The role of People of Praise in South Bend, IN

A closer (and local) look at the religious group of SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barrett

Readers, I am a Hoosier. I’m from central Indiana, and my relatives are from the southern part of the state known as “Kentuckiana.” I grew up in a town of 16,000 and was regularly called a “city boy” when I would visit my cousins. Even though we only lived two hours away, there was a cultural chasm. Somehow, I was from the North and they were from the South.

I had already been thinking about this when I asked this question on Twitter over the weekend:

The point being: the Midwest is more complicated than it seems to outsiders, and its nuances have never really been captured in mass media the way other regions have - but let me cut my Midwestern grievance off at the pass. *Grumbles at “coastal elites” calling us “flyover country.”*

One such example of the “surprising” complexity of Midwestern states like Indiana can be found in this excellent article by Adam Wren in POLITICO. Adam is a friend, fellow Indiana Wesleyan alum & classmate, and the writer of the IMPORTANTVILLE newsletter here on Substack.

In this article, Adam visits South Bend, Indiana - home of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and more importantly, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Judge Barrett has come under scrutiny for her involvement with the religious community known as People of Praise:

Her spiritual group, however, has drawn more questions. People of Praise is one of a number of groups that rose up in the 1960s and '70s to offer intense, highly supportive religious communities, in the style of evangelical churches, within the Catholic tradition. The group, though mostly Catholic, is outside control of the church itself. The group has a website, but doesn’t let reporters visit its worship center. When Barrett was nominated for her federal judgeship in 2017, she didn’t disclose her involvement. Critics, even those wary of making religion an issue in a judicial appointment, have questioned what role its member agreements—it’s “neither an oath nor a vow, but it is an important personal commitment,” the website notes—plays in her legal philosophy. Former members have called it “secretive” and a “cult”—and, above all, it has remained something of an opaque chapter attached to the life of an increasingly public figure.

The Trinity School, where Amy Coney Barrett served as a board member on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. | Taylor Glascock for Politico Magazine

The Trinity School, where Amy Coney Barrett served as a board member, in South Bend, Indiana.

What’s difficult to understand outside South Bend, however, is just how deeply integrated this group is into the local community. Though the group has only a few thousand local members, and keeps a low profile as an organization, its influence and footprint in the city are significant. That influence, and its resistance to liberal changes in the wider culture, are likely to arise as issues in her Supreme Court nomination hearings, expected to begin Oct. 12. (Emphasis mine.)

Wren details the significant presence of People of Praise in South Bend: it runs a private school, where Coney Barrett served as a board member, that publishes a cultural statement opposing premarital sex & a definition of marriage at odds with the marriage equality secured in Obergefell v. Hodges. It also has

I appreciate this reporting because it provides insights into local life, as well as insights into the life of people who have been part of the People of Praise community. No accounting of life among religious communities is complete without a testimony from those who have attended themselves. There are details in this report that might alarm readers: a “covenant” membership process, a practice of “headship” more commonly associated with fundamentalist evangelical groups, and a fear of the cost of leaving the community:

On Sundays, the parking lot here fills up with 12-passenger vans, as People of Praise families are typically large, according to the former member, whose parents were involved for nearly 20 years, before leaving when, despite their best efforts, they could not advance from the underway classification to full covenanted status. Her parents’ spiritual guides in the group urged the family to not save for college, she said, but instead pay for Trinity, because it would pay off with a college scholarship.

Though families are free to leave, in South Bend there is fear about losing the social capital and status membership affords. “When my parents left, they lost all their friends,” the former member said. There is anxiety: “If I leave, is my kid going to get into Notre Dame?” (Emphasis mine.)

In a country where conservative religious concerns have won considerable legal victories in the last decade, these details are of vital interest to the American public. It is also a far more comprehensive, and fairer, view of this particular Catholic community than the Republican Party has put forth; rather than judge this community on its merits, Senator Marco Rubio and others have gone the route of fomenting facile fear-mongering in an attempt to rile up its already perpetually riled base.

Northern Indiana is a religiously diverse area; the Catholic influence of Notre Dame looms large, but within an hour’s drive are several Mennonite communities, evangelical churches abound, and other forms of spirituality certainly exist beyond even these various branches of white Christianity.

It’s also undergoing its own demographic changes, and concomitant crises of conscience. In nearby Elkhart County (South Bend is in St. Joseph County), a proposed $100M immigration detention facility was rejected by the community.

There’s more than corn in Indiana, as we were once wont to say.

And I’m glad that there are reporters like Adam Wren, with the knowledge and capacity to cover these stories with the complexity and seriousness they deserve.


This week on Powers & Principalities

This week, I spoke to Sarah Posner about her book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.