At a recent event, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was asked how the country can become less polarized. He responded, “I wish I knew. I don’t know. … American citizens in general need to work on this to heal this polarization because it’s very dangerous.”

Alito went on to say he doubted the court itself could do anything about polarization: “We have a very defined role, and we need to do what we’re supposed to do. But this is a bigger problem. This is way above us.”

Alito was secretly recorded, and his remarks have made headlines, with some people outraged about what Alito said, and others outraged about the actions of the self-described “advocacy journalist” who made the recordings.

But setting those controversies aside, Alito’s remarks on polarization, and the court’s role in reducing it, are worth a national discussion.

While some argue that the court should remain strictly impartial and avoid any perceived “moral” role, it’s important to recognize that the laws the court interprets and applies are ultimately rooted in our society’s moral positions. As such, the court inevitably serves as an arbiter of these underlying moral frameworks.

And, despite Alito’s doubts, the American founders actually envisioned the judiciary — especially the Supreme Court — as a “republican schoolmaster” educating the public on constitutional values. Today, the court remains uniquely positioned through its influential rulings and outreach efforts to shape this vital public discourse.

There have been glimpses of this educative role’s impact, such as how Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, helped sway opinion on the issue. But the court can’t always count on its decisions alone to unite a polarized nation. It needs a systematic method to build understanding and acceptance among all Americans, especially in culturally explosive cases.

One model, proposed several decades ago by legal scholar Christopher Eisgruber, suggests the court should first identify values or beliefs that both sides share and agree on, and then describe an idealized version of those shared values in a way that unites people from opposing sides. This model is a good starting point, but something more is needed for today’s hyperpolarized reality. The court must go further by validating the diverse moral perspectives across different groups.

Fields like psychology offer valuable insights here that the court should apply. Cultural cognition theory, developed by scholars like Dan Kahan, posits that people tend to process information in a way that fits and protects the values, beliefs and identities tied to their ideological or cultural group. We are not impartial, rational actors but rather subconsciously filter facts to confirm our worldviews that are shaped by factors like community, socioeconomic status, race and more.

Moral foundations theory, pioneered by researchers like Jonathan Haidt, holds that people make moral judgments and determine right from wrong not through pure reasoning but through innate moral foundations. These foundations include care (sensitivity and concern for the suffering of others), fairness (concerns about injustice and cheating), loyalty (favoring your group and being wary of outsiders), authority (respect for traditions and legitimate authorities) and purity (avoiding contaminants that are unnatural or distressing).

While these moral foundations are intuitive, different groups and cultures emphasize some over others.

For example, researchers have found that conservatives tend to give relatively equal weight to all five foundations, while liberals rely most heavily on the care and fairness foundations in their moral reasoning. This difference in fundamental moral intuitions helps explain why liberals and conservatives often talk past each other on polarizing issues — they are starting from divergent underlying moral matrices.

Thus, the court’s rulings, while legally and constitutionally sound from an impartial perspective, can deeply resonate with the cultural worldviews and moral intuitions of some social groups while alienating and even offending others whose foundational values differ.

At another recent event, Alito suggested that negotiation with “the left” may be pointless, but conceded, “I mean there can be a way of working, a way of living together peacefully, right? It’s difficult because there are differences on fundamental things that can’t be compromised.”

An intellectually humble court recognizes this reality about human psychology. By speaking to diverse moral foundations, it can demonstrate its fairness and reduce polarization, without expecting total agreement. Examining cases through the lenses of cultural cognition and moral foundations theory illuminates paths for opinions to cultivate broader resonance and build wider public trust.

A few examples: In the controversial Roman Catholic diocese case challenging New York’s capacity limits on religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the court could have more overtly acknowledged the sincerely held moral perspectives on both sides. It could have validated public health officials’ stance rooted in the harm/care foundation of preventing widespread suffering and death. At the same time, the court could have affirmed religious adherents’ purity/sanctity-based convictions about upholding the sacred nature of communal worship, particularly during times of crisis, when services provide vital spiritual sustenance.

Similarly, in 303 Creative v. Elenis, involving a Christian website designer’s refusal to create same-sex wedding websites, the court could have signaled that truly upholding the principle of equal human dignity means protecting both sides’ ability to live according to their core values and identities — the LGBTQ+ couple’s wish to have their marriage celebrated, and the designer’s wish to remain true to her faith’s teachings on marriage. Compelling either side to abandon these fundamental beliefs disrespects their humanity.

From a cultural cognition perspective, the court could have framed the case in a way that affirmed the identities of both the LGBTQ+ community (oriented around dignity/autonomy values) and the religious web designer (oriented around traditional purity/sanctity values). This “expressive overdetermination” allows diverse groups to maintain an enlarged positive self-conception even when the specific outcome clashes with their stance.

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Critically examining cases through the lenses of cultural cognition and moral foundations theory illuminates paths for judicial opinions to cultivate broader societal resonance. This sort of balanced approach can build wider public trust and prevent rulings that fuel toxic cultural divides by declaring total victory for one side only.

As James Madison knew, protecting true religious pluralism is essential for preventing any single sect’s dominance and preserving national unity. But recognizing this duty is insufficient on its own — the court must master effective, culturally competent communication. By validating the moral perspectives across different groups, the court can reduce polarization and demonstrate that its decisions are both fair and firmly grounded in enduring constitutional principles.

As the rifts in our union seem to deepen by the day, the court has a vital potential — and a weighty responsibility — to be not just a judicious arbiter, but a unifying civic force educating a polarized nation. Rising to meet this formidable challenge is essential for preserving constitutional democracy for all.

Asma T. Uddin is an attorney, a Deseret contributing writer and author ofWhen Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom” and “The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America.”

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