The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Supreme Court would risk more than legitimacy by imposing Christian nationalism

A protester outside the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

It is right up front in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

There is a reason both the establishment and free-exercise clauses start the Bill of Rights. If there was a single driving force behind the founding of the American colonies, it was religious liberty — the right of non-Anglican “dissenters” to worship a they saw fit. Numerous colonies were founded on that basis. Pennsylvania expressly forbade establishment of a church.

Now along come right-wing, overwhelmingly White evangelical Christians, a large portion of whom have decided they are victims of persecution. They believe this even though the United States remains by far the most religiously observant country among affluent countries. And they ignore the fact that the government has long incorporated religious exemptions (e.g., for military service) and that religious hate crimes are overwhelmingly directed at Jews and Muslims.

As Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty recently explained in an interview with the Center for American Progress:

I believe that the single biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today is Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is antithetical to the constitutional ideal that belonging in American society is not predicated on what faith one practices or whether someone is religious at all. The political ideology that seeks to merge American and Christian identities is deeply embedded in American society and manifests itself in a number of different ways, some more obviously harmful than others.

Republican right-wingers, long dependent on the votes of White evangelicals, have taken a multi-pronged approach to impose their vision of Christian America. Whether it is demanding corporations get an exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-sponsored health plans cover contraception, or exhibiting emblems of Christian nationalism during violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., they have shown that they have a very different idea of what defines America from what the Constitution intends.

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And the Supreme Court might seem sympathetic to the cause. Tyler warns: “I’m concerned that the current Supreme Court seems overly deferential to free exercise claims of some, while not giving enough weight to Establishment Clause principles and how those principles protect religious freedom for all.” She adds, “Instead, the court has couched a number of its recent decisions in terms of trying to prevent discrimination against religion, interpreting Establishment Clause principles that gird against government-sponsored religion as ‘discrimination’ in certain contexts.”

The current 6-to-3 right-wing majority seems poised to wreak havoc on the Constitution as it has been understood for decades. One can practically hear the justices champing at the bit as they review cases this term. This includes one involving a football coach leading players in prayer; another is about whether the state of Maine must supply public funds to children attending religious schools. And, of course, there are cases attempting to shift abortion policies based on the religious belief that life begins at conception.

If it seems like back to the future, you’re right. School prayer was struck down by the court in 1962. Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Decades of precedent supporting the proposition that the state cannot compel religious practice or legislate according to one faith could be gone by this summer.

The arrogance of justices who imagine there is such a thing as plain vanilla prayer — as though certain religions don’t have specific, distinct practices for prayer — is quite striking. “A football coach leading prayer? As American as apple pie!” those defending school prayer might say. “Besides, kids don’t have to follow along!” Unless, of course, they are afraid of being ostracized, insulted or possibly losing playing time.

Similarly, those pushing to outlaw abortion under the assumption that life begins at conception refuse to acknowledge the view reflects a particularly Christian belief. Assuming it as the basis for constitutional interpretation could not be further from the ideals of limited government and religious freedom.

It is no coincidence that the notion of the United States being a Christian nation has become particularly popular just as White evangelicals are becoming a minority of the population. That seems to have set off the desperate crusade to use the government to install one faith in a position of prominence and tell the rest of Americans (including the growing segment who identify with no religion) to either go along or remove themselves from official proceedings.

This attitude betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the First Amendment. Indeed, it is a direct threat to the experiment in pluralistic democracy. As democracy expert Yascha Mounk recently explained in an interview with Democracy Paradox, diverse democracies require that no one sect can force others to conform to their dictates to enjoy benefits of citizenship:

A healthy democratic society that is able to sustain this diversity is one that recognizes discrimination and injustice, but gives people liberty to have freedom of worship, to spend their lives among members of an ethnic or religious in-group, if that’s what they choose to do, but which encourages as much togetherness and as much recognition of shared interests, of shared identity as possible.
And one of the things I worry about at the moment is that sometimes our institutions don’t try to counteract the natural tendency people have to be group-ish. They actually double down on them. They encourage people to identify themselves as much as possible in those terms. And because of just the basic human mechanism of favoring what you see as the in-group over the out-group, I worry that that can lead to real fragmentation of our society.

If the Supreme Court contributes to the plague of Christian nationalism, it would reveal itself to be both a partisan and sectarian combatant. Moreover, it would risk injecting even more religious antagonism into our society and replacing the American creed with the sort of theocratic authoritarianism seen in some illiberal societies. The end of the current term could well be an inflection point for the court and for pluralistic democracy.