In this past Sunday’s New York Times a story appeared noting that the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor would result in the sixth sitting Catholic on the High Court. The article was most noteworthy for what it didn’t really say – namely, that few people are really much interested in this aspect of Sotomayor’s “identity” because it doesn’t seem germane to the current identity issues at play. According to the article, Sotomayor is not particularly an observant Catholic (it seems she is the sort who attends Church on occasional Easters and baptisms), and few if any on the Left or Right think it is a relevant factor in her background (though, perhaps this is the source of nervousness among some on the Left who fret about her stance on abortion, though they are prudent enough not to attribute this concern about her Catholicism out loud).
The article notes that, while she was raised Catholic, she is not seen to be particularly orthodox, and further that there are a variety of views within the Catholic church itself. This seems to be an acknowledgement that bears no further commentary or reflection on the part of the Times writer, though it’s interesting to reflect that while it’s sufficient to point out the variety of views within Catholicism, it’s well understood what is meant by referring to the relevance of Judge Sotomayor’s identity as an Hispanic. That there may be differences in viewpoint among women, or Hispanics, or Hispanic women, for that matter, is hardly worth considering: whatever makes her “experience” relevant to her supporters is supportable only to the extent that it lines up with pre-approved jurisprudential and interpretive positions. That there is “variety” within the designated group “Hispanic women” is not worth mentioning, since it’s only one iteration of that “identity” that is deemed to be acceptable.
That said – what if her Catholicism were relevant? What if she were to come out in the next few days and acknowledge that her Catholicism – though very personal to her – was deeply formative and it was the lens through which she would make judgments on the bench. Imagine if she were to say the following: “I would hope that a wise Catholic woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a secular male who hasn’t lived that life.” One can imagine the uproar that would attend such a statement – yet it would be as absolutely true reflection of her “life experience” as her Hispanicness and her woman-ness. Why is her “identity” as a Latina woman acceptable to the Left, whereas a stated identity as a Catholic – if expressed so explicitly – would automatically disqualify her for consideration?
Let me quote (as I’ve quoted on other occasions, elsewhere) from an essay by my teacher and mentor, Wilson Carey McWilliams, whose perceptiveness on this matter, I think, gets to the bottom of why some groups matter in liberal society:
“Notably, the groups that [liberal reformers] recognize are all defined by biology. In liberal theory, where our ‘nature’ means our bodies, these are ‘natural’ groups opposed to ‘artificial’ bonds like communities of work and culture. This does not mean that liberalism values these ‘natural’ groups. Quite the contrary: since liberal political society reflects the effort to overcome or master nature, liberalism argues that ‘merely natural’ differences ought not to be held against us. We ought not to be held back by qualities we did not choose and that do not reflect our individual efforts and abilities. [Reformers] recognize women, racial minorities, and the young only in order to free individuals from ‘suspect classifications.’
“Class and culture are different. People are part of ethnic communities or the working class because they chose not to pursue individual success and assimilation into the dominant, middle-class culture, or because they were unable to succeed. Liberal theory values individuals who go their own way, and by the same token, it esteems those who succeed in that quest more highly than individuals who do not. Ethnicity and class [and, one might add, religion], consequently, are marks of shame in liberal theory, and whatever discrimination people suffer is, in some sense, their ‘own fault.’ We may feel compassion for the failures, but they have no just cause for equal representation, unlike individuals who suffer discrimination for ‘no fault of their own.'”
[“Politics” (American Quarterly, v. 35, Spring/Summer 1983, v. 1&2, p. 27)]
Sotomayor’s “experience” as an Hispanic woman matters because it’s overcoming or elimination will lead to the triumph of liberal individualism – that is, its irrelevance. Her Catholicism – to the extent it were relevant – is odious to the extent that it is an obstacle to the fruition of liberal individualism. Some experience is relevant because its ultimate aim is to be irrelevant; other experience is objectionable because people should know better than to stand athwart history. Thus one sees how the deepest liberal assumptions are built into the fabric of what is deemed to matter. Unless that can be perceived clearly, we are already arguing on ground that has been defined by the deepest liberal assumptions.