Playing the Long Game – Conservative Evangelicals and the US Supreme Court

Many observers of American politics are utterly befuddled by the reaction of many Republicans, first to the candidacy and then the actual presidency of Donald Trump.

Why, so many wonder, do they tolerate, and even defend, a candidate who has so often been openly contemptuous of them and their party? He has belittled, insulted, denigrated, and bullied them, not to mention lied about them at almost every turn. And since he’s not demonstrated any discernible ideological core- other than the intrinsic goodness of his own success- it’s even difficult to tell from one day to the next if he even agrees with the party he ostensibly leads.

Then within the Republicans are those who identify as Evangelical Christians, who seem to present an even greater conundrum. How, many have wondered, in light of the strict moral code they’ve been loudly proclaiming for a century, can they now support a crass, boorish, twice-divorced serial liar who has yet to attend a church since his inauguration and spent his first address to the National Prayer Breakfast talking about Celebrity Apprentice… with profanity?

The disconnect is so striking that a good deal of the resistance to Trump has seemed to involve a strategy of drawing attention to the disconnect as much as possible, the idea presumably being that, after enough headlines and late-night talk show gags saying, ‘Look what he did today!’, Republicans- Evangelical or otherwise- will eventually be so outraged and/or embarrassed that they’ll eventually abandon the President altogether.

It’s an interesting, entertaining, and even important strategy. But having grown up in the Evangelical Christian subculture and having worked with Evangelical organizations for decades, I don’t think it’s going to work.

It assumes that Evangelicals who voted for Trump were- at best- uninformed or misinformed dupes or were- at worst- simply hypocrites. And there’s probably a bit of both in there somewhere.

But I think there’s another factor at play, one that allows for the fact that many Evangelicals might be personally unhappy, even disgusted, with Trump the man but are willing to embrace Trump the President.

To do that, Republicans- and Evangelical Christian Republicans in particular- need a lens that focuses on the very narrow, the very strategic, and the very long-term.

The lens they’re using is the Supreme Court.

In essence- unlike their liberal and progressive opponents- they aren’t looking at the absurdity of Trump in regards to the Executive Branch; they’re looking at practicalities of him regarding the Judicial Branch.

When it comes to social issues that they care about- curbing the march of LGBT rights, banning abortion, halting publicly-funded sex education, issues of religious conscience- Evangelical Christian Republicans have (so to speak) seen the writing on the wall.

They realize that the tide of public opinion, the flow of social culture, and political demographics are against them.

They realize that the scope and definition of those and other issues are interpreted by the courts, and Getting the ‘right’ kind of justices onto the Supreme Court- by which they mean a ‘strict reading’ of the Constitution- is the key factor that they look for in a Presidential candidate.

As they see it, the Constitution never mentions gay people, but it does very specifically mention guns, speech, and religion. Thus, all of the rights and protections that courts have recently given to LGBT people are seen as a dangerous overstepping of the courts’ bounds of influence. But the right of a Christian shopkeeper to refuse service to a gay couple, the rights of a pastor to publicly declare that gays are going to hell, or the right to post the Ten Commandments in a government building are all Constitutional issues of free speech and free conscience that the courts must uphold, without all these new-fangled liberal notions of ‘separation of church and state’ and ‘hate speech’.

Trump has nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Now it is, of course, impossible to predict how Gorsuch would rule on this or that issue that came before the court if he is in fact appointed. Indeed, a quick look across his decision history shows him to be a reasonably thoughtful jurist.

But he leans right, certainly a lot more right than anyone Hilary Clinton would have nominated.

And that’s the clincher.  All during the election, the Supreme Court was in the background of most Republicans, particularly Evangelical Republicans.

Supreme Court justices have lifetime appointments. Gorsuch is 49. Liberal stalwarts on the court like Breyer and Ginsburg are 78 and 84, respectively. There’s a realistic chance that Trump could put three new justices on the court, perhaps giving the US a right-leaning court for at least a generation, if not longer.

Are you starting to see the math? Evangelical Republicans do.

Their ‘holy grail’ remains overturning Roe V. Wade, the 1972 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. But even if they can’t scale that lofty height, getting solid, basically conservative justices who will-as they see it- at least begin from their basic ideological perspective is seen as a solid, strategic win.

So, despite the Trump Administration’s goofs, gaffes, recklessness, impetuousness, embarrassments, nepotism, paradoxes, potential corruptions, and conflicts of interests, many on the right- particularly the religious right- have every reason to think that things are going very well indeed.

Jon Hatch is a theologian, educator, and post-conflict expert. He blogs at http://reflectionsforthursdays.blogspot.com/