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November 14, 2018

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OPINION:

The Supreme temptation of Amy Coney Barrett

There’s little that President Donald Trump loves more than cementing his supporters’ adoration of him while making his foes squirm. Nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court would do both. She’s not just a staunch conservative over whom Republicans and Democrats would wage a familiar fight. She’s the prompt for an all-out culture war.

I can almost see the president licking his chops.

Since the announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement last week, Barrett, a judge on the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, has emerged as a front-runner for his seat. She was one of four finalists interviewed by Trump on Monday, when CBS News, without specifying its source or sources, identified her as one of two leading contenders. The other was Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Many conservatives are lobbying ardently on her behalf. Ramesh Ponnuru made a point-by-point case for her in a column for Bloomberg. Matthew Walther did the same in The Week. There’s plenty more elsewhere, and to wade through it is to realize, quickly, that the push for Barrett isn’t based solely on her credentials. It’s also based on the kind of debate about her that conservatives prophesy.

Barrett, you see, talks readily and proudly about her Catholicism, making no bones about its presence at the center of her life. She and her husband have seven children, two of whom are adopted. She belongs to a mostly Catholic group, People of Praise, whose members make an especially intense commitment to their faith.

And Republicans expect — and want — liberals to be so freaked out by this that they oppose her in a manner that can be branded anti-religious. They’re setting her up to be a Christian martyr, minus the grisly end, and daring Democrats to take the bait.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake sagely sized up the appeal of this dynamic to Trump, writing that it’s “exactly the kind of battle he generally relishes: One that invites his opponents to overreach.” My Times colleague Ross Douthat tweeted that if Trump wants to “trigger the libs,” he’ll nominate Barrett. Douthat further predicted that her nomination “might bring on the culture-war apocalypse.”

She’s the most tactically fascinating of the front-runners in several ways. At 46, she’s the youngest, so her time on the court could easily cover four decades. She’s a longtime resident of Indiana, which happens to be home to Joe Donnelly, one of three Democratic senators whose votes are most clearly in play when it comes to confirming Trump’s nominee. Trump won Indiana handily in 2016, and Donnelly is up for re-election in November. He’d be nervous about blocking any of the president’s picks for the court. He might be doubly nervous about blocking Barrett.

In terms of experience, she’d be an atypical nominee. She’d be the only justice on the Supreme Court without the imprimatur of the Ivy League, and there’s little whiff of the coastal elites about her. She did her undergraduate work at Rhodes College in Tennessee and then attended law school at Notre Dame, where she subsequently taught for more than a decade, up until her appointment to the circuit court last year. While she clerked long ago for Justice Antonin Scalia, her own time on the bench is limited to her eight months on that court.

But her promoters revel openly in the idea of Roe v. Wade being overturned after the addition of another woman to a Supreme Court that would then have an almost even gender balance of four women and five men.

And her Senate confirmation hearings after her nomination for the circuit court made her a hero to conservatives, especially religious ones. They took issue in particular with questions that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Barrett about whether she could properly separate her fidelity to Catholic tenets from her duty to interpret the law for all Americans.

“The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said, inelegantly, drawing censure from people on various points of the political spectrum. Her concern was just. But the response to the way that she expressed it illustrated the perils of seeming to equate people with, and measure them by, their creeds. That’s as wrong as expecting someone to adhere to a certain faith.

Barrett should be measured by the legal perspectives that she has articulated in public remarks and scholarly journals. Those have persuaded her backers that she can be depended on to sweep aside Roe v. Wade and to toe the conservative line on other issues. Democrats should be equally convinced, and should confront her, fiercely, on those grounds.

That’s what Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, did in five tweets about Barrett on Monday. Not one mentioned religion. He didn’t want to feed the troll in the White House the meal of his choosing. I hope others in the party can muster the same discipline.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.