Religion, particularly Catholicism, is becoming more and more of an issue for government and judicial nominees, as congressional members appear to mistake freedom of religion with freedom from religion.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings for President Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general: William Barr. While many in the media latched on to Barr’s comments regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, they overlooked other newsworthy moments. Those included a Louisiana senator questioning Barr about his faith.
Like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Barr is a “practicing Catholic,” Fox News editor Gregg Re remarked on Monday of the lawyer who has served as attorney general before, under the first Bush administration. And, according to Catholic News Agency, Barr is also a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.
That’s significant because Democratic senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California recently made headlines after suggesting that a federal judicial nominee, Brian Buescher, “recuse” himself from the Knights. They cited the group’s “extreme positions” – which are the Catholic Church’s positions – on marriage and abortion.
In what appeared to be a reaction to the two Democrats, Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana questioned Barr about being Catholic. A few media members tweeted about the exchange as it happened.
Fox News host Shannon Bream shared, “SenKennedy asks Barr if he’s Catholic and whether that should disqualify him. Kennedy says ‘some of my colleagues might think so.’”
Chris Johnson, a Washington Blade reporter, quoted Barr as saying in response, “You render unto Caesar, and you render unto God. I believe in the separation of church and state.”
Rewire writer Jessica Mason Pieklo also noted that “Kennedy asks if being Roman Catholic disqualifies Barr from serving from government as ‘some of my colleagues’ have suggested.’”
Here’s the full, albeit brief, transcript of Sen. Kennedy asking Barr about his faith:
Sen. Kennedy: “You’re Roman Catholic, are you not?”
Barr: “Yes, I am.”
Sen. Kennedy: “Do you think that disqualifies you from serving in the United States government?”
Barr: “I don’t think so, no.”
Sen. Kennedy: “Why is that?”
Barr: “Why doesn’t it disqualify me?”
Sen. Kennedy: “Mhmm. Some of my colleagues think it might.”
Barr: “Because you render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and under God that which is God[‘s], and I believe in the separation of Church and State and I – if there was something that was against my conscience, I wouldn’t impose it on others, I would resign my office.”
Sen. Kennedy: “I think it’s called freedom of religion, if I recall.”
Barr: “Yes. That’s right.”
The Louisiana Republican isn’t the only politician calling attention to remarks like that of Democratic senators Harris and Hirono. Democrats have chimed in too. In a Jan. 8 piece for The Hill, Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii called out the “religious bigotry.” And Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois told the National Catholic Register in a Jan. 10 piece that “It’s terrible to see membership in the Knights of Columbus questioned like that.”
Even so, Barr was ready with a religious answer for a religious question: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. His response came from the well-known Bible story, in Matthew 12:17, when Pharisees and Herodians try to trick Jesus by asking if they must pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus points to a coin, asking “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
When they respond, “Caesar’s,” Jesus teaches, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Citizens can return worldly things, like money imprinted with government images, to their officials. But at the same time, human persons, made in the image of God, should give back to God what is God’s.