An appeal to heaven: Find Sam Alito another job

Alito and Clarence Thomas have been exposed as shameless partisan hacks. But the high court's rot goes much deeper

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published June 2, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Samuel Alito | An Appeal To Heaven Flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Samuel Alito | An Appeal To Heaven Flag (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

So in addition to the upside-down American flag displayed at his Virginia home, first reported by the New York Times, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito had that “Appeal to Heaven” flag aloft at his beach house on the New Jersey shore.

He blamed his wife for the first instance, but initially declined to comment about the second — before blaming his wife again. Didn’t Alito have someone else minding that house — a caretaker, or a cleaner — whom he could convince to take the fall?

On the other hand, why are we surprised? The Supreme Court’s so-called conservative justices have variously been vetted, feted and cosseted by the Federalist Society, along with other well-heeled enablers, to encourage unstinting partisanship. Alito should recuse himself from any cases involving insurrection and Donald Trump, but has already said he will not. True to form, he is aggrieved and defiant, rather than diplomatic or statesmanlike.

We know Alito’s insurrectionist flags are still aloft in his ever aggrieved mind, while also flapping wildly in the sullen gusts of wind inside Justice Clarence Thomas’ head.

Greg Olear recently wrote on Substack that the pro-insurrectionist upside-down American flag and the one beseeching God for relief from demonic Democrats should reopen questions about Alito’s alleged connections to the plan to overturn the 2020 election. Conspiracy theorist and former Trump team lawyer Sidney Powell, as Olear notes, has claimed that Alito was part of the plan to stop the electoral vote count. Was Alito aware of that?

Sam and Martha-Ann Alito have done us a favor, if only inadvertently, by highlighting once again that our Supreme Court is not only pretty darn comfortable with grifters like Alito and Thomas, but is also loaded with religious and ideological zealots.  

Providing an account of the history of Alito's second repurposed flag, Lindsay Beyerstein notes in Salon:

Many people are dimly aware that the Appeal to Heaven flag is connected to Trump and the insurrection, but what most don’t realize is that the banner is the calling card of a Christian supremacist movement seeking to impose theocracy on America. This non-denominational Christian tradition rooted in evangelism and Pentecostalism is known to scholars as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Leaders teach that the group’s political enemies are possessed by demons.

Decades ago, right-wing political quacks like Newt Gingrich concluded that comity and compromise on the part of politicians made the government look too good, as if it could actually work. Therefore, their colleagues across the aisle had to be made into enemies by employing a Gingrichian lexicon against them that included words such as "cheat," "disgraceful," "sick" and "traitor." (The entire list is unsurprisingly full of projection.)

Sam and Martha-Ann Alito have done us a favor, inadvertently, by highlighting that our Supreme Court is not only pretty darn comfortable with grifters like Alito and Thomas, but is also loaded with religious and ideological zealots. 

Once you head down that road, it’s hard to find a way back. Add a few more decades of regular inoculations against reality with fervent politico-religious rhetoric amplified by Fox News, and a pathologically insecure megalomaniac like Donald Trump, and even the people on your own side of the aisle come under attack for disloyalty. Democrats have been rendered pedophiles who eat children. Literal "demons." The main candidate on the MAGA right calls the Democratic Party and their supporters "enemies" of America. He evidently thinks of nonwhite immigrants as "vermin."

Whew! When I was younger, we mostly disagreed with our Republican friends on the military budget and what constituted fair taxation. 

It’s no surprise that this purposeful political rancor infected the highest court in the land. Thanks to their Federalist Society and, in most cases, their hard-line Catholic pedigrees, the "conservative" justices of the Supreme Court are steeped in ideological and religious dogma. 

People talk about establishing ethics rules for the high court, but the country needs more than rules that can be ignored by justices who are confirmed as individuals and have notably weak leadership from Chief Justice John Roberts. As others have advocated, the court must be revamped to take politics and personality out of the equation. A rotating group of federal judges, drawn from circuit courts around the country, seems like a highly sensible option. At this point, I would prefer a court of randomly selected citizens without law degrees. 

Grooming judges through the Federalist Society would have to stop. Even under the current ethical rules that supposedly govern all judges, that should be the case. Radical-right politicians and pundits would protest, of course, that every college and law school is rife with liberal indoctrination and that’s why they started the society in the first place (landing on that remarkably misleading name). What can we even say when a broad secular education is decried as a socialist plot against America? 

It's true enough that most of America's founders were Christian, but many of those, like Thomas Paine, followed deism, which posits a detached supernatural creator who does not meddle in human affairs — and who doesn't care about our dogma and our prayers. One might point to the sheer variety of Christian sects present during the revolutionary period as evidence of the absolute need for separation of church and state. 

Trump, like many of his followers, barely even pretends to be a Christian. One could accurately label his faith system "meism." Alito and Thomas, it would appear, belong to the same sect. 

The founders would never have imagined that judges, called to be impartial above all else, would be groomed by partisans for ideological conformity. We should all remember that when the Federalist-approved justices piously pretend that they are not partisan hacks and lecture us on their séance-like “originalist" readings of the Constitution. They play-act peering into the minds and hearts of the founders while willfully missing the main points, about exercising judicial impartiality, disclosing potential conflicts of interest and honoring our cornerstone separation of church and state.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

I also suspect the founders would be troubled to see so many justices with strong religious beliefs. Of the nine on the Supreme Court, six are devout Roman Catholics while a seventh (Neil Gorsuch) was raised in the faith. One of those, Amy Coney Barrett, belongs to a right-wing Catholic group that's difficult to categorize but has been associated with the "tradwife" movement. If the court roughly represented America as a whole, there would be four or five Protestants, roughly two Catholics and at least a couple of judges with no particular religious faith. And in any case, their personal faith systems would be private and understood as largely irrelevant.

In his masterful book "Head and Heart: American Christianities," journalist and historian Garry Wills (himself a Catholic) writes that the disestablishment of the official church at America's founding "was a stunning innovation":

No other government had been launched without the protection of an official cult. This is the only original part of the Constitution. Everything else — federalism, three branches of government, two houses of the legislature, an independent judiciary — had been around for a long time, in theory and in practice. But Disestablishment was not a thing with precedents.

Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene would no doubt disagree strongly and loudly, but Wills has a point: Separation of church and state is the one true genius thing about our Constitution.

Is there a lesson here? There is: Live your religious beliefs! There are many to choose from. Flourish and multiply, if you can! But America’s founders made a rule, which is that the rest of us are not forced to live your faith.

If an individual, including some of those currently on our highest court, finds it difficult to serve as a judge because they cannot suppress their fervent ideological or religious beliefs, that person should do us all a favor and seek a new career. There may not be many jobs that call for such key skills as spitefulness, ignoring precedent, grifting from billionaire pals and blaming your spouse for a blatant political blunder. But isn't that what LinkedIn is for?

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

MORE FROM Kirk Swearingen