow unfit for public service,” Kennedy said.

Yesterday, with Democrats now in control of the Senate, a lawyer named Hampton Dellinger was being grilled as the nominee for the role of U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy.

During his questioning, Sen. Kennedy brought up an old tweet in which Dellinger said that, while there are some Republican women and some Democrats overall who oppose abortion rights, “if there were no Republican men in elected office, there would be no abortion bans.”

I mean, he’s right. The biggest proponents of anti-choice legislation are Republican men — and that’s partly because there are relatively few Republican women in federal elected office. It’s no surprise Dellinger is pro-choice himself.

Kennedy wanted to blow that tweet out of proportion, suggesting that Dellinger didn’t understand how many people have religious reasons to oppose abortions and aren’t anti-abortion merely out of some desire to have the government control women’s bodies. It’s a distinction without a difference, honestly, because the end result is the same thing.

But the way Kennedy made that point was a lesson in Republican hypocrisy. He screamed at Dellinger, “Do you believe in God?”

Why’d you say it, in front of God and country?!… You said every Republican other than the ones that you like have their position on abortion because they’re misogynistic!… Do you believe in God? [Dellinger: Senator, I have faith. I believe–] A lot of people have faith! Did it ever occur to you that some people may base their position on abortion on their faith?

Dellinger stumbled his way through an answer, but nothing he said would’ve made a difference because Kennedy’s goal was to paint him as some sort of left-wing caricature. Of course a lot of people use faith to guide their abortion views; whatever the reason, if their desired laws go into effect, the government will control what happens inside a woman’s body. So who gives a damn how they arrived at their positions?

Anyway, the bigger issue here is the question Kennedy asked: “Do you believe in God?” Even if he asked it as a way to get to a larger point about how religion influences people’s views on abortion, that question itself is appalling.

What if the answer was no? Would that have mattered? What would happen if a Democratic senator asked the exact same question of a Republican nominee who held certain questionable policy positions? Would Republicans just let that slide?

Conservative media outlets aren’t going to make a big deal (or any deal at all) about Kennedy’s question. But they spent years using Feinstein’s legitimate question as if it was completely inappropriate to ask any nominee about religion. It’s GOP hypocrisy meant to punish anyone who’s not a right-wing Christian.

Mark Joseph Stern of Slate put it well:

Stern added in an article:

At no point did Kennedy, who was christened in the Catholic church, mention the fact that seven ministers sent the Senate a letter in support of Dellinger’s nomination. Several of these ministers lead churches in which Dellinger has worshipped. “Throughout his career, Hampton has advocated for just causes and operated with care and concern for his fellow human beings,” the ministers wrote. “He has displayed the kind of compassion, humility, and integrity we should demand for our public servants, affirming the dignity of all fellow citizens in the process.” Nor did Kennedy note that, while serving in the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, Dellinger helped to combat a wave of arson against Black churches.

Dellinger will likely have the votes he needs for confirmation. This interaction won’t derail his nomination. But just remember that Kennedy, who once argued that someone’s religion shouldn’t be called into question during the nomination process even when it affects her decision-making, is now literally asking a nominee if he’s a man of faith, as if that has any bearing on his professional role.

***Update***: American Atheists has weighed in:

A senator demanding to know whether a nominee believes in gods is a disquieting attack on the tens of millions of Americans who, in fact, do not. Sen. Kennedy’s apparent suggestion that only religious Americans are qualified to serve as government officials is the definition of religious discrimination, plain and simple. Regardless of Mr. Dellinger’s beliefs, Sen. Kennedy’s question was outrageous and plainly unconstitutional.

Just as troubling is the hypocrisy of Sen. Kennedy’s conscious choice to question a nominee’s religious beliefs given his statements during the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett. “I know it must hurt … to have it implied that because you are a devout Christian that you’re somehow unfit for public service,” Kennedy said to her.

Mr. Dellinger deserves a sincere apology for being grilled about his religious beliefs, something that in no way would impact his ability to lead the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice. If Sen. Kennedy can’t even muster that modicum of respect, it will demonstrate just how hollow and self-serving his professed concerns for religious freedom are and that he believes in discrimination against anyone who isn’t Christian.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State adds:

“In a democracy that values the fundamental American principle of church-state separation, U.S. senators don’t get to ask a nominee for public office during a Senate hearing whether they believe in god. That’s a flat-out violation of our Constitution’s promise that there is no religious test for public office. It’s also grossly hypocritical to witness Sen. Kennedy, who claims to be a champion of religious freedom, so blatantly deny that freedom to others.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation:

“Politicians like Kennedy seem to believe that atheist-baiting is one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “However, we know the demographics — and such outdated bigotry is soon going to be a political liability.”

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a veteran of nearly 150 debates on religion and the existence of a god, had a lighthearted comment. “Asking ‘which god?’ might have been Dellinger’s best response,” he remarked.

FFRF’s position is that questioning nominees about religion is fair game if nominees have indicated that their personal religious views should trump their secular oath of office. In such cases, senators must ask about religion. FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel has written several pieces on this including “Yes, questions of religion can be fair game for Senate confirmation hearings,” for Freethought Now! and “Senators can and must ask about nominees’ religious beliefs,” for Rewire News. Seidel explains that the central question in any Senate confirmation hearing is whether a nominee can uphold her oath of office and treat the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.” When a nominee has previously claimed that her private faith can trump her public duty, the nominee has made her religion relevant to the inquiry.

The Interfaith Alliance sent a letter to Kennedy:

… The letter, signed by Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, iterates that as an elected official, Sen. Kennedy has a responsibility to protect all of his constituents, regardless of faith. “Good faith questions about the role a person’s personal beliefs may play in influencing their policy decisions are not off limits by any means — religious freedom grants us both freedom of religion, and freedom from coercion by public officials — but asking a nominee “Do you believe in God?” point blank is clearly not a question that would lead to any determination about a person’s ability to uphold the Constitution“…

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