With increasing focus and fury, the Religious Right has concentrated its political strategy on reshaping the Supreme Court of the United States. They think a Court stacked with staunch conservative judges will do for the country what all the sermons, elections, and legislation have failed to accomplish: return America to what they claim as its moral and religious foundations (or, in words of more recent fame, make America great again).
Are they right about this?
Can the Supreme Court carry all the cultural and political freight that has been lashed to their black-robed backs?
Beginning about 1980, the Religious Right has framed their struggle for moral and political progress as a war, a culture war. The original Jerry Falwell, with James Dobson, the late Phyllis Schlafly, and other white Evangelicals, galvanized millions of believers and voters to join ranks with the Republican Party to turn the country around. For simplicity, let’s call this coalition R3 (Republican Religious Right).
This coalition—R3—was motivated by a Supreme Court that, according to them, had grown increasingly bold, interfering with normal American life by mandating school integration, allowing abortion, and prohibiting certain kinds of praying and Bible reading in public schools.
When the Court later struck down state rules about sodomy and followed that with the endorsement of homosexual marriage, the wrath of R3 intensified and turned their votes from traditional Republicans (Bush one and Bush two) to Donald J Trump. It was their support that pushed him over the top and made him the 45th President of the United States.
Like his three presidential predecessors, Trump has placed two persons on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. This has given the Court a strong but not decisive five-person majority for what R3 thinks is a conservative majority. They are giddy with the prospects of the Court overturning the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.
But here is the problem.
The American public (including most Christians) has given broad support to the very things that have so irritated R3: equal rights for minorities, separation of church and state, right to privacy (and thus abortion), and gay marriage. This has pushed the religious element of the R3 coalition, mainly white Evangelicals, into minority status; which has fueled their self-perception as a persecuted people. Which has, in turn, given rise to the now-ubiquitous demand for “religious freedom”—that is, the right to claim exemption from all the laws they find objectionable.
The new Court may accommodate them. It may slowly undermine or outright abandon many of the strong rulings of the last 70 years; it may turn its back on voting rights, abortion rights, gay rights, even consumer rights. But will that ignite the moral revival so desired by the R3 coalition? Will that produce a victory in the cultural war that R3 has so valiantly fought for forty plus years?
I doubt it.
The United States of America is moving slowly but surely in a direction anathema to the values and hopes of R3: more diverse and less religious, more colored and less white, more global and less American, more tolerant and less restrictive, more progressive and less conservative.
Nothing the Supreme Court does in the next decade can slow this transformation. Our cultural train is picking up speed and no set of breaks, notwithstanding the pile of impressive titles, can slow it down. Even the Court knows this; and this may simply intensify their ideological instinct to keep a low profile.
The recent decisions on voting districts tend in this direction. “Gerrymandering is a problem,” the Court essentially ruled, “and we think it is bad for democracy; but we (the Court) have neither the authority nor the inclination to fix it. Find another solution.”
But not even more extreme gerrymandering can redirect the demographic and ideological rivers that are running across our land. We are becoming all the things R3 so despises; and the published decisions of the Supreme Court will take their place along side the proclaimed sermons of their ministers and the promulgated laws of their legislatures as ineffective in the long-running war to shape the culture of our great nation according to their vision of the way things ought to be.
I join many Americans, upon hearing this news and watching these efforts, to say, “Thank you, Jesus!”
copyright 2019 Dwight A. Moody