But that was not the point of his speech. Rather, it was to insist that religious freedom—and religion itself—had reached a point where it needed a strong defense.
After noting extreme examples of hostility to religion, including the actions of the Islamic State and Nazi Germany, he presented his thesis.
“The looming problem is not just indifference to religion. It’s not just ignorance of religion,” he said. “There is also a growing hostility to religion, or at least to traditional religious beliefs that are contrary to the new moral code that is gaining momentum in some sectors.”
You will notice the heavy burden placed on the word “or” in that last sentence: there is hostility to religion. or at least traditional beliefs that conflict with this “new moral code”. The “new code” he is referring to, we can safely assume, is the push toward recognizing the value and identity of people who had long been excluded from power, if not from social conversation entirely. It is therefore not really that there is so much hostility to religion that Alito sees this contradictory “moral code” as a threat to his “traditional” beliefs.
Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data bulletin from Philip Bump
The rest of Alito’s speech reflected that same tension. Perhaps the clearest articulation of his concern centered on how the constitutional right to worship freely was interpreted.
“‘Freedom of worship’ means the freedom to do those things that you like to do in the privacy of your home or in your church or synagogue or your mosque or your temple,” he said. “But when you go out into the public square in the light of day, you better behave like a good secular citizen. This is the problem we face.
Alito pointedly declined to give examples of how this happens but, taken together, these two quotes clearly articulate his position. He sees a secular society – he intentionally uses “citizen” – imposing a new moral code that suppresses religious beliefs outside the home. What he fails to see is how the expression of traditional beliefs outside the home can be seen as suppressing secular or other religious traditions and beliefs. The contrast between “traditional” and “new” is a contrast intended to suggest a gradation of value.
“Religious freedom is under attack in many places because it is dangerous for those who want complete power,” he said at another point. It’s a theme he’s addressed before, such as when he criticized pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings as disturbing incursions on religious freedom rather than efforts to prevent the spread of a contagious virus. It’s not just that he thinks secular culture is oppressive, it’s that he sees it as an intentional effort to crush opposition. Again, he started by referring to the Holocaust.
All of this reflects a familiar pattern on the right. Polls have repeatedly show that Republicans in particular view Christians and whites as equal or even more targets of discrimination than black Americans or Jews.
It’s safe to assume that’s because many see the rise of non-white, non-Christian voices as a threat to white, Christian dominance since the country’s founding. Alito does not address race, but it is clear that he sees Christian values as facing the discrimination of these secular citizens.
For context, Alito was in the majority when the Supreme Court ruled that a Christian baker could refuse to provide same-sex marriage services for religious reasons. He was in the majority in a number of recent cases in which the court sided with Christian groups or individuals against the government, including when a state school football coach was fired for holding sessions of prayer in the middle of the field. He seems to have seen them as secular impositions of the new moral code on traditional beliefs and not as religious beliefs imposed on those around them.
It is true that the number of self-identified Christians in the United States has declined. The number of white Christians has declined further (since the percentage of the country that is white is lower than it used to be).
It is not that there is a “new moral code”, as such. It is that there are more non-Christians to question the implicit, often systemic primacy of Christian values and rules in American society. Just as there are more non-whites who might be skeptical about how American society can be structured to benefit whites.
Speaking at a religious freedom conference, Alito focused on religious freedom. But the entrenchment of the defenders of Christian America takes many forms.
Over the weekend, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was interviewed by a host of a right-wing YouTube channel.
“We must be the party of nationalism. And I’m a Christian and I say this proudly: we should be Christian nationalists,” Greene said. “And when Republicans learn to represent most of the people who vote for them, then we’ll be the party that continues to grow without having to chase certain identities or chase away, you know, certain segments of people.”
It’s usually not subtle. She says that by becoming a party of explicit Christian nationalism, the GOP would not have to “hunt down” non-white voters because they would build a strong enough base of support solely from white Christians.
Alito doesn’t say he wants a Christian nation. He says, instead, that religious belief is in tension with secular citizenship. He said in November 2020 that “you cannot say that marriage is a union between a man and a woman”, which imposes freedom of expression. He says, in other words, that things like letting a same-sex couple marry because they’re in love is a “new moral code” that’s necessarily hostile to its traditions. This closure of a church along with everything else at the height of the pandemic is an example of how the government stands against its religious expression.
He and Greene fight in the same direction and with the same instincts, if not explicitly for the same purpose. For non-Christians, the difference between an explicitly Christian country and a country in which Christian values carry more weight can sometimes be difficult to distinguish.