Should We Worry if Amy Coney Barrett Served As A Handmaid? Short Answer: Yes

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Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, served as a “handmaid,” a term used to designate high-ranking female leaders in the “religious community” People of Praise, according to the Associated Press.

Thanks to access to an old directory of group members, AP and Washington Post reporters were able to confirm not only Barrett’s participation in the group but her deep connections to the organization from her father, who was a chapter leader, to her husband.

According to the AP, People of Praise is a religious subgroup organized hierarchically, where the leaders are exclusively men. With about 1800 members in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, the organization has 22 regional branches, where “a select group of women” is entrusted to counsel and offer spiritual guidance to other female members, but never to men.

Once Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel became massively popular, the group decided to stop calling its women members “handmaids” in reference to Jesus’ mother, Mary, who, according to the Bible, called herself “the handmaid of the Lord.”

No, Atwood did not draw directly from the People of Praise for her novel, but she did draw on subgroups with similar dynamics. The leaders lead gender-segregated groups, and they organize themselves weekly between prayers and conversations. According to the organization’s guidelines, no woman leader can provide pastoral supervision to a man, as explained by former members.

Like all religious subgroups, their belief system is a reinterpretation of reinterpretations in this case of the Catholic Pentecostal movement. This includes praying in tongues for divine prophecy, healing the sick, and casting out evil spirits.

As the AP recalls, the People of Praise was founded in 1971 and established as a non-profit organization. As described on its website, it is not a church, but rather “a community of faith” that allows for the participation of people from various Christian denominations.

Barrett’s membership in the group has been confirmed by The Washington Post and other sources by accessing tax returns and back issues of the organization’s magazine, evidencing her involvement and that of her father, who was the senior leader of People of Praise’s New Orleans branch. Her mother also served as a handmaid.

Although Barrett has not disclosed her decades-long affiliation with the organization during her confirmation hearing for a position on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, she did submit to the Senate her list of challenges to cases involving individuals and businesses with which she might have a conflict, including her husband, her law firm and the University of Notre Dame. However, the list includes two other South Bend companies: the Healy Group Inc., a financial services company owned by four People of Praise members, and Great Day LLC, which shares an address and phone number with that company.

Cult, Sect, or Religion?

Let’s be clear right now: neither a cult is a religion, nor religion is a cult, and the separation of faith and politics is a myth. 

Although it may sound blunt, the reality is that since the Catholic Church lost its monopoly on the Faith in the Western world, the drift of small groups or “communities of Faith” such as the People of Praise has been increasing, permeating all social spheres.

Research and treatises such as those of sociologist Max Weber have explained for more than a century the basic premise of the continuum into which religions fall, encompassing both Protestant subgroups who consider the traditional church “deviant” from the “original” religion, and less controversial groups.

The fact is that there is a gap between a church in its original concept (such as Catholicism or Islam, for example) and the denominations (the religious pluralism that mutates between Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans…), and between a church and a sect (defined as a deviation from a denomination).

Cults, on the other hand, tend to be more mystically-oriented, like Scientology, for example, or Transcendental Meditation.

And the United States has always been fertile ground for such organizations.

When Weber visited the country in the early 20th century, his observations were as accurate as they could be today:

“The tremendous flood of social structures which penetrate every nook and cranny of American life is constituted in accordance with the schema of the [religious] ‘sect,'” he wrote in his 1906 essay Churches and Sects in North America.

The Risk of a Sect Member on the Supreme Court

Together with his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, Max Weber defined the church-cult typology as young religious groups that “protest” the mother religion, arguing apostasy or heresy. They are often radical opponents of liberal tendencies and are convinced that they are in possession of the only truth.

In the case of People of Praise, as reported by the New York Times in September 2017, members of the group take a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to each other, and are assigned to and accountable to a personal advisor, called “head” for men and “servant” for women. The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and must assume authority over the family.

Current and former members say that the chiefs and handmaids give instructions about important decisions, such as who to date or marry, where to live, whether to take a job or buy a house and how to raise children.

Legal scholars said that such loyalty oaths could raise legitimate questions about a judicial nominee’s independence and impartiality. In interviews, the scholars said that while there certainly was no religious test for office, it would have been relevant for the senators to examine what it means for a judicial nominee to make an oath to a group that could wield significant authority over its members’ lives.

“These groups can become so absorbing that it’s difficult for a person to retain individual judgment,” said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t think it’s discriminatory or hostile to religion to want to learn more” about her relationship with the group.

Craig S. Lent, one of the organization’s leaders, told the Times, “We don’t try to control people. And there’s never any guarantee that the leader is always right. You have to discern and act in the Lord.”

He later added, “If and when members hold political offices, or judicial offices, or administrative offices, we would certainly not tell them how to discharge their responsibilities.”

However, ideas deeply rooted in this type of sect could cut through some laws that are already openly contested by the Republican Party.

According to Newsweek, one former member, Emily DeClerq Flannery, told The Tribune that she was thrown out of the group for dating a male member.

She also said that she had gotten into trouble with the group for drinking alcohol and that women in a group meeting had reported her when she spoke about her coming to terms with her sexuality.

“They’re very watchful of their people. They report things to your heads if they see you out doing things you’re not supposed to be doing. It’s very much a Big Brother type of thing,” she said.

Similarly, Lent told The Tribune that any person who admits to homosexual activity, or any other “ongoing, deliberate, unrepentant wrongdoing,” would be expelled.

People of Praise believes that only married couples should have sex, and that marriage is only between a man and a woman, Lent added.

Not surprisingly, the group is also against abortion, and Barrett herself signed a 2006 newspaper ad sponsored by an anti-abortion group indicating she opposed “abortion on demand” and defended “the right to life from fertilization to the end of natural life,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The confirmation of President Trump’s nominee is almost inevitable, as is the risk to iconic laws such as Roe v. Wade and the right to equal marriage.

Her arrival on the Supreme Court is not only an insult to the memory of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg but a threat to the survival of the feminist movement itself.