Alito’s Epistle

I get angry emails anytime I accuse the dominant press of hostility toward religion, and specifically toward the religious right, as opposed to the religious left. The press is silent (or at least not hostile) when a liberal preacher denounces George W. Bush’s Iraq policy at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, when Hillary Clinton tells a congregation that the Republican-run U.S. House of Representatives is akin to a plantation, or when Catholic bishops protested Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy.

I would like to here offer the latest case in point, with a sincere plea to the press to try to understand the complaints of people like myself.

I got a phone call on Thursday to be a guest on a syndicated radio-talk show focused on religious themes. The host was grappling with the media reaction to a thank-you letter sent by recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito to his supporters. This seemingly innocuous letter became a headline in Thursday’s New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, CBS News website, and on and on.

The controversy had two components: First, the letter mentioned prayer, as Alito stated that he was thankful for “the prayers of so many people from around the country,” which, said the judge, “were a palpable and powerful force” during his arduous confirmation hearings. “As long as I serve on the Supreme Court,” he continued. “I will keep in mind the trust that has been placed in me.” Second, one of the recipients of the Alito letter was Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson, who—let’s be honest—the typical Washington reporter views as a dangerous religious extremist because he is an adamant foe of things like legal abortion and gay marriage.

According to a spokeswoman for the court, the language in the letter was standard whether it was sent to Dobson or to the “scores” of other people who supported Alito.

The letter should not surprise anyone. And nothing about it should ring alarms, regardless of whether it was sent to certain religious people, whose faith does not bar them from participation in the American political process.

Certainly, Alito’s letter was nothing like that sent from the first U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay to Jedidiah Morse on February 28, 1797: “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers,” wrote Jay, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. “And it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest, of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

The Alito letter is also quite unlike Jay’s letter to his wife Sally on April 20, 1794, when he wrote of his task on the Supreme Court: “God’s will be done; to him I resign—in him I confide.”

Or, compare Alito’s words to John Marshall’s May 9, 1833 letter to Jasper Adams. “The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and Religion are identified,” wrote the sitting chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was then in his 32nd of 34 years on the high court. “It would be strange indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it.”

I understand that many modern observers see such views as anachronistic. Then again, even today it is not unusual for our nation’s leaders to thank God and perceive the hand of Providence in placing them in office.

For instance, President Bill Clinton stated on November 19, 1993: “By the grace of God and your help, last year I was elected President of this great country.”

Thus, people like myself struggle to understand the hysterical reaction to a letter from Alito that, by any objective standard, is not bothersome. And yet, the press responded as if Alito had penned an epistle to Christian brethren in Corinth.

In reaction to Alito’s letter, journalists sought out academic authorities to judge whether the newest justice had transgressed the line separating church and state. The New York Times consulted a law professor from New York University, who was troubled by the “inartful,” “clumsy,” “unfortunate,” “poor choice of language” by Alito.

Most press accounts quoted a statement from Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who fumed: “This note strongly suggests that Alito is carrying out a right-wing agenda instead of being a justice for all.” Lynn’s assessment is outrageous; he should not be taken seriously.

The reaction to this simple letter from Alito says much more about the dominant press than it does Alito. There is a profound ignorance of the role of religion in the history of this country, from the earliest days of the founding up through today. When combined with an increasingly hostile secularism, this ignorance is pushing much of the media and the culture it shapes into a near bigotry toward religious people, or at least toward conservative religious people.

It is this kind of incident that should prompt the mainstream press to take a hard look at itself, and to question its own thinking rather than that of those crazy right-wingers.