Dear Dick Durbin,
“Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?”
You asked that of a judicial nominee last week during her Senate hearing. You. United States Senator Dick Durbin asked that question. Oh my.
We’ve known each other a long time. We’re both from downstate East St. Louis — born and reared. You’re from 29th Street (or 24th Street. I can’t remember) and I’m from 37th Street. My dad walked precincts for you to help you get elected. He knew your mom and dad — regular, hardworking, sensible, good people. Your cousins were my classmates and we know a lot of the same neighbors, friends, colleagues. Our families have known each other for generations and we have supported you.
But, in the vernacular of our old neighborhoods — you’re outta line. Way outta line. You asked a nominee for judge about her personal religious beliefs during the hearing on her fitness for office. Would you ever think of asking a Sikh, Muslim, Jew, Presbyterian, Lutheran or Hindu that question? No, of course not. That question is wrong, flat out wrong and you know better. You’re a smart person, a dedicated public servant.
If you want to discuss the nominee’s writings, her analysis in those writings, her public comments, the articles she has co-authored, all fine. And, you did that. But then, you asked her about how she views her religion and about her personal religious beliefs. That’s outta line. And, offensive to millions of Americans who identify as Catholic, or Muslim, or any faith.
You and I both took oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution in our official actions and, one might argue, by the impressions that our official actions give. What impression did your question give? What would a child think by hearing your question? Would that child assume that his or her religion is a barrier to being a good American and that our government can use religion as some kind of fitness test? Probably “yes” on both. That’s a pity, really, because our nation has come a long way from our religious intolerance days.
Intolerance can be gleaned and felt from language as well as actions. Inclusive, healing language is needed in our nation now more than ever.
So, after all these years and as a lifelong fellow Democrat, I urge you — come to your senses. Whoever told you this kind of questioning was OK is dead wrong. Whoever you listened to on this, stop listening to them. Listen to the outcry from the people of Illinois, who want our senator to use language that radiates the standards of our Constitution and the spirit of our freedoms.
An apology and retraction from you to the nominee and to all of us would be the prudent, wise thing to do. Everyone makes mistakes and this was a big one, big enough to make me pen this letter.
You’re still, I hope, that sensible person from 29th Street. (Or was that 24th Street?)
Sheila O’Brien is a retired Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court – First District Chicago, a former trial court judge in St. Clair County (East St. Louis) and a lifelong Democrat.