When American political figures travel abroad, they should do so representing America and the best that it has to offer. In a month where Nancy Pelosi also visited Rome, so too did Justice Samuel Alito, the penman who wrote the official opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Rather than use his time to fraternize with the pope or hit the beach, Alito keynoted the second annual Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit.
Alito begins his speech citing the history of religious persecution within Rome, referencing Peter and Paul’s martyrdoms as well as the abuse in the coliseum before citing the holocaust and other events in recent history. Most notably, he references the Christians being killed in Nigeria and the Uyghurs in China.
Alito then moves on to state that the challenges of defending religious liberty in Europe and America is convincing those who “are not religious that religious liberty is worth special protection.” As what was Christendom and America become increasingly secular, this threat was rightly identified by Alito. He proceeds to state that it is a dominant view among “legal academics that religion doesn’t merit special protection…A liberal society, they say, should be value neutral” which would indicate that religion is treated no differently than any other passionate belief. If this is what a Supreme Court Justice contends is the prevailing view of most lawyers, then it probably is the case within the legal community as he is likely exposed to numerous lawyers, scholars, and legal briefings.
As a note, value neutrality is an impossibility as someone’s values are always being imposed, whether it be that of the state’s preferred ideology, a rival religion, or one’s own religion. In any case, any policy or legislation is imposing values upon society.
Alito uses a hypothetical example of three people: a Green Bay Packer’s fan, a Muslim, and a Jew. In all three cases, these people have preferred headwear, but no one would equate the Packer fanatic’s cheese hat to that of the Muslim or the Jew.
Alito then goes on to describe the various UN Declaration of Rights and its European counterpart documents in their protections of religious liberty, before declaring the weakness of “positive law.” Justice Alito states that “positive law can always be changed and perhaps more important, it has to be interpreted, and any judge who wants to shrink religious liberty will not find it difficult to do so.” He then cites that the European Convention provides various limitations to religious liberty which can effectively reduce it to “freedom of worship.” In this interpretation, freedom of worship applies within the home or the place of worship specifically and not in the public square.
Rather than comment on foreign abuses of religious liberty, Alito takes aim at foreign leaders who condemned America’s interpretation of it, specifically in reference to an unnamed, yet obvious, decision penned by Alito himself. Foreign leaders he called out included Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau, and Emanuel Macron. For a conference that has demonstrated itself to be very inter-faith, this might be the closest this conference comes to condemning the Covid tyranny as Alito subtly calls out these leaders after explaining how their secular societies reduced religious exercise for health emergencies.
Alito proceeds to offer three points for strengthening religious liberty around the world, particularly in addressing the “nones” who do not understand or believe in its values. The first point is that religious liberty fosters societal tranquility. The second point is to articulate the charitable work done through various religious institutions. The third value he asserts is social reform, referencing the abolition of slavery. I might digress that he is too generous in describing MLK’s faith, but these points are made for nonreligious people. He then goes on to argue that protecting religious liberty protects other freedoms, such as speech and assembly. At its strongest, it can bring down totalitarian regimes, in which he references the life of Pope John Paul II.
Justice Samuel Alito delivers a succinct address in forty minutes without coming across as pretentious. In fact, he is rather surgical in his delivery, capable of levity and rather optimistic in outlook.
Nevertheless, there is value to be had in his words. Entering a post-Christian society, we will be increasingly challenged by atheistic or nonreligious people in our daily lives rather than the traditional pagans of previous generations. While there is much that can be said of an apologetic approach in confronting a Muslim or Mormon, the bulk of the population is increasingly hostile to religious practice in general. Part of Alito’s message is that we must present an apologetic for the value of religious institutions.
To do that, the church requires two main ingredients: one, knowledge of church history; two, actions to match one’s faith. Understanding history is important to understanding the present. More importantly, it allows one to combat reductionist misconceptions many of the “nones” might have against religious institutions. By matching actions to one’s faith, the light of the world is not being hidden underneath a lamp stand. This could also be done by highlighting the ongoing actions churches are engaged in. For example, there is the strawman that Christians do not care about pregnant mothers. This of course is contrasted with the democrat’s hatred of pro-life pregnancy centers. Faith met with actions.
In Alito’s point on social reform and tranquility, we should articulate that biblical values are objectively what is best for societal flourishing and prosperity—that God’s inspired word actually works in application and negative consequences empirically exist for sin. Perhaps emphasizing the Imago Dei, which led to the valuing of life to the abolition of slavery and hopefully abortion, would work better on a secular society that is increasingly nihilistic and clinically depressed.