It was a straightforward yet significant question. Once a week, ABC Radio Sydney 702 runs a “Trump Tuesday” segment. Richard Glover is the presenter and the usual guest commentator is David Smith from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
The USSC is essentially a hangout for supporters of the Democrats or Republican-inclined commentators who are opposed to President Donald J. Trump — “Never Trumpers”, as some like to be called. There is a small minority of academics who are sympathetic to Trump, but no more than that, and they are not prominent in the public debate.
Smith is not one of these. In 2016, not one of the “experts” at the USSC predicted even the possibility of a Trump victory. Moreover, as USSC chief executive Simon Jackman conceded on Sky News after the election, not one of his colleagues, including Smith, supported Trump.
It comes as no surprise, then, that “Trump Tuesday” invariably ends up as bash-Trump Tuesday. So much so, that Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden rarely gets a mention.
This was the case last Tuesday. After the predictable session blaming Trump for US COVID-19 deaths, discussion turned on his pick to replace justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. Glover led off with the comment: “Can we just talk for a second about Amy Coney Barrett, the Catholic choice for the Supreme Court?”
Now there is no “Catholic choice for the Supreme Court”. The Catholic Church in the US does not nominate appointments to the nation’s highest court. Barrett is Trump’s choice for the position, which she will fill if her nomination is confirmed by the Senate.
Glover reflected that Trump’s decision was a pitch to “evangelical Americans”; that is, Protestants. But he added: “It’s often Catholics who are chosen to represent that anti-abortion, religious-based view of the Supreme Court.”
Again, this is a mistaken, perhaps prejudicial view. It’s true that most Catholics are opposed to abortion, but not all. In any sense, there is no “religious-based view” of the Supreme Court. Five judges of the Supreme Court are Catholic: Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh. Neil Gorsuch was brought up in the Catholic faith but is now said to attend an Episcopal (Anglican) church.
If Barrett gets confirmed there will be six Catholics out of a bench of nine. So what? There are many critics of the US at home and abroad. But few would hold the view that the Supreme Court has turned the nation into a Catholic state, a democratic version of the authoritarian Holy See in Rome.
As mentioned, there has been reference to Barrett as the Catholic choice for the court. I don’t recall anyone referring to Ginsburg as the Jewish choice when she took her position on the Supreme Court in 1993. Likewise with Stephen Breyer (1994) and Elena Kagan (2010). All three are evidence of the demise of anti-Semitism in the US in recent years.
Anti-Catholic sectarianism got off the boats with the early settlers in nations such as the US and Australia and hung around for quite some time. The first dramatic sign of change in Australia occurred when Joseph Lyons, the former Tasmanian premier and federal Labor treasurer, led the newly formed United Australia Party to victory at the December 1931 election.
It was a mark of Australian acceptance that Lyons led a successful politically conservative government that included Anglicans (Richard Casey) and Protestants (Robert Menzies). Lyons took the UAP to two additional election victories before dying in office in April 1939.
In the US it was frequently said in the early 20th century that there would never be a Catholic president. That all changed with the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in November 1960. JFK probably would have carried the Democratic Party to another victory but he was assassinated in November 1963.
In recent years there has been a re-emergence in anti-Catholic sectarianism in nations such as Australia and the US.
What’s different is that opposition to Catholicism is no longer driven by non-Catholic Christian religions. Rather it is fired up by born-again secularists along with ex-Catholics.
This was evident in the US following Trump’s nomination of Barrett. HBO’s Real Time presenter Bill Maher, who was brought up a Catholic, referred to Barrett as a “f..king nut” simply on the basis of her religious beliefs — describing her as “really, really Catholic”. The “real” Catholic and highly qualified lawyer is a mother of seven children — two of whom were adopted from Haiti, one with special needs. Not much sign of nutterdom there.
In his discussion with Glover, Smith developed a “division of labour” theory among American Christians. He suggested “evangelical Protestants” were into business and “providing political activists”, whereas Catholics went into law and intellectual pursuits. It seems Smith was focused on Republicans only. Leading figures in the Democratic Party such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi present as practising Catholics.
And that’s the point. The likes of Smith and Maher do not have a problem with liberal Catholics such as Biden, Pelosi or Sotomayor. Their problem is with conservative Catholics such as Barrett and justice Antonin Scalia (who was a friend of Ginsburg).
The re-emergence of anti-Catholic sectarianism has little to do with revelations about historical child sexual abuse in the church. Take Cardinal George Pell in Australia. In 1996, he became the first leader in church or state to act against institutional child sexual abuse. But, being a conservative, he attracted greater opprobrium than others.
The truth is that the US and Australia have been able to work out what belongs to Caesar and what to God. That’s why the death of Ginsburg and her possible replacement by Barrett is unlikely to dramatically change the US. Catholics, or Jews, are not that different.