On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy gave religious conservatives their biggest victory of Donald Trump’s presidency thus far when he announced he would be stepping down from the Supreme Court. The exit of Kennedy, often a swing vote in 5-4 decisions, gives Trump the opportunity to nominate a strict conservative and move the court farther to the right. In doing so, he will fulfill the dreams of white evangelical voters who embraced Trump, of all people, in order to protect the court’s conservative majority.
Trump’s rightward remaking of the court not only shows the very real consequences of his election but also is the culmination of more than 40 years of political organizing by the religious right. It guarantees an even stronger and more enthusiastic link between white evangelicals and Trump, shoring up a formidable partnership for the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential race.
Stressing the importance of the Supreme Court in the 2016 campaign made sense for evangelical leaders, given Trump’s ill-defined and less-than-conservative politics. “The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court,” Franklin Graham repeatedly reminded audiences. Other evangelical supporters, including Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson and Tony Perkins, stressed that Trump would appoint judges sympathetic to conservative Christians’ views on abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty. “We have an election between someone who promises he will support issues important to us as Christians, including appointing justices to the Supreme Court who would make us all proud — that’s Donald Trump — and someone who promises she will do just the opposite. That’s Hillary Clinton,” Falwell said in a meeting of several hundred evangelical ministers in the summer of 2016.
Focusing on the Supreme Court served as a useful cover for the personal shortcomings of the thrice-married casino magnate, especially after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out just weeks before the election. “Hold your nose and go vote,” Graham told more than 10,000 Christians at a prayer rally after the news broke. “You have to decide which one of the two that you would trust to appoint justices that are going to protect our religious freedom as Christians.”
Considering Trump’s profane nature and his propensity for making racist and misogynist statements, they may have needed to cover their eyes and plug their ears as well.
Or not. A recent poll of Republicans showed that 90 percent support the president, and white evangelicals remain his strongest base. As it turns out, the emphasis on the Supreme Court may have been more useful in providing cover for Trump’s evangelical supporters than for Trump himself — a rationalization of political expediency that hid the fact that most white evangelicals were all too happy to vote for Trump.
Either way, there’s no doubting how much the Supreme Court has served as a mobilizing force for religious conservatives for over half a century. Starting in the early 1960s with the Supreme Court’s outlawing of prayer and Bible reading in public schools, religious conservatives have seen the court as hostile to their values. “Our nation was built on Christianity and Christian principles,” Jerry Falwell Sr. said in 1967, “and no nine men have the power to undermine and rock that which God has built up.”
Roe v. Wade’s legalization of abortion rights nationwide in 1973 provided the burgeoning religious right with a powerful organizing focus, helping unite religious conservatives into a potent political bloc for the Republican Party. GOP presidential candidates understood the deal. They vowed to appoint conservative jurists who would overturn Roe and push the court back in a conservative direction.
That bargain hasn’t always worked out for the religious right. Conservatives viewed Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor and George H.W. Bush’s selection of David Souter as major disappointments, for instance.
But seeing the court as the way to accomplish their objectives — and their last defense against the total secularization of American life — has kept religious conservatives closely attached to every Republican presidential nominee. “Supreme Court judges will probably be chosen by the next president,” the conservative Cal Thomas said on his radio show in 1984. “Will they keep the abortion floodgates open or start to close them? It’s up to you.”
That warning has operated as a powerful logic for religious conservatives in elections for more than 30 years. For millions of voters, Trump’s pledge to nominate only anti-abortion jurists to the high court was all the reason they needed, and 81 percent of white evangelicals gave him their vote.
The emphasis on the Supreme Court may have been more useful in providing cover for Trump’s evangelical supporters than for Trump himself.
The irony, of course, is that the vulgar wild card Trump will bring about a more conservative court than Reagan or George W. Bush ever did. Trump has already moved the lower courts decidedly rightward, stocking judicial vacancies with nominees recommended by the archconservative Federalist Society. His nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court spot stolen from Barack Obama by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell elated conservatives — early proof that the bet on Trump proved the right one.
They have now hit the jackpot with the opportunity for Trump to nominate a second justice. Replacing Kennedy, an unreliable vote on abortion cases, with a solidly anti-abortion judge makes it likely that Roe will be overturned. Gay rights may be even more vulnerable — a cruel outcome, given Kennedy’s role in establishing some of those rights.
Securing that legacy apparently didn’t matter enough to Kennedy for him to remain on the bench. In stepping down from the Supreme Court, he has instead secured Trump’s legacy with the religious right. Should any more court openings emerge while Trump is president, we may yet find ourselves in a judicial landscape that even religious conservatives could never have imagined praying for.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”