The Pulse

Say what? GOP senator tries to interrogate Biden nominee from NC on whether he believes in God

By: - August 2, 2021 6:00 am
Sen. John Kennedy (R – LA.)

Hampton Dellinger

The first 10 words of the very first amendment to the United States Constitution that all members of Congress are sworn to uphold reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly clear in recent decades that large swaths of the modern political right don’t take that prohibition very seriously. Back in 2008, then-U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole tried, without success thankfully, to impose a religious test on her opponent during that year’s election campaign — the late Kay Hagan.

And, of course, in recent years, as the political and religious right have in many ways all but merged, the efforts to involve government in the direct support of religious institutions — in everything from public education to health care to social services — has only mushroomed.

That said, we’ve mostly been spared of the noxious phenomenon of government officials attempting in their official capacity to place religious tests on would be public servants.

But not last week.

As Mark Joseph Stern reported on Slate last Thursday, Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana walked down this very troubling and dangerous path during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last week when he questioned the religious beliefs of Hampton Dellinger — a North Carolina attorney whom President Biden nominated to head of Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. This is from Stern’s report:

An outspoken progressive, Dellinger surely expected Republican senators to grill him about his past political tweets on controversial topics, including abortion. He probably did not expect these senators to ask about his religious beliefs, which the Constitution expressly forbids. But that’s what GOP Sen. John Kennedy did during a startling exchange in which the lawmaker asked Dellinger: “Do you believe in God?”

Kennedy’s question arose in the context of a tweet in which Dellinger asserted that male Republican politicians are the driving force behind abortion restrictions. “If there were no Republican men in elected office,” he tweeted, “there would be no abortion bans.” Kennedy read this tweet aloud, then asked Dellinger: “Do you think that my votes with respect to abortion are based on the fact that I want to control women?” When Dellinger responded that he “cannot speak to that,” the senator responded: “Then why’d you say it in front of God and country?” Dellinger told the senator that, to his mind, the Supreme Court’s decisions protecting reproductive rights “are important.” After further back-and-forth, Kennedy asked the nominee whether he believed in God. When Dellinger told him that “I have faith, I believe,” the senator shot back: “A lot of people have faith. Did it ever occur to you that some people may base their position on abortion on their faith?”

As Stern went on to note:

…Grilling a nominee about their past tweets is certainly fair game at a Senate confirmation hearing, even if Kennedy spent the better part of four years pretending not to see Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. The obvious problem here is the senator’s demand that Dellinger tell him, under oath, whether he believes in God.

Whether or not Kennedy’s question crossed the line as a matter of constitutional law, it certainly qualifies as an impermissible religious test under Republicans’ own standards.

In a memo directed at Senator Kennedy, Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation for Church and State put it this way:

Let’s be clear about this: Whether Dellinger worships one god, five gods, 20 gods or no god has no bearing on his ability to be a lawyer for the U.S. government. Asking people about their religious beliefs during a job interview is illegal in most instances – and it’s certainly inappropriate for a government position.

What’s even more galling is that Kennedy was one of the GOP senators who went ballistic in 2017 after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Amy Coney Barrett, who at that time was under consideration for a federal judgeship, some admittedly clumsily worded questions about how her religious beliefs might affect her rulings.

Guess what? If Kennedy believes it wasn’t all right for Feinstein to question Barrett about her faith, it’s not all right for Kennedy to do it to Dellinger. There’s a word for believing that it is, as Laser noted yesterday – “hypocrisy.”

As aside, it’s worth noting that one of Dellinger’s senators, Thom Tillis, spoke up forcefully in favor of the nomination. One would hope Tillis would now muster the courage to push back more generally against the theocrats who’ve come to dominate his party, but we’re not holding our breath on that one.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.