There are some current events articles these days for which it is my first instinct to avoid. They usually entail unpleasant topics I already know to be true, so why ruin my morning coffee by delving into ever more gory details about, say, the fact that there is a growing rabidly anti-democratic white nationalist movement aiming to overthrow American democracy from inside our law enforcement agencies and the military?
The same thing goes for any articles about how — and let’s put this plainly — batshit crazy Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is. This is becoming more clear with the passage of time because Alito has in common a particular trait with extremist religious folk everywhere: the more power they accrue and the more they get their way, the more angry and resentful they become toward people who do not believe as they do.
So I was ready to pass over an article about Alito in the current issue of The New Yorker — that is, until I realized it was written by Margaret Talbot, a first among equals when it comes to the best writers at that magazine. If Talbot wrote it, you know you’re going to learn important things, crucial details, you did not know before.
In one section of her piece, Talbot is recounting an online speech Alito gave to members of the arch-conservative Federalist Society, the organization credited with the right-wing takeover of the Court:
In 2020, Alito gave an online speech for the Federalist Society that was unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, for a modern Justice. He bluntly aired his views on specific issues before the Court, including a Second Amendment case that he cited in an opinion this past term. He also expressed concern about the scope of public-health measures aimed at curbing the spread of covid-19, declaring, “The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.” Alito excoriated the governor of Nevada’s decision to cap church services at fifty people during the pandemic while allowing casinos, restaurants, and movie theatres to stay open at fifty-per-cent capacity. The message, he said, was “forget about worship and head for the slot machines, or maybe a Cirque du Soleil show.” (The Court, which then still had Ginsburg on it, had upheld the Nevada regulations.)
In certain moments, he sounded like a conservative talk-radio host deploying a set of tried-and-true culture-war tropes. Today, Alito lamented, “you can see shows on your TV screen in which the dialogue appears at times to consist almost entirely” of the seven words that the comedian George Carlin had, in 1972, listed as the ones you couldn’t say on TV. At the same time, there were “seventy times seven” things that you couldn’t say on college campuses or at many workplaces. “You can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” Alito bemoaned. “Until very recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.”As Alito saw it, “In certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right,” while “the ultimate second-tier constitutional right, in the minds of some, is the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”
Ira (Chip) Lupu, an emeritus professor at George Washington University Law School with an expertise in religion, believes that Alito has crudely applied “an entirely appropriate concern about persecution of vulnerable minorities, including religious minorities, around the world” to the way “conservative religious people, mainly Christians, are in conflict over matters like L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the status of women and reproductive freedom in this country.” Christian Americans, Lupu argued, “don’t get persecuted—they get disagreed with.” He continued, “Yes, sometimes they are under certain obligations as citizens. They might face non-discrimination laws. But nobody ever says, for example, that you have to give the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. Nobody says you lose your tax exemption if you don’t ordain openly gay priests or rabbis. That would be persecution.”
In Rome, Alito claimed that “you had better behave yourself like a good secular citizen” just to go into public nowadays. Lupu told me, “Nobody says you can’t wear religious garb or a T-shirt with New Testament quotations when you go to the mall. Some people like it and some people don’t, but nobody’s preventing you from doing it.”
Alito has warned that, as Americans become more secular, the U.S. may become less attuned to the constitutional rights of religious citizens. But when he makes this argument a curious elision sometimes occurs, and he seems to be saying that the growing percentage of secular people is in itself a form of religious persecution. In Rome, Alito said, “Think of the increasing number of young Americans whose response, when asked to name their religion, is to say ‘None.’ Think of those who proclaim that religion is bad. What can we say to such people to convince them that religious liberty is worth protecting?” Who is the “we” here? Supreme Court Justices? Conservative Christians? The devout?
In Rome, he told an anecdote about a little boy he’d once spotted at a museum in Berlin who, while gazing at a “rustic wooden cross,” turned to the woman he was with — “presumably, his mother”—and asked who the man on it was. Alito called this “a harbinger of what may lie ahead for our culture.” Even as an anecdote, this doesn’t do quite the work that Alito seems to think it does. Maybe the boy was Muslim or Jewish. Maybe his mother explained, then or later, who Jesus was. Lupu told me, “The other side of the story is, Here this kid is in a museum displaying crucifixes and probably other religious art. Maybe his mother answers respectfully — “We’re not Christians, but this is what many people believe.’ That’s not a bad way for people to get educated about Christianity.”
When delivering speeches, Alito doesn’t raise his voice, and he sometimes adopts a singsong intonation, as if explaining, with weary patience, what ought to be an unassailable truth. But it’s hard not to see anger beneath it all. To Lustberg, it’s striking that at the very moment Alito is “winning” on the Court he seems deeply unsatisfied: “It’s like he wants to both set forth his position and have everybody embrace it.”
I’ve been working since the 1980s on what were then simply known as gay rights issues. Those of us who’ve been part of that movement have known for a very long time that extremist Christians (indeed, all extremist religions) are not happy merely being able to worship and proselytize and build schools and colleges as they please. They will never be satisfied with the knowledge that you cannot go more than a few blocks in any city or town — often less distance than even that — without coming across a house of worship. They are not happy with the fact that they enjoy an overwhelming Christian majority in local, state and federal electoral office holders and political appointees. They are not satisfied that the Christmas season now lasts from August through December. (I love Christmas, BTW.)
They want adherence to their beliefs by the unbelieving and, if they cannot get that, they will equate legislative and judicial non-compliance toward their beliefs with persecuting the believers.
This menace is new to a lot of Americans, now that SCOTUS has the private behaviors of a majority of Americans in its sights, but I’ve seen it my entire adult life.
Back in the 1980s there were respectable Christian and Jewish politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, who were using their religious beliefs to suggest that the answer to the thousands of gay men dying wretched deaths from AIDS was to ship them all off to an island somewhere. And not just the sick ones. And not just the men.
So, Talbot’s article doesn’t tell me much I don’t already know about how the extremist religious mind works. But it does fill-in some important details about Alito I did not know before. And perhaps it will be a cause for appropriate alarm among some important people of power who someday might be in a position to do something about it.