As U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday (Jan. 18) heard oral arguments in a case about the Christian flag, Christian pastors and activists rallied outside the building to explain what a victory would mean. Inside, their lawyer claimed this was just a case about free speech and government censorship. Outside, the group’s rally presented a different reason Boston should fly the Christian flag: This is a Christian nation.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican in Missouri running for the U.S. Senate, praised Camp Constitution (the group behind this case) as “an amazing organization” that wanted to fly the Christian flag at City Hall “in honor of our Christian heritage, the Christian founders who helped write the Constitution, and to make others aware that that is the basis of our country and the goodness of our country.” For her, then, this case is about standing for “the rights of our country that were founded on our Christian faith.”
Similarly, Tim Goeglein, a vice president at Focus on the Family, said his group supports the effort to fly the Christian flag at City Hall because “we are one nation under God” and because Massachusetts was founded as a Christian commonwealth and should remain so.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Christian activist group Massachusetts Family Institute, quoted from historical figures — like colonial leaders John Winthrop and William Bradford — to justify why Boston should fly the Christian flag. Beckwith used the quotes to cast Boston as an officially and explicitly Christian city. And Beckwith insisted there is “a glorious diversity” of people to whom the Christian flag is meaningful: “It’s not just the Anglo-Saxon Protestants like the Pilgrims or the Irish and Italian Catholics that Boston is known for. The Christian community in this city includes Greek Orthodox, Brazilian Pentecostals, and Ethiopian evangelicals.”
While Boston claimed it would not fly any sectarian flag, the speakers at the rally outside the Supreme Court claimed Boston was anti-Christian when it should instead be Christian. They didn’t want equality but endorsement.
But the troubling rhetoric of Christian Nationalism didn’t stop at the courthouse steps. Inside the chamber, Justice Neil Gorsuch ideologically unmasked himself during oral arguments.
“[Boston Property Management Department Commissioner Gregory] Rooney apparently denied the request because he thought the Establishment Clause required him to do so,” Gorsuch said as he questioned Boston’s attorney. “He thought it was concern about the so-called separation of state, church and state, or the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.”
With that passing reference to the constitutional principle of church-state separation as “so-called,” Gorsuch exposed a dangerous ideology behind many of his decisions. Regardless of how the justices rule in this case, that line deserves greater attention because it helps us understand the threat to our First Amendment freedoms.
In this issue of A Public Witness, we tune into the oral arguments in Shurtleff v. City of Boston. We also judge the effort to undermine the Jeffersonian-called separation of church and state by conservative Christians and unlikely allies like President Joe Biden and the ACLU.