Abid Qureshi was the first Muslim judge to ever be nominated to the federal judiciary. Like other second-term Obama nominations, Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings, letting his nomination expire. It is not difficult to imagine, however, how closely Qureshi would have been scrutinized for his religious beliefs if the nomination had made it to the Senate floor. This is because Islam and Muslims have been antagonized in the United States since enslaved African Muslims were brought to the country. Additionally, the War on Terror squarely pitted Islam and Muslims as an existential threat to the United States. Suffice to say, to this date, there is not even a single Muslim federal judge in the United States, let alone a Supreme Court justice.
When Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett (ACB) to the Supreme Court, Republicans immediately launched a preemptive campaign in her defense, claiming she would be targeted because of her Catholic faith. Despite having himself criticized his Catholic opponent Joe Biden’s faith earlier in the year, President Donald Trump went so far as to say, “They’re going after her Catholicism.” He wasn’t alone in propagating this idea and numerous opinion pieces have since legitimized the narrative that the opposition to ACB’s nomination amounts merely to her being targeted for the personal practice of her faith. For example, Melinda Henneberger wrote an instructive piece to Democrats in USA Today and asserted that “you cannot fight bigotry with bigotry; religious intolerance is just as wrong as any other kind of othering.”
Even worse, a piece by Jonathan Zimmerman in the New York Daily News compares the case of Khizr Khan, a Muslim and a Gold Star father whose son died in Iraq, to the case of ACB. Zimmerman recalls the incident during the Democratic National Convention where Khan spoke on stage alongside his wife, who stayed silent. Trump later tweeted that Ghazala Khan wasn’t allowed to speak, reiterating the tired trope of an obedient and subdued Muslim woman. Zimmerman asks why if some were against the bias directed at the Khans, they would criticize ACB. There are numerous problems with this argument: 1) It assumes ACB actually has been a victim of anti-religious sentiment; 2) It makes the assumption that critiques of Muslims versus Christians have the same consequences; and 3) The two circumstances that he provides as a point of comparison are totally unrelated. Khan was a private citizen making a speech about his son being a patriot and Trump lashed out with gratuitous, unconnected comments about his wife. Critics of ACB’s nomination are concerned that she won’t be able to separate her religious views from legal rulings that determine precedent for the entire country. Zimmerman’s op-ed makes the predictable “mistake” of bringing in Muslims as a comparison point, suggesting that we can’t understand patriarchy and misogyny without this Muslim point of reference.
As the discourse around ACB’s Christian faith has evolved, other Christians have responded to the notion that she’s being attacked by loudly proclaiming their own faith. For example, when Vice President Mike Pence accused Sen. Kamala Harris of attacking ACB’s faith, she responded that, “Joe Biden and I are both people of faith, and it’s insulting to suggest that we would knock anyone for their faith.” By faith, of course, Harris meant the Christian religion. This performance of Christian religiosity demonstrates the extent to which public proclamations of Christian faith are constructed as unvaryingly positive. When politicians make such proclamations they are received as normal, unbiased. There are no consequences for being overt about faith, in spite of the reaction this might produce in members of other religious groups.
Now, let’s look at the numbers for a minute. Not only is 30% of Congress Catholic, over 33% of state governors also identify as Catholic. Now that Barrett has joined the Supreme Court, 6 out of 9 justices are Catholic. Catholics, unlike Muslims, are not being excluded from the highest echelons of government. In the case of ACB, accusations of being anti-Catholic are weaponized in order to establish victimhood and are blatantly meant to be a distraction from any examination of her actual judicial record and views. Imagine if the situation was reversed and ACB was Muslim. In that case, the narrative strategy would be to weaponize her being pro-Muslim. Restricting the narrative to ACB’s faith in general terms obscures the fact that what was actually in question was never her faith, but whether ACB’s particular and extreme beliefs would bias her adjudication of SCOTUS cases.
It is very telling that the threshold for what counts as “othering” and bigotry towards white Christians is so low, especially given, for example, the non-stop attacks on Muslim members of Congress, particularly Rep. Ilhan Omar who has faced death threats because of Trump’s rhetoric. Nevertheless, on the third day of ACB’s hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened by saying, “This is the first time in American history that we’ve nominated a woman who is unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology, and she is going to the court.”
But how hard is it for ACB to embrace her faith without apology in this country? The United States purports to be secular, welcoming to people of all faiths or none, but in fact it is deeply rooted in white Christian supremacy and hegemony. White Christians are not expected to defend their faith in a country where white Christian hegemony is so normalized that it permeates social, political, and cultural institutions in the United States.
ACB’s nomination acutely highlights the way white Christian hegemony operates particularly when it is a white Christian who theoretical attacks have been waged on. Whether or not Senate Republicans continue the illusion that ACB is being attacked for her Christianity, this country will still be a white Christian hegemony. Recognizing that is merely the first step to becoming a country welcoming of all faiths.