Two articles published today to the internet shed light on different aspects of what I believe to be the same worrisome trend …

  • An op ed piece in the New York Times by longtime Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse. Headlined “Alito’s Call to Arms to Secure Religious Liberty,” it suggests Alito’s rather narrow brand of traditional Christianity is “on the march.”
  • An article on the Sojourners website by Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), headlined “The Distorted Gospel of the Charlottesville Rally Keeps Spreading.” Tyler suggests it, too, is on the march.

Neither Greenhouse nor Tyler makes a direct connection between Charlottesville and Justice Samuel Alito’s speechifying, but taken together, they show some of the spread of white Christian nationalist grievance in recent years.

Tyler, in her piece for the evangelical social justice website Sojourners, or SoJo.net, said she first became aware of white Christian nationalism after the violent protests in 2017 over the removal of Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee, but she didn’t connect the dots until more recently. She explains:

The tiki-torch-wielding marchers who shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” were an extreme manifestation of white Christian nationalism, a political ideology that implies one must be a Christian to be a “true” American and that the growing presences of non-whites and non-Christians are a threat to “traditional” values. People who espouse this ideology believe “real” Americans are Christians who have a specific policy perspective; they feel the need to “take back” their country from those who they believe threaten it.

White Christian nationalism creates insiders and outsiders; an “us-versus-them” feeling. If you don’t share these views, you are the enemy.

Alito does not identify himself in any way with the neo-fascist marchers at Charlottesville, and he doesn’t directly espouse replacement theory, as defined (by Wikipedia) as the belief that “racial minorities are displacing the white American population and taking control of the nation.” But his public remarks — off and on the bench — reflect a similar sense of grievance and victimhood fueled by a perceived threat to “traditional” religious expression from an ascendant secular society.

Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for the Times from 1978 to 2008 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for “her consistently illuminating coverage of the United States Supreme Court,” finds abundant evidence of this sense of grievance in Alito’s recent speech to a Notre Dame law school gathering in Rome:

In speeches as well as opinions, Justice Alito has warned of growing hostility to religion, and he did the same in Rome, denouncing what he called hostility to “at least the traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is ascendant in some sectors.” This was the Alito of his opinion dissenting from the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. He predicted then that “those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such.” [Links in the original.]

There are obvious — and important — differences here. Rather than Jews, Alito seems to think his brand of religion is threatened by secular society. “The challenge for those who want to protect religious liberty in the United States, Europe and other similar places,” he said in Rome, “is to convince people who are not religious that religious liberty is worth special protection.”

But, as Greenhouse points out, the Supreme Court has in fact offered “special protection” to conservative Christians in several key decisions, including one in which a high school football coach was allowed to offer a Christian prayer on the 50-yard line after an intervarsity football game. Says Greenhouse:

In his Rome speech, Justice Alito did not refer explicitly to that case, but his definition of religious liberty underscored and explained the court’s remarkable departure. Religious liberty must mean more than simply “freedom of worship,” he said. “Freedom of worship means freedom to do these things that you like to do in the privacy of your home, or in your church or your synagogue or your mosque or your temple. But when you step outside into the public square, in the light of day, you had better behave yourself like a good secular citizen.” And he added, “That’s the problem that we face.”

Greenhouse, who is Jewish, suggests Alito’s concept of “religious liberty” has the potential to create problems for others who don’t share it. “His religion does not reside in the quiet recesses of his home or chambers,” she concludes. “His is religion on the march. And that’s the problem the rest of us face now.”

I’m willing to assume arguendo that it’s an unintended consequence, but I’m afraid Greathouse is onto something here: In protecting what they perceive to be the religious liberty of those share their traditionalist view of Christianity, Alito and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court risk depriving religious minorities of equal rights in a pluralistic society that believes in the separation of church and state.

Links and Citations

Linda Greenhouse, “Alito’s Call to Arms to Secure Religious Liberty,” New York Times, Aug. 11, 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/11/opinion/religion-supreme-court-alito.html.

Amanda Tyler, “The Distorted Gospel of the Charlottesville Rally Keeps Spreading,” Sojourners, Aug. 11, 2022 https://sojo.net/articles/distorted-gospel-charlottesville-rally-keeps-spreading-white-christian-nationalism.

Wikipedia articles on arguendo, Christian nationalism and Great Replacement conspiracy theory in the United States.

[Published Aug. 14, 2022]

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