SMC professor’s post on Coney Barrett nomination goes viral
Colleen Fischer | Friday, October 9, 2020
Saint Mary’s history professor Bill Svelmoe wrote a guide on Facebook on Sept. 27 for how he thinks Democrats should handle the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation hearings. As of Thursday, that Facebook post has been shared almost 50,000 times. It was tweeted out by Vanity Fair writer Joe Hagan, causing it to gain more attention.
Svelmoe said he was confounded by the attention it got.
“When you sit down to type out a Facebook post on a Sunday afternoon, you don’t think about it going viral. You are just writing for your friends,” Svelmoe said.
A week after he showed John Sebastian’s Woodstock set in his post-1960s history class, Sebastian’s wife posted Svelmoe’s writing, a moment he said was an especially “big deal.”
He contributed some of the attention to the false relationship between him and Notre Dame. Some commentators confused him for a Notre Dame professor, something he understands but also corrects.
“I am trying to tell people, ‘No, I am not Notre Dame. I am Saint Mary’s; we are different,’” he said.
Within the week, some of the circumstances around the post have already changed, with COVID-19 spreading through the White House. Regardless, Svelmoe said he stands by the main message of the post that Democrats should use the confirmation hearing strategically to win the election.
Now that many members of Congress are becoming infected with COVID-19, maybe there might still be a way to block the confirmation hearing, he said.
Svelmoe advises strategists to use the hearings to the Democrats’ advantage.
“Don’t use the hearings to be something to fire up Trump’s base; use the hearings to fire up the Democratic base,” he said. “If you go after her religion … that is just going to fire up the Republicans’ base.”
He specifies in the post that the hearings are not just a way to ensure Coney Barrett is an appropriate nominee for the Supreme Court, but also a way to rehash Trump’s presidency on national television for free.
“Use [the confirmation hearings] to litigate the Trump administration, to go back through — what I think is the most corrupt — administration in our history and to go step-by-step through everything from the Emoluments Clause to the Hatch Act to the connection to Russia to his taxes … and have [Coney Barrett] respond to that,” he said. “That is something that would fire up the Democratic base, something I would like to see and it is something that would remind people of all this corruption in the Trump administration.”
Coney Barrett’s nomination has come under attack because of her connections with People of Praise, a charismatic Christian congregation in the South Bend area. Svelmoe received his Ph.D. from Notre Dame specializing in the religious history of America and believes that pursuing this line of questioning will only be harmful to the Democratic cause and urges people to stop calling People of Praise a cult. He said that women criticizing his stance is understandable.
“I tried to tell those folks, look I understand that I feel your pain,” he said. “I grew up in these kinds of groups. I understand these kinds of groups, and I understand the pain that it causes women who have come out of them, but my point is let’s just not call it a cult, and let’s not focus on that in the hearings. If you want to focus on that somewhere else, then fine.”
When asked about the historic precedent for Catholics in the courts, Svelmoe highlighted the fact that a majority of the current justices are Catholic. In fact, six sitting members of the Supreme Court were raised Roman Catholic. Five are practicing with the other two are Jewish.
Despite this, Svelmoe still sees the concerns around Coney Barrett’s religion as legitimate, just not the best path of questioning during the confirmation hearings.
“I understand people’s concerns,” he said. “Your religion is going to trump your reason, or you are going to be taking orders from some religious figure about how to vote on things. It is completely legitimate for any human being in any position of government to be guided by their religion. You just can’t separate that. That is who we are. That is what the confirmation is supposed to be about — you look at it and you say is she a good jurist or is she not.”
He separates the legitimate concerns over religious influence from the less legitimate involving conspiracies around religious people taking direct orders from religious leaders.
“There is doctrine and then there is how these things actually work on a human level,” Svelmoe said. “That’s not to say that there aren’t groups that are oppressive and use these doctrines to oppress women.”
He understands people’s anxiety over the role her religion plays in her decision making and sees it as something worth bringing up in the confirmation hearings, just not as something Democrats should grill her on, especially if they are not well researched.
Svelmoe wondered about the legacy her conservatism would have on the perception of Catholics across the country.
“The problem for Catholics is ‘Do you want a Catholic who is already seen with suspicion on this issue; do you want her casting a deciding vote that ends gay marriage or that ends Roe v. Wade? Do you really want that?’” Svelmoe said. “Just [imagine] the outrage and the fury that would cause in the country. If she does get on and then starts being a key member in all these decisions, I’m not sure if that’s the type of notoriety Notre Dame, or Catholics in general, should long for.”
Coney Barrett’s conservatism offers a strong juxtaposition to the last time Notre Dame was on the national political stage with Fr. Ted Hesburgh, an idea Svelmoe expanded on when asked.
“Hesburgh was marching in Civil Rights [and] was finding ways to negotiate protests on campus in regards to the Vietnam War in what really seems like a really smart reasonable way,” he said. “You’re going from this image of real wisdom to [University President Fr. John] Jenkins sitting in the Rose Garden without a mask and [Amy Coney Barrett] standing there without a mask, standing next to Donald Trump without a mask, all her children without a mask, sitting next to Melania Trump without a mask.”
Svelmoe’s post presented one way to effectively evaluate Amy Coney Barrett’s jurisprudence and ability to reason with law, and the internet responded with overwhelming support. At first, Svelmoe felt the need to respond to everybody who reached out through comments and messages.
“There is no way I can begin to respond to it all. It all goes by so fast,” he said. “When it blew up it just overwhelmed my page, and it became impossible to respond to everybody.”
Svelmoe said he has enjoyed the conversation around the subject with people he would have never otherwise spoken to.
“I enjoy engaging with thoughtful responses,” Svelmoe said. “I think liberals, maybe just human beings in general are hungry for a space where there can be these really interesting conversations.”
Not all responses have been positive along with the encouragement came trolls, accusations and justified criticism. While ignoring the unjustified criticism, Svlemoe has also enjoyed engaging with legitimate criticism.
“People have made very good thoughts and criticism of that post and other posts before it, and that’s great,” he said. “Spend your time engaging with people who are engaging thoughtfully and don’t worry about the trolls.”
Svelmoe said he has enjoyed the conversations that have come from the post, but he’s growing tired of the attention.
“You don’t write something like that expecting it to go viral, and somehow there is just something in the Zeitgeist that it hits and it explodes,” he said. “When you look back on it you might have written something differently if you had known that it would get all those extra eyes on it. I hope that I am at minute 14 of my 15 minutes [of fame].”