This Monday, confirmation hearings began for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, bringing a nationwide microscope to her judicial record and personal background. Democrats have already labeled Barrett—a conservative judge who’s criticized abortion and a Supreme Court decision concerning the Affordable Care Act—as the antithesis to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the legal and feminist icon whose seat Barrett could fill.
Some are also looking to Barrett’s religious background to understand how it might affect her jurisprudence. During her 2017 confirmation hearing to become a federal judge on the 7th Circuit Court, Barrett said, “If you’re asking whether I take my faith seriously and I’m a faithful Catholic, I am. Although I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge.”
However, one thing Barrett has not spoken about publicly is her involvement in the conservative Christian group People of Praise, which has been gaining new attention in light of Barrett’s nomination. What exactly is People of Praise, and what is Barrett’s role in the group? Below, all you need to know.
What is People of Praise?
Founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, People of Praise describes itself as “a charismatic Christian community.” The New York Times reports that the group believes in “prophecy, speaking in tongues and divine healings.” It is ecumenical, though a majority of People of Praise members are Catholic, and members are expected to continue to attend their own church services and contribute five percent of their income to the group. Many members also “choose to make a lifelong commitment to the community,” otherwise referred to as a covenant. People of Praise’s website states there are about 1,700 members in 22 cities across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
In People of Praise, younger men and women are often assigned a “head,” a member of the group of the same sex, to act as a mentor and guide. However, when married, a husband typically takes over as the “head” for his wife. Some former members have recounted darker stories of expected female submission, as well as shunning for those who left the group.
According to Rolling Stone, former member Adrian Reimers wrote in his book Not Reliable Guides that a married woman in People of Praise is “expected always to reflect the fact that she is under her husband’s authority.” He wrote, “This goes beyond an acknowledgment that the husband is ‘head of the home’ or head of the family; he is, in fact, her personal pastoral head. Whatever she does requires at least his tacit approval.” Newsweek reports that Reimers also wrote that the “sacrifice represented by making the covenant of the People of Praise is taken seriously.”
Some members also take part in communal living, and according to the Guardian, Barrett lived in the home of one of the founders of People of Praise while attending law school.
How is Barrett connected to People of Praise?
Barrett has not spoken publicly about her involvement in People of Praise, though it’s widely reported that both she and her family are connected to the group. The Associated Press reports that Barrett’s father, Michael Coney Sr., was the principal leader of People of Praise’s New Orleans branch and, as recently as 2017, served on the group’s all-male Board of Governors. Her mother, Linda Coney, has also served in the group. (Both are reported to be registered Democrats.)
According to the Washington Post, Barrett did disclose that she served on the board of directors of Trinity Schools, a group of independent Christian schools, though she did not mention that Trinity is linked to People of Praise and its members. (Politico reports that the school publishes a “cultural statement,” and a version of the statement from the 2018-19 school year said “the only proper place for human sexual activity is marriage, where marriage is a legal and committed relationship between one man and one woman.”)
Sean Connolly, a spokesman for People of Praise, told the Post: “Like many religious communities, People of Praise leaves it up to its members to decide whether to publicly disclose their involvement in our community.”
The AP reviewed 15 years of back issues of the organization’s internal magazine, “which has published birth announcements, photos and other mentions of Barrett and her husband, Jesse, whose family has been active in the group for four decades.” In 2017, the same year Barrett was first shortlisted for a Supreme Court spot, People of Praise “erased numerous records from its website” that “referred to Barrett and included photos of her and her family,” according to the AP. More records disappeared when she came up on the shortlist again this year.
In response, Connolly told the outlet, “Recent changes to our website were made in consultation with members and nonmembers from around the country who raised concerns about their and their families’ privacy due to heightened media attention.”
Thomas Csordas, an anthropology professor at University of California San Diego who has studied charismatic Christian communities, spoke to the AP and said while communities like these are conservative, authoritarian, and patriarchal, he didn’t think the group’s leaders would “exert influence over Barrett’s judicial decisions.” Csordas also told Newsweek: “They think the Bible says men should be leaders; originally women could have some authority over other women but not in the community as a whole, though my impression is that this has moderated somewhat over time. Women are subordinate to their husbands in the sense that the man has the final word, but not that the woman must be silent.”
Barrett has previously been open about her partnership with her husband. In her remarks after being nominated, she said, “I could not manage this very full life without the unwavering support of my husband, Jesse. At the start of our marriage, I imagined that we would run our household as partners. As it has turned out, Jesse does far more than his share of the work.”
But what about the covenant?
Connolly told Politico: “After a multi-year period of prayer and discernment, many People of Praise members choose to make a permanent commitment called a covenant. The covenant of the People of Praise is a promise of love and service we choose to make to one another. The covenant is not an oath or a vow. Our covenant is a commitment to be there for one another for the long run, to support one another through thick and thin, through all of life’s seasons.”
The AP reports that the covenant states, “We agree to obey the direction of the Holy Spirit manifested in and through these ministries in full harmony with the church,” and while it’s unconfirmed whether Barrett took the covenant, it’s rare for longtime members not to.
Is People of Praise connected to The Handmaid’s Tale?
The Post reports that in a 2010 People of Praise directory, Barrett was listed as holding the title of a “handmaid,” the name for a leadership position for women in the group. The name is reported to be taken from the Bible’s description of Mary as “the handmaid of the Lord.”
Connolly said in a 2018 statement that the “handmaid” title was dropped in recent years since its meaning had “shifted dramatically in our culture,” most likely referring to The Handmaid’s Tale television show that was adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name.
According to Politico, Atwood read “news reports about women’s rights and religious fundamentalism” while researching her novel, including a report about a different charismatic Catholic group that used the term “Handmaiden.” Atwood told the outlet she wasn’t sure if People of Praise helped inspire her book, saying that her research notes are housed at the University of Toronto. She said in a statement: “Unless I can go back into the clippings file, I hesitate to say anything specific.”
What have former members said about the group?
ELLE.com spoke with a former People of Praise member, who describes the group as being tight-knit and adhering to traditional gender roles. (She requested not to be named for the privacy of her family.) She first got involved with People of Praise through her husband, whom she met in college. When they decided to get married, People of Praise put together a potluck for their wedding reception. “The sense of community is what’s really, really attractive about People of Praise,” she says. But, she notes, that can be a “double-edged sword.” She says, “Some members don’t form strong friendships outside of People of Praise. The result can be, if you leave, you’re leaving all of that. I’ve never heard of any intentional shunning practices, but you’re still leaving.” Especially for larger branches that have their own schools, she says, “It really becomes your entire life pretty easily.”
She and her husband went “underway” with People of Praise, which she describes as a type of trial membership. She learned that if you’re a member and single, you’re supposed to get permission from your “head” to date, which she found surprising. She describes the “heads” as being “responsible for guiding you, so they actually do get to make some decisions for you. What that looks like is really going to depend a lot on the person, but also, to a certain extent, on the branch.” She also learned how when a woman gets married, her spiritual head becomes her husband: “I asked about it, and I was told that you couldn’t have divided lines of authority.” The two left People of Praise when they moved to a city without a branch in order to attend graduate school. She says it offered a “graceful way” to leave.
When it comes to the Supreme Court nomination, she says the group’s approach to gender norms gives her pause when considering that Barrett could be replacing Ginsburg’s seat on the court. She also believes the public deserves to know about the covenant Barrett most likely took. “What has surprised me is the lack of transparency,” she adds. “If Barrett believes the group does not present a problem and she has nothing to hide, she should be transparent about what’s in the covenant and what she believes about the headship structure in regards to gender. For a group that is so excited about the work they’re doing, it’s surprising to me that they’re not interested in sharing that and that their leadership seems so tightlipped.”
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