A Christian Nationalist Court Is Strangling Us | Opinion

Week after week, we're confronted with the horrifying consequences of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. A 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio forced to cross state lines to obtain an abortion. A miscarrying Texan having to wait until she's on the brink of death to terminate her unviable pregnancy.

It's no surprise that Americans are losing faith in the court as an institution. A recent survey from Gallup shows that the percentage of Americans who have confidence in the Supreme Court has collapsed to an all-time low of 25 percent, a drop of 11 points from just a year ago and five points lower than the previous record.

What is driving this catastrophic loss of trust in the court? Put simply, the American people now see that the Christian nationalist majority on the court no longer serves our interests, reflects our values, or is committed to telling us the truth.

American religion is facing much the same fate—and for many of the same reasons. Confidence in churches and organized religion has declined by six points in the past year. This decline is happening at the same time Americans are leaving the pews, with fewer than half belonging to a religious congregation and nearly a third of all Americans identifying with no particular religion.

The Supreme Court and many of our nation's churches have become increasingly politicized and battle sites for partisan warfare. But beyond just the rancorous political fights, the past few years—and this most recent Supreme Court term in particular—have made it crystal clear that this court is interested in advancing the interests and elevating the beliefs of conservative Christians above all others, insulating them from our increasingly secular society.

Pro-Abortion Demonstration
Pro-abortion rights protesters demonstrate outside of a Catholic church in downtown Manhattan on Aug. 6, 2022. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

For all of Justice Samuel Alito's claims that "history and tradition" justify his decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization to overturn Roe v. Wade, we should call this deeply unpopular decision what it was: an outcome-driven ruling, steeped in religious moralizing, that was the product of decades of political action.

In Dobbs, Justice Alito played amateur historian in tracing the supposed "history and tradition" of abortion bans in the United States, claiming that "an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973." In doing so, he fabricated a historical record that, quite simply, doesn't exist.

While there is no question the Dobbs decision is having an immediate and dangerous impact on the lives of millions of Americans, it was by no means the only example of the court's willingness to ignore decades of precedent, the plain language of our laws and the Constitution, and indeed basic facts if it means ruling in favor of conservative Christian ideology.

In Carson v. Makin, the court ignored its own decisions from just the past few years and signaled for the first time that states are not just permitted, but indeed obligated, to directly fund discriminatory, private religious schools engaged in sectarian religious inculcation with money intended to guarantee students a public education.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton, Justice Neil Gorsuch opens the court's decision with what can charitably be called misstatements of the facts. The majority repeatedly claims that a coach "lost his job" for his "private" and "quiet" prayers. In fact, the coach chose not to reapply for his part time coaching position after leading his team—and encouraging players to recruit the opposing team—in public, devotional, and coercive prayers at the 50-yard line. Justice Sonia Sotomayor went so far as to include in her dissent photos of the coach leading players in prayer. This decision was so disconnected from the facts of the case that it provides little guidance to lower courts on how to proceed in future cases.

And in cases related to COVID-19 restrictions limiting the size of gatherings, which happened to include religious worship, Gorsuch reasoned that because retail stores had no capacity limit, neither should houses of worship. In so doing, he ignored the fundamental difference between brief visits to retail stores and the act of sitting together in worship for hours at a time.

The Supreme Court has no military, no power of the purse, and no independent ability to carry out its decisions. Its power is predicated on the public's belief—and the belief of the other branches of government—that it has legitimate reason to compel action and that doing so is necessary for a functioning society. President Andrew Jackson's apocryphal response following the court's ruling in Worcester v. Georgia that "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it" is indicative of the problem the court has when the perception of its power and legitimacy fades.

As the court issues decisions that have no basis in fact and seem more about advancing a particular political and religious agenda than fealty to the law, of course Americans have reason to doubt its legitimacy. What's notable to me is the parallels between the decline in trust the court is experiencing—thanks to its embrace of raw partisanship and a religious agenda—and the decline in trust and membership that religion is experiencing—thanks to religion's embrace of a partisan politicalagenda.

Study after study has examined the role that the mixing of religion with politics has played in the growth of the nonreligious and religiously unaffiliated. Many have concluded that the obsessive focus on culture war issues—gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, and others—actually drove people who were more progressive on these issues away from Christianity rather than convince them to change their political views.

From speaking with former Evangelical Christians who are now fellow atheists, the reason is obvious: if religious leaders, the self-proclaimed arbiters of principled and timeless truths, can be so wrong about our LGBTQ friends, family, and loved ones or be exposed time and time again as rank hypocrites on matters of abortion, morality, and values, why should we listen to anything they say?

If those same leaders ignore or express hostility to our core values—caring for our neighbors, working to improve the world around us, and a commitment to democracy, compromise, and pluralism—in their quest to preserve power and accumulate even more, what claim do they have to speak on our behalf?

This outcome-driven jurisprudence is about maintaining and entrenching power for a shrinking religious and political demographic. And still, the media and too many civil leaders look to the court to tell us what the law really means, what our Constitution protects. But it seems that these Christian conservative justices, just like those religious leaders, are far less interested in coherent and consistent leadership than in absolute power and control.

As Justice Alito and other religious conservatives rail against the dangers of ascendant secularism and blame secularists for the decline of religion, they ignore the role they've played in the public's growing distrust of our institutions.

Americans are losing faith in religion and in the Supreme Court. And the people most responsible for that loss are doing everything they can to blame anyone else but themselves.

Nick Fish is the president of American Atheists and a seasoned civil rights and civil liberties advocate with 15 years of policy, political, and organizing experience fighting for the rights of atheists, humanists, and all nonreligious Americans.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.