The two cases contrast in important ways.
Senator Dianne Feinstein infamously sneered that “the dogma lives loudly in” Amy Coney Barrett during the hearings on the latter’s confirmation to an appeals court, and added, “and that’s of concern.” A lot of people, not just on the right and not just Barrett’s fellow Catholics, objected. But while there was a widespread sense that Feinstein had acted badly, not everyone was precise in articulating what she had done wrong.
Feinstein’s defenders minimized what she had done, saying that it was fine for the senator to raise questions about Barrett’s views on the relationship between faith and judging. Some Barrett supporters made it easier to mount that defense by saying, too broadly, that it was wrong even to raise such questions. But Barrett herself had written about that relationship, so the topic was within bounds. And it is hypothetically possible for someone’s views about it to be relevant to his ability to do the job. If, for example, a judicial nominee believed in a “living Constitution” and thought its ambiguities should be resolved by consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, senators would be right to take that into account when voting on confirmation.
Feinstein’s real offense — leaving aside the nasty tone in referring to someone’s religion — was to treat Barrett’s strong faith as an indicator that she could not perform the job of a judge in applying the law, even though she had never said or written anything remotely comparable to our hypothetical. Feinstein’s office compounded this offense by, e.g., reading something sinister into Barrett’s use of the phrase “the kingdom of God”: a misreading that it would have taken minimal effort to avoid, and one that came in the context of Feinstein’s demonstrated bias.
Voters evaluating a politician are in a somewhat different position from senators evaluating a judge. Because judges ought to apply the law while legislators make it, a broader range of questions about prospective legislators’ beliefs are fair game. Even here, though, there are bounds. It would be wrong — bigoted, intolerant — to vote or argue against a Jewish candidate for Congress on the ground that he denies that salvation comes through Jesus Christ.
In recent days, Republicans have raised objections to Raphael Warnock, a Baptist pastor and a Democratic nominee for the Senate from Georgia, based on remarks of his that straddle the categories of religion and politics. A recent NRO editorial went through some of them: Warnock has likened Israel to East Germany and South Africa, and praised Jeremiah Wright’s infamous “God Damn America” sermon. The uproar intensified when it came out that Warnock had given a sermon including the line, “America, nobody can serve God and the military.”
Warnock then said, “You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day who you will serve. Choose ye this day.” The Warnock campaign says that the comment about the military is an allusion to Matthew 6:24, which is obviously true, and that the pastor was merely making the point that nothing — not money, not the military, nothing — should be set in the place of God in the minds and lives of Christians. David French has defended that snippet of Warnock’s sermon on that ground: “As I read Warnock’s statement, it’s a fairly conventional statement of Christian belief.”
That’s the charitable reading, and it is plausible. But it is not obvious. It would be equally valid to say, “You cannot serve God and the Democratic Party,” or “the NAACP,” or “your family” in the sense that the Warnock campaign and French are suggesting. Maybe Warnock said something like that: So far, only a clip starting with the controversial sentence has been in circulation. Without that context, it is reasonable to wonder whether Warnock was saying that there is something particularly problematic about serving the military. Since we don’t have the context, though, it is better to err on the side of charity.
French makes some other arguments about Warnock that strike me as mistaken. He suggests that the conservative criticism of Warnock’s religious views is equivalent to Senator Feinstein’s criticism of Barrett. But Barrett was criticized for being too religious (a “fundamentalist,” as Chris Cuomo put it on CNN), for belonging to a particular religious organization, and for making statements that were taken out of context. Warnock is instead being criticized for specific comments he has made, some of them impossible to misinterpret, such as his praise of Wright.
French further writes that even if Warnock were a pacifist, it would be wrong, and hypocritical, for conservatives and Republicans to demand he leave the race on the ground that “his theology and his sermons are outside of the mainstream.” He points out that a lot of conservative Christian beliefs are not especially mainstream these days, either, and are getting less so.
A Christian pacifist’s views would of course be relevant to his suitability for federal legislative office. Since those views are relevant, it is within bounds to criticize them. Since it is within bounds to criticize them, it is within bounds to criticize them harshly. Since it is acceptable to say that people should not vote for him, it is acceptable to say that he should be so far outside the consideration of voters that he should not even run. I don’t think any distinction in principle can be made here; these are just differences of degree.
French suggests, rightly, that it wouldn’t matter if our politician rooted his pacifism in religion or philosophy. But none of Warnock’s critics care whether he is hostile to military service on religious ground or some other ground; they say he is hostile to it, and that’s what they’re attacking him for. If they are wrong to say he is hostile because they misunderstood or are twisting the sermon, that’s what they should be criticized for — not some violation of the etiquette of religious pluralism.