In Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump put forward a Supreme Court nominee who embodies a set of voters the Democrats need on their side to win elections. She’s a well-educated, White, suburban Catholic woman.
Many Democrats object to her well documented conservative views in such areas as abortion, health care, guns, and immigrant rights, but they must tread carefully in opposing her nomination so as not to alienate those voters, especially women, who may be inspired by Barrett’s life story.
“What Barrett represents for me is someone who shares my values,” says Ashley McKinless, 30, a columnist at America Magazine, a Jesuit publication. McKinless considers herself a progressive feminist, but she opposes abortion on moral grounds.
“To see those values represented by a woman at the highest levels of the U.S. government has been moving for me,” McKinless says. “It’s not the typical person we talk about when we have conversations about feminism, but I do see my own pro-life feminism reflected in her.”
For some women, Barrett’s public celebration of her family life was another aspect of her appeal. She and her husband have seven children, and she brought them with her to her confirmation hearing.
“I’m used to being in a group of nine – my family,” she said in her opening statement. “Nothing is more important to me.”
Among those impressed by that example was Erika Bachiochi, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
“Barrett’s life story puzzles older feminists,” Bachiochi wrote in a column for Politico. “Bearing and raising a bevy of children has long implied retaining a traditional life script – like staying home with the children – that Barrett has obviously not heeded. An enigma to many, she doesn’t fit easily into any ideological box.”
Mindful that Catholics are a key swing voter group, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee this week have been exceedingly careful not to critique Barrett’s strong Catholic faith. They have followed the counsel of their presidential candidate, Joe Biden, himself a faithful Catholic. As Barrett’s confirmation hearings opened on Monday, Biden warned, “I don’t think there should be any questions about her faith.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who in 2017 was widely criticized for telling Barrett, “the dogma lives loudly within you,” avoided any such comments this week.
“We all have our moral values,” she told Barrett. “We have our religions. We live by that. I respect you and your family for doing just that.”
Some Catholics nevertheless say they feel pressure from Democrats not to speak too loudly about their faith beliefs, unless it’s to reinforce Democratic policy positions, such as support for health care, immigrants, or other social justice issues.
“I think the shift of the Democratic Party to become more and more secular and more extremist in terms of its abortion policies has left progressive religious people with only so much they can contribute to the conversation,” says McKinless, who co-hosts a podcast on faith issues.
“If you want to be taken seriously on the left, and you’re a person of faith,” McKinless says, “it doesn’t seem like talking about issues beyond things like the economy and immigration is going to be very fruitful for you. It might just make your voice irrelevant.”
McKinless says she commiserates with “a lot of Catholics who often describe themselves as politically homeless.”
At the same time, McKinless emphasizes that discontent with the Democratic Party and a celebration of Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court does not automatically translate into positive feelings toward Donald Trump.
“I think you can support Amy Coney Barrett and see her as a very capable nominee for the Supreme Court and not necessarily see that as a reflection of President Trump,” she says. “I think this was a calculated decision on his part. He knows what his base wants in terms of a Supreme Court nominee, and she checked all the boxes.”
McKinless is one of an increasing number of moderate faith voices who are more outspoken in this election cycle than in previous years, often affirming their anti-abortion views while still opposing Donald Trump.
More than 5,000 people have signed an online petition organized by a group, “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden,” including several prominent seminary leaders, as well as Jerushah Duford, an evangelical writer and daughter of the late Billy Graham.
Duford is also one of the organizers of a new anti-Trump Super PAC, Not Our Faith, targeting Christian voters in key battleground states.
Another co-founder of the group, Autumn Hanna VandeHei, told NPR’s Rachel Martin this week that a focus on the abortion issue, among Democrats as well as Republicans, has contributed to political polarization in the country.
“[You have] each side calling the other side evil, within the Christian community,” she said. “I think it’s really important to show that this single issue shouldn’t be the defining factor when we have so many other things at stake.”