Earlier this month, the Trump administration summoned two dozen religious leaders to a private meeting. The mission: to rally support for Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
According to several participants, White House staffers emphasized Gorsuch’s robust defense of religious rights as a judge on the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals. In one prominent decision, Gorsuch argued that the government should rarely, if ever, coerce the consciences of believers.
Eventually, the conversation turned to Gorsuch’s own religious background.
He was raised Catholic but now worships with his wife and two daughters at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. Like the city, the congregation is politically liberal. It bars guns from its campus and installed solar panels; it condemns harsh rhetoric about Muslims and welcomes gays and lesbians. And its rector, the Rev. Susan Springer, attended the Women’s March in Denver, though not as a form of protest but as a sign of support for “the dignity of every human being.”
Springer says St. John’s is carrying out the covenant Episcopalians recite during baptisms: to strive for justice and peace among all people. Her congregation, she added, includes liberals, conservatives and all political points in between.
“What binds us together as one body is a curiosity and longing to encounter and know God,” she wrote in an email to CNN, “a willingness to explore our own interior selves, and a desire to leave the world in some small way better for our having been in it.”
As Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation hearings approach this week, some hardline conservatives have raised concerns about his choice of church.
“Be advised,” blared a tweet from Bryan Fischer, a host on the American Family Radio Network. “Gorsuch attends a church that is rabidly pro-gay, pro-Muslim, pro-green, and anti-Trump.”
“Is Gorsuch a secret liberal?” asked an op-ed in The Hill, a Washington newspaper.
Another columnist argued that if conservatives complained about Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, shouldn’t they also grumble about Gorsuch’s?
At the meeting in Washington, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House, administration officials encouraged the religious leaders to push back against such questions. St. John’s is one of only two Episcopal churches in Boulder, and the other caters to students at the University of Colorado, they said, according to people who attended the meeting. Anyway, Gorsuch should be judged on his judicial opinions, not his pastor’s politics, they argued.
Many Catholics and evangelicals agree, pointing to Gorsuch’s sterling conservative credentials. He is a lifelong Republican and a member of the Federalist Society, a leading conservative legal organization. He has written a scholarly book arguing against assisted suicide and openly admires the late Antonin Scalia, the justice he would replace, a hero to the conservative intellectual elite.
But in the black-and-white world of partisan politics, Gorsuch’s writings and religious life show several strands of gray.
He studied with an eminent Catholic philosopher but attends a progressive Episcopal parish. He has defended the religious rights not only of Christian corporations but also of Muslims and Native Americans. He has thought deeply about morality, but says judges have no right to impose their views on others. He is hailed as the fulfillment of President Trump’s pledge to pick a “pro-life” justice, but has no judicial record on abortion itself.
Even Gorsuch’s own religion is somewhat of a gray area.
If confirmed by the Senate, would Gorsuch be the high court’s only Protestant justice, or its sixth Catholic? His close friends and family offer different answers to that question.
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