Content advisory: The speaker pictured in the video below is not Justice Samuel Alito but another political figure who shares a similar ideology. The video is embedded to share remarks by Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, regarding Alito’s speech.
More than a year ago now, I posted an item headlined: “Can the free exercise clause be used to establish white Christian religious norms? We may be about to find out.” It’s kind of an arcane question — the two clauses of the First Amendment involve a balancing act that has to be litigated on a case-by-case basis — but more and more the US Supreme Court seems to be putting its thumb on the scales in a way that tilts the balance toward a specific brand of culturally conservative Christianity.
I’m not the only one who’s been worried about that. The establishment clause says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and free exercise clause picks up with “[…] or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Especially in the recently ended June term of the court, a 6-3 majority of the court has handed down opinions de facto privileging Christian prayers on public school football fields, Christian schools receiving public funding and a Christian interpretation of abortion law.
Interviewed by Ayman Mohyeldin of MSNBC, Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee said both Alito’s speech and the court’s recent tilt toward Christian nationalism threaten the historic balance between the establishment and free exercise clause. (A bit of background: While evangelical Baptists have benefited from the court’s rightward tilt, the Baptists in general trace their history back to Roger Williams and they tend to be leery of undue church-state enganglement.) Here’s MSNBC’s blurb on YouTube:
The religious right has been around for a long time. But in recent years, a new kind of public, political expression of religion has grown increasingly common: Christian nationalism. But what do Christian nationalists really stand for and where is the movement headed? Amanda Tyler, lead organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, joins Ayman to discuss.
Alito all-but-confirmed those fears of undue Christian influence in a speech in Rome, to an advocacy group affiliated with Notre Dame Law School. He said, among other things, he believes “[r]eligious liberty is under attack” and it “is worth special protection.”
Political reaction to the speech was about what can be expected — perhaps best summed up by a July 29 Fox News report headlined “CNN analyst hits Alito’s ‘nasty’ speech mocking foreign leaders over abortion ruling: A ‘tone of aggrievement’.” Fox media reporter Joseph A. Wulfsohn noted that Alito took swipes at Prince Harry and outgoing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and US media in turn took swipes at Alito. Fair and balanced enough, I guess. And sadly accurate.
Alito’s speech is worth remembering, though, both for what he said and for its underlying assumption. As far as I can tell, he assumes that his
So I’m excerpting from the press release announcing the speech and from what I believe is the most insightful (if somewhat editorialized and delightfully snarky) reaction pieces, by Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern of the online magazine Slate. Also a thoughtful piece by Washington Post national correspondent Philip Bump parsing what Alito seems to mean when he speaks of religion and “the traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is ascendant in some sectors.”
I am increasingly convinced that Alito, and probably the rest of the 6-3 majority on the court, conflate “religion” with their own traditional religious beliefs. Hence the concern that people who don’t share their conservative Christian beliefs (for example Lithwick and Stern, who are both Jewish) may not be offered the same degree of protection.
Verbatim excerpts from the press release and the two opinion pieces follow [all links in the originals]:
Notre Dame Law School Press Release
“U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito delivers keynote address at 2022 Notre Dame” Religious Liberty Summit in Rome,” Notre Dame Law School, July 28, 2022 https://law.nd.edu/news-events/news/2022-religious-liberty-summit-rome-justice-samuel-alito-keynote/
- Published: July 28, 2022
- Author: Notre Dame Law School
Lede: The Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative hosted the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome last week to highlight that freedom of religion or belief is a global issue.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito — who delivered the keynote address at the Religious Liberty Summit’s gala dinner on Thursday, July 21 — noted that the Roman setting also brought to mind how religious freedom has been challenged and championed throughout history.
“I find myself thinking about the proud civilization that was centered here two millennia ago,” Alito said near the beginning of his remarks.
“As I think back, I also think ahead, and I wonder what historians may say centuries from now about the contribution of the United States to world civilization,” he said. “One thing I hope they will say is that our country, after a lot of fits and starts, and ups and downs, eventually showed the world that it is possible to have a stable and successful society in which people of diverse faiths live and work together harmoniously and productively while still retaining their own beliefs. This has been truly an historic accomplishment.”
“If we look around the world today, we see that people of many different faiths face persecution because of religion,” Alito said, noting that religious liberty is a life-or-death matter in many parts of the globe. He cited examples of groups such as the Yazidis in northern Iraq, Christians in Nigeria, Coptic Christians in Egypt, and Uyghurs in China that have been victims of horrific violence.
Alito also talked about the challenges that lie ahead for religious liberty around the world.
“Religious liberty is under attack in many places because it is dangerous to those who want to hold complete power,” he said. “It also probably grows out of something dark and deep in the human DNA — the tendency to distrust and dislike people who are not like ourselves.”
Another test is the growing number of people who reject religion or don’t think religion is important.
“It is hard to convince people that religious liberty is worth defending if they don’t think that religion is a good thing that deserves protection,” he said. “The challenge for those who want to protect religious liberty in the United States, Europe, and other similar places is to convince people who are not religious that religious liberty is worth special protection. That will not be easy to do.”
Religious liberty promotes domestic tranquility, he noted, and provides a way for diverse people to flourish together. Another benefit is the enormous charitable work done by religious groups and people of faith.
In addition, he said, religious liberty has often fueled social reform. Religious groups led the movement to abolish slavery in the United States and Europe, for example. And it’s no coincidence that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an ordained minister.
“If religious liberty is protected, religious leaders and other men and women of faith will be able to speak out on social issues,” Alito said. “People with deep religious convictions may be less likely to succumb to dominating ideologies or trends, and more likely to act in accordance with what they see as true and right. Civil society can count on them as engines of reform.”
Finally, the justice described the strong relationship between religious liberty and other rights such as free speech and the freedom of assembly. “Religious liberty and other fundamental rights tend to go together,” he said.
Philip Bump, “Where Justice Alito and Rep. Greene overlap on religious liberty,” Washington Post, July 29, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/07/29/where-justice-alito-rep-greene-overlap-religious-liberty/.
Lede: What attracted the most attention in a speech by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. at a recent conference on religious liberty was his mockery of foreign leaders. He scoffed at those overseas who expressed alarm at the overturning of Roe v. Wade in an opinion he wrote, to the audience’s amusement.
But that wasn’t the point of his speech. The point, instead, was to insist that religious liberty — and religion itself — had reached a point where it required robust defense.
After noting extreme examples of hostility to religion, including the actions of the Islamic State and Nazi Germany, he presented his thesis.
“The problem that looms is not just indifference to religion. It’s not just ignorance about religion,” he said. “There’s also growing hostility to religion, or at least the traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is ascendant in some sectors.”
You’ll notice the heavy burden placed on the word “or” in that last sentence: There’s hostility to religion or at least to traditional beliefs that conflict with this “new moral code.” The “new code” to which he refers, we can safely assume, is the push toward recognizing the value and identities of people who’ve long been excluded from power if not the social conversation entirely. So it’s not really that there’s hostility to religion as much as that Alito views this conflicting “moral code” as a threat to his “traditional” beliefs.
Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern, “Alito’s Speech Mocking Foreign Leaders Has a Deeper, Darker Message,” Slate, July 29, 2022 https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/07/alito-rome-religious-liberty-foreign-leaders-secularism.html.
Subhead: To the justice, “secular society” poses a threat to religious freedom—and state-sponsored indoctrination is the only solution.
Lede: Last Thursday, Justice Samuel Alito gave a talk in Rome sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative. His remarks, which can be viewed here, were ostensibly about religious liberty, but Alito also used them to showcase his comedy stylings. After a ten-year-old rape victim crossed state lines to terminate her pregnancy, and while miscarrying patients are bleeding out in Texas before being allowed to receive life-saving medical treatment, Alito thought the Rome speech was the right time and place to mock international criticism of his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
It speaks volumes about Samuel Alito that, in the face of international outrage over the impact of this ruling on the lives of millions of women, he centered himself and his own feelings. His snarky little potshots at Prince Harry and Boris Johnson were not so much “jokes” about world leaders as personal petulance over international criticism, cloaked in the insistence that Alito doesn’t care what these world leaders think of him.
But to focus on Alito trolling American women, reproductive justice advocates, his liberal colleagues on the bench, and his international critics is to take his feeble bait. Alito is quite transparent about the fact that he delights in disapproval. He invites it! He welcomes it! His “comedy” is actually just a distraction from his gleeful effort to decimate whatever remaining legitimacy the Supreme Court still possesses in the eyes of the secular, liberal world order. Focus on that fact and there is really nothing hilarious to report from Rome at all.
For starters, there is the breathtaking conflict of interest at work when a justice gives faith-based speeches at faith-based events sponsored by faith-based parties who file briefs before the court. We only found out about this speech a week later when Notre Dame released the video, because the justices have no obligation to publicize or record their public speeches. The Rome event’s sponsor, Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative, was founded about four months before Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the Supreme Court in 2020. As Gabe Roth of Fix the Court, a nonprofit that promotes judicial ethics reforms, noted in an email Thursday, RLI and its affiliated professors “have filed amicus briefs in several SCOTUS cases, and they have a near-perfect record.” (Naturally, these professors filed a brief in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization urging the reversal of Roe.) As Roth further pointed out, we won’t know if RLI financed the trip until mid-June 2023, when it must be disclosed under current law. For now, the image of a tuxedo-clad Alito chumming it up with the same conservative lawyers who are involved in cases before the court creates the unseemly impression of judicial indifference toward basic judicial ethics rules.
One might reasonably wonder why Alito would frame secularism as a threat to religious freedom. Plainly, the Framers of the First Amendment did not share this view: They quite deliberately created a secular government through the establishment clause while enshrining an individual right to religious liberty through the free exercise clause. To them, secularism was not a menace to religion, but a crucial component of it: History taught them that once the government got involved with matters of faith, it harmed both church and state.
Alito sees things differently. “Polls show a significant increase in the percentage of the population that rejects religion or thinks it’s just not all that important,” he told the crowd in Rome. “And this has a very important impact on religious liberty, because it is hard to convince people that religious liberty is worth defending if they don’t think that religion is a good thing that deserves protection.” He continued:
There’s also growing hostility to religion, or at least the traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is ascendant in some sectors. The challenge for those who want to protect religious liberty in the United States, Europe, and other similar places is to convince people who are not religious that religious liberty is worth special protection. And that will not be easy to do.
That “new moral code”? It’s a thinly veiled reference to the progressive values that define a flourishing liberal democracy: LGBTQ rights, women’s equality, secular public education, a humane criminal justice system—everything Alito despises.
If you are not very frightened by the prospect of a Supreme Court justice crossing the ocean in order to quote the Gospels to religious adherents of his own faith, who have business before the court, as he excoriates all who do not share his personal view of the primacy of religion as an organizing force in a political democracy, it’s difficult to know what could alarm you. The Framers attempted to strike a careful balance between religious liberty and secular moral values. Alito would like you to know that for the foreseeable future, the latter is the enemy, and will be vanquished and mocked.
[Published July 30, 2022]