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Roberts and Alito are polarized on polarization

by California Digital News

(RNS) — Sure, Chief Justice John Roberts got props from liberals this week for denying that we’re a Christian nation. But over on the Christian nationalist bench, I bet they’re plenty bummed out.

That’s because, for them, it’s an article of faith that the U.S. of A. is indeed a Christian nation — and they habitually cite an 1892 Supreme Court decision to prove it. 

As Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, says, “When people tell you, this is not a Christian nation, you just quote the United States Supreme Court. The court said we are a Christian nation.” How dare the current supposedly conservative chief justice opine otherwise?

The case in question is Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, wherein Associate Justice David Brewer, writing for the court, assembled a bunch of evidence to demonstrate “that this is a Christian nation.”

But what exactly did Brewer, a Congregationalist missionary’s son who graduated from Yale, mean by that? 

The case concerned an Episcopal church in New York that hired a pastor from England in apparent violation of the 1885 Alien Contract Labor Law, which prohibited bringing foreigners into the country under work agreements. Brewer’s opinion held that Congress could not possibly have meant the law to apply to clergy, and included among possible contracts that would never have been prohibited one undertaken by “any Jewish synagogue with some eminent rabbi.”

In other words, the legal import of being a “Christian nation,” so far as Brewer was concerned, had to do with the U.S. being generally (as the opinion also states) “a religious nation.”

Over the following half-century, that signification of “Christian” gave way to the more inclusive “Judeo-Christian,” Thus, in its 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision permitting Nebraska to begin each legislative session with a prayer by a state-paid chaplain, the court cited with approval a description of the prayers being offered “as ‘nonsectarian,’ ‘Judeo Christian,’ and with ‘elements of the American civil religion’” — and having no specific references to Christ.

So when Roberts said, “I don’t know that we live in a Christian nation. I know a lot of Jewish and Muslim friends who would say maybe not,” he was testifying to a species of religious inclusionism not all that different from what Brewer wrote 132 years ago. In the same spirit, Roberts insisted that the current national polarization is not irreparable.

Justice Samuel Alito, however, not so much. Between the godly and the ungodly, “one side or the other is going to win,” he said in comments recorded by documentary filmmaker Lauren Windsor. 

“I don’t know. I mean, there can be a way of working — a way of living together peacefully, but it’s difficult, you know, because there are differences on fundamental things that really can’t be compromised,” he said. “They really can’t be compromised. So it’s not like you are going to split the difference.”

Alito’s us-against-them mentality has, of course, been on display in the upside-down American flag and the Appeal to Heaven flag Martha-Ann Alito has flown from their homes, as well as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and anti-Pride flags she’s said she wants to fly.

No doubt, as her defenders have claimed, an upside-down American flag signaled a ship in distress long before it was adopted by the stop-the-steal crowd. But its appearance at the Alitos’ house a few days after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol does seem more than coincidental.

And there’s another reason that it may have appealed to Martha-Ann Alito, a knowledgeable former school librarian as well as a devout Catholic.

The most famous anti-Catholic cartoon in American history, Thomas Nast’s “The American River Ganges,” portrays a school of mitered bishops as crocodiles attacking a group of children with a battered building (“U.S. Public School”) flying an upside-down American flag.

(In the background a Catholic takeover of the New York public school system is indicated by St. Peter’s Basilica with “Tammany Hall” lettered across the front.)

Long story short: Whether or not it was meant to express solidarity with the Capitol assailants, the Alito display reversed the Nast symbology, signifying distressed Catholics under assault by their godless neighbors. No compromise in sight.

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