I could have been Amy Coney Barrett. I grew up in a different charismatic Christian sect, but like the People of Praise community, I spoke in tongues. And, like Barrett, I attended a private Christian school run by a group with radically conservative social beliefs. My church taught that women are subservient to men, just as Barrett’s teaches. In our community, families with seven or eight children were both common and revered.
I was taught at church, at school, and at home that America is a Christian nation.
Judge Barrett has advocated against abortion rights, and she has two adopted children. I too was an adopted child and in my unofficial career as a child preacher, I once sermonized that God had rescued me from “The Abortion Holocaust.” I was assured by my elders that my “rescue” through adoption meant I had been chosen for important work.
And also like Judge Barrett, my moral fire and rhetorical skills identified me as a rising star in the charismatic Christian world.
But there my path diverges from the woman who has been nominated by Donald Trump for a seat on the Supreme Court. In 2010, I cut ties with my community and my adoptive family to escape a fundamentalist group that I had come to see as harmful. Judge Barrett remained in her tradition, and now her star is at its height. As she sat on the dais in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, I saw my face in hers, and I was afraid.
If there is a chance that her particular faith compels her partisanship, the way my old faith did, she should have been asked about it at her confirmation hearing.
People who are unfamiliar with life in a community like People of Praise might ask: If Judge Barrett became so accomplished, does that prove her church’s troubling teachings on women’s roles might not have been so bad? The answer is complex. In my church, women were discouraged from going to college, but a smart girl could avoid being penalized for her secular ambitions as long as the true purpose was “to serve the Lord.”
What this phrase meant was: to serve the movement’s aim to “take back our country for Christ.” This goal was explicitly both religious and political, and to this day it unites many different sects across the Christian Right. While we knew better than to use these terms in public, our mutual purpose was to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy.
As a child, I was taught that the United States was founded, first and foremost, to be a Christian nation. They told me that America had prospered until one terrible day in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale to take prayer—that is, to take God—out of public schools. As the Supreme Court handed down one landmark civil rights decision after another, my community saw each one as an accursed event that took the nation further away from God’s grace.
These fears had germinated almost a decade earlier and were only magnified by issues like school prayer and abortion. While the religious right mobilized most visibly in opposition to women’s equality a few years after Roe v. Wade (1973), it was Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and the court’s subsequent crackdown on private, white “segregation academies” that politicized my former leaders and focused their ire on the Supreme Court. They sought to “retake” the Court in order to do vengeance upon it. And since I was taught that natural disasters are caused by society’s acceptance of homosexuality, I have no doubt that the 2015 Obergefel decision that legalized same-sex marriage was met with lamentation for the imagined horrors that would follow.
By then, I had already left the church. When I became pregnant without being married, in the eyes of my community my rising star fell to the bottom of the sea. I had also begun to doubt what I’d been taught at church about American history. I discovered that not only are Christians not persecuted in America, but that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause also makes our free exercise of religion a model for the world. I learned that most Americans are proud of the civil rights movement and would never want to return to a time when segregation denied Black children an education. I learned that 75 percent of Americans now believe, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did, that women cannot enjoy full equality without the right to decide whether and when to bear a child that Roe v. Wade guarantees. I saw that when an LGBTQ person lives free from violence and discrimination, fire is not brought down from the sky.
I moved to New York City to start a new life. But I have never forgotten the old one, and I see that life in Amy Coney Barrett’s eyes. I fear that she has commitments that remain concealed.
To a former believer like myself, the Barrett nomination is more evidence that the GOP is acting in lockstep with the Christian right. Their president, Donald J. Trump, signed an executive order blocking enforcement of The Johnson amendment, which prohibits religious leaders from using their pulpits to campaign for political candidates. Their Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, appears hell-bent on sabotaging our public education system in order to funnel public funds to religious schools. The charismatic rite of the “laying on of hands” is practiced on the president inside the Oval Office.
Now as they speed Trump’s nominee into the Supreme Court seat they stole, the GOP invokes a sacrosanct division between faith and politics to demand that Barrett’s ties to People of Praise be neither questioned nor discussed. To ask her questions about affiliations that she has tried to hide would constitute religious persecution, they declared, and the Judge’s examiners appeared to obey those terms.
But what if the GOP is not really interested in freedom from persecution, but in the freedom to persecute?
The Establishment Clause is vital to true religious freedom and must be protected. Clearly, we expect that most public servants suffer no conflict in keeping their oaths to the Constitution as they stay true to their private and personal beliefs. But in the charismatic Christian tradition in which I was raised, and then rejected, our political goals and our religious dogma were so interwoven it would have made no sense to me to treat them as distinct.
Amy Coney Barrett is the brightest star of the religious right, the epic hero they have been waiting for for decades. This should not have gone unquestioned or unchallenged.
That Trump’s short-term appointees are working to dismantle their own departments is outrageous enough, but a lifelong appointment to the Supreme Court is even more serious. An opportunity has passed: If there was any chance that Barrett’s mission on the Supreme Court includes a political mandate to destroy it—including one that is wrapped in religious terminology—this confirmation hearing was the people’s chance to find out. A careful questioner could have gotten to the heart of this matter in a way that was not discriminatory. Asking this important question meant facing the fact that our democratic norms and our constitutional protections are in peril.
As someone who was once indoctrinated to subvert our American way of life, I can assure you that the danger is real. The fact that the I find the teachings of the People of Praise distressingly familiar does not mean that Judge Barrett treasures the same goals I once served. But we could have found out if someone had asked her this one, crucial question:
Is America a Christian nation?
If you had put it to me that way, the old me would have answered with the truth.
Rose Thomas Bannister is a singer-songwriter, poet and sommelier. She grew up in Nebraska and now lives in New York City.