Acton Institute Powerblog

‘A different kind of lawyer’: Amy Coney Barrett on Christian vocation

Given the recent passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, public conversation has swirled with speculation about President Donald Trump’s list of potential replacements.

Leading the pack is Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a circuit judge and former Notre Dame law professor, who has attracted significant heat from progressives due to her devout Catholicism, pro-life beliefs, and fondness for originalism. Beginning with Sen. Diane Feinstein’s concern that Barrett’s Roman Catholic “dogma lives loudly within her” – expressed during her confirmation to the circuit court in 2017 – the bigotry has reemerged and seems likely to accelerate.

As part of that hysteria, many have recently taken to hand-wringing over a speech given by Barrett to graduates of Notre Dame Law School in 2006. In the speech, Barrett argued that a “legal career is but a means to an end … and that end is building the kingdom of God,” leading many in the media and Twitterverse to fret about the rise of a theocratic state.

Consider this tweet by The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles and the resulting frenzy of retweets and comments:

However, the speech itself fails to provide any useful tips for hijacking the constitutional order, nor does it outline a strategic path for a top-down theocratic rule. To the contrary, by focusing on Barrett’s actual views on the subject, we can clearly see how a Christian vision for vocation serves to lessen one’s thirst for political power.

In the speech, Barrett simply aims to explain “what it might mean for you to be a different kind of lawyer” – “one who treats his or her career as a means to the end of serving God rather than an end in itself.”

Her remarks are focused specifically on the practice of law, grounded in what she calls “the Notre Dame tradition.” Yet the speech can just as easily serve as a primer for how Christians ought to think about our cultural work and economic service regardless of one’s tradition, industry, or profession.

Given the public’s tendency to misinterpret the speech, I have summarized the key themes below, along with extended excerpts from the speech itself.

1. Good, ethical work is necessary, but it is not enough.

Barrett begins by noting what Christians have in common with others. Our work routinely connects us with diverse peoples in diverse places, unifying our hearts and hands in ways ways that often have little distinctive Christian “flair.” Even still, this is part of our calling: innovating, applying knowledge, learning new skills, and bringing wisdom and moral credibility through the economic avenues and institutions that are already in place.

While there is surely value in performing good and ethical work for the common good, Barrett is quick to remind us that this is hardly the end. It’s actually the beginning:

Sometimes we’re tempted to say that a Notre Dame lawyer is a different kind of lawyer because he or she is an ethical lawyer. But that can’t be right. Our profession is in pretty deep trouble if the only ethical lawyer is the different one. When you leave here, hold yourselves to the highest ethical standards, and be leaders in that regard. But maintaining high ethical standards ought to be something that characterizes our whole profession—not something that causes Notre Dame lawyers to stand apart.

In a similar vein, Andy Crouch recently argued that Christians need to “raise the bar” from simply being the best and most honorable in their fields. “What if we are not in the world just to maintain ethical systems, but to repair systems that have become corrupt, or at least places where we need to ‘beware’?” Crouch asks. “To think this way is to shift from individual choices to systemic responsibility, and it’s also to shift from thinking ethically to thinking redemptively.”

2. All work is valuable — no matter the focus, job, or salary.

Next, Barrett dismantles the notion that certain areas of service are more worthwhile or dignified than others. More specifically, she explains how a “commitment to social justice” need not mean that lawyers prioritize only one type of law over the other – elevating and glorifying “work on behalf of the disadvantaged and oppressed” over “work in the private sector,” for example:

The banner hanging in the main reading room says, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Surely we can expect that, as a Catholic law school, our commitment to social justice will lead a higher-than-average percentage of you to choose to work on behalf of the disadvantaged and oppressed.

We can expect Notre Dame lawyers like my own classmate, Sean Litton, who left a successful and lucrative practice at Kirkland & Ellis to work for a human rights organization with the mission of eliminating sexual trafficking in southeast Asia. Many of you, like my classmate Sean, will work in the public interest sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you. But many of you will work in the private sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you, too. It cannot be that being a different kind of lawyer is defined by the kind of law one practices, for that would leave too many of our graduates out of the definition.

Whereas today’s young people are increasingly encouraged to pursue select careers based on status (e.g., doctor, lawyer, engineer) or “service focus” (e.g., missionary, social worker, community organizer), Barrett reminds us that all work is valuable.

3. Work is ultimately about loving and serving God.

For Barrett, the true distinction of Christian work comes down to where our sights are set. “No matter how exciting any career is, what is it really worth if you don’t make it part of a bigger life project to know, love, and serve the God who made you?” she asks.

Oddly enough, this seems to be where most of the controversy sits. For Barrett, it is not enough for the Christian lawyer to work hard, work well, and work ethically; he or she must also have a selfless heart and put God and others first in all that they do.

This, we are told, is cause for alarm. In a culture prone to turning status and power into idols of prosperity, it is, indeed, a controversial standard:

Keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as Father Jenkins told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.

I think you will find, when you enter the legal profession, that most of your colleagues, by default or by design, treat the legal profession as an end in and of itself. Apart from family, which occasionally exercises a tempering influence, the law is the preeminent force driving the life of a typical lawyer. Legal opportunity is the primary consideration in choosing where to live. Ambition is the primary influence in choosing a job. The average lawyer gives his or her daily routine largely to work, from waking to sleeping. These things are true, by the way, whether the legal job is high paying or not. You have chosen a profession that engages your mind. While there is certainly some drudgery involved—no one likes document review—the practice of law is fun. Be prepared to love it. As a young lawyer, I was surprised by how much I did. It is easy to see how, for so many lawyers, the practice of law quickly becomes an end in itself, for the satisfaction, prestige, or money it brings. Don’t let that happen to you; set your sights higher than that.

The speech concludes with a list of more practical tips, such as praying about the job one takes, tithing to the church and giving to the needy, and participating in the local church. “While we are a community engaged in the enterprise of legal education and scholarship, we are also a community engaged in the enterprise of bringing about the kingdom of God,” she concludes. “We are a community characterized by our love and concern for one another.”

Even with all of this context, we should perhaps be more forgiving of the non-religious reader’s confusion. Lest we forget, Jesus’ own disciples were prone to misinterpret what he truly meant when he spoke of such things. Whereas Jesus pointed to a kingdom not of this world – showing the upside-down economics of creative service – those around Him kept expecting a top-down religious-political revolt, using the same tactics as the oppressive powers of the day.

In Barrett’s remarks, however, the stated “ends” are rather clear. Far from relying on the scepters of political control and base materialism, hers is a perspective focused on faithful, mundane obedience to God and (in turn) love of neighbor across human relationships.

“If you can rise to the challenge, I think you will find your career more satisfying as a result,” she concludes. “The fulfillment at the end of your career will be immeasurably greater if it is a career marked by more than just cases won or deals done.”

Whatever one thinks of Barrett’s thoughts on the Constitution or her moral and intellectual fitness for the Supreme Court, her views on Christian work and service are far from the weak points that her critics portray them. For those worried about opportunistic, power-hungry lawyers reaching the highest court in the land, they may have even found a new ally.

(Photo credit: Judge Barrett at her Investiture Ceremony. CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.