Amy Coney Barrett, Handmaids and Empathy for the Unfamiliar | Opinion

I occasionally teach an undergraduate seminar on religion and politics in which I show the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. It's a striking film that raises some hard-hitting and unsettling questions about certain Christian fundamentalist practices involving religious education and the training of children. Nothing illegal, but by many accounts manipulative. And for most of my students watching the film, definitely weird.

One of my favorite moments as a teacher came when a Jewish student in the class shared her reaction to the film: "I kept thinking as I was watching what someone would have said if they had visited the Jewish summer camp that I attended growing up. We had prayers and rituals that felt normal to me but would have looked bizarre from the outside."

I wish some of the politicians and pundits weighing in on Judge Amy Coney Barrett's religious practices could display half the empathy of my student. They could start with the basic recognition that many religious practices seem unfamiliar, weird and even threatening to outsiders. Catholics believe that the Eucharist transforms consecrated bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Mormons baptize proxies for the dead. Some Jewish and Christian sects conduct exorcisms. All of these practices can be easily caricatured, ridiculed and othered.

Judge Barrett encountered an initial round of uncharitable critiques of her faith during her 2017 confirmation as a federal appellate judge. Most memorably, Senator Diane Feinstein ominously suggested to Judge Barrett during her confirmation hearings: "The dogma lives loudly within you." Shortly thereafter, some commentators began scrutinizing Judge Barrett's affiliation with an ecumenical group called the People of Praise. The commentary at the time expressed particular concern that the group required "covenants" that made members "accountable" to advisers known as "heads" (for men) and, until recently, "handmaids" (for women).

Juicy stuff—or at least, it would be if it weren't entirely commonplace across a variety of religious practices. I've taken a membership vow with every church I've joined. In the Presbyterian church, I vowed to "submit" myself to the "authority" of the "ruling elders" and recognized that I would in some cases be subject to "church discipline." Tens of millions of religious believers in this country make similar commitments. The words and terminology vary across different faiths and denominations, but the concepts are similar. They are also intuitive for many religious adherents. Trusted relationships often follow from commitments made to one another. Constraints on our lives and the choices we make can bring freedom and joy. Submission to the wisdom and counsel of others can help avoid missteps and a great deal of heartache.

The sun rises behind a stone cross atop the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Robert Alexander/Getty

The accountability structure of the People of Praise has caused particular angst in some circles. Is federal judge and tenured law professor Amy Barrett able to make decisions on her own, or do secret powerful voices (handmaids!) instruct her what to do? Is she the Manchurian Candidate?

I'm pretty sure that Judge Barrett can speak for herself, but it's worth noting that communal discernment is not a fringe practice. Many religious faiths have relational structures that invite critical questions about one's motives, priorities and decisions. Like the accountability relationships within People of Praise, these structures are rooted in trusted friendships rather than domineering authority. They solicit advice rather than binding commands. In fact, non-religious groups like the twelve-step support program have similar dynamics. Opening one's life to the counsel of others on important matters is a feature, not a bug, of many human relationships and communities.

Of course, any of these practices can be misused or abused. Religious and non-religious institutions alike have sometimes capitalized on secrecy and obscurity to harm their members. Women and children have been particularly vulnerable to such abuses. And when these abuses occur in a liberal society, we rightly press for justice and change. But it would be a grave mistake to assume that stories of abuse permeate the everyday practices of most religious Americans.

One way to protect against assuming the worst of our fellow citizens is to work toward charitable descriptions of one another's practices. We might consider that for Christians, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is not simply an opportunity to "drink my little wine ... and have my little cracker," but a profound spiritual and bodily remembrance that "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." We could remember that Muslim prayers are not empty rituals but vital reminders of one's daily connection to God. We could recognize that Jewish holy days are not excuses to take time off from work or school but opportunities to connect with expressions of faith that build on centuries of practice.

My friend Eboo Patel reminds us in his book Out of Many Faiths that the United States is "the most religiously devout nation in the West, and the most religiously diverse country in the world, at a time of religious tension, conflict, and crisis." Eboo then asks the question: "How do we affirm and extend the ethic that welcoming religiously diverse people, nurturing positive relations among them, and facilitating their contributions to the nation is part of the definition of America?" When it comes to the religious practices of our fellow citizens, the answer to that question begins with a commitment to empathy and charity rather than bigotry or ignorance.

John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.