Jhe Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which struck down the constitutional abortion rights enjoyed by American women for the past 50 years, surprised many voters. A majority, after all, support reproductive rights and see their abolition as regressive and barbaric.
Understood in the context of the movement that created the Supreme Court in its current incarnation, it is however not surprising. In fact, it marks the beginning rather than the end of the agenda this movement has in mind.
At the heart of Dobbs is the belief that the power of government can and should be used to impose a certain moral and religious vision – a supposedly biblical and regressive understanding of the Christian religion – upon the general population. .
How could this conviction be so influential in the courts, given the long-standing American principle of separation of church and state? To understand why this is happening now, it is important to know something about the history of the Christian nationalist movement, how its leaders chose the abortion issue as a way to create single-issue voters, and how they united conservatives across denominational barriers in, in effect, inventing a new, intensely political form of religion.
Christian nationalists often claim their movement began as a grassroots reaction to Roe vs. Wade in 1973. But the movement actually gelled several years later with crucial help from a group calling itself the “New Right.” .
Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Phyllis Schlafly and other leaders of this movement were unhappy with the direction of the Republican Party and the culture in general. “We are radicals who want to change the existing power structure. We are not conservatives in the sense that conservative means accepting the status quo,” said Paul Weyrich. “We want change – we are the forces of change.
They were angry with liberals, who they said threatened to undermine national security with their softness on communism. They were angry with the establishment conservatives – the “Rockefeller Republicans” – for siding with the liberals; they were angry with the rising tide of feminism, which they saw as a threat to social order, and with the civil rights movement and the danger it posed to segregation. One thing they were not particularly angry with, at least initially, the issue of abortion rights.
New Right leaders formed common cause with a handful of conservative Catholics, including George Weigel and Richard John Neuhaus, who shared their concerns and attracted powerful conservative preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones Sr. They were determined to trigger hyperconservation. counter-revolution. All they needed now was an issue that could be used to unify its disparate elements and draw in the base.
Among their main concerns was fear that the Supreme Court would end tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools. Jerry Falwell and many of his fellow white ministers and southern conservatives were closely involved with segregated schools and universities – Jones went so far as to call segregation “God’s established order” and called desegregationists “satanic propagandists who “leaded Christians of color.” astray.” As far as these pastors were concerned, they had the right not only to separate people on the basis of race, but also to receive federal money for this purpose.
They knew, however, that “stop the tax on segregation!” was not going to be an effective rallying cry for their new movement. As historian and author Randall Balmer wrote: “It was not until 1979, six years after Deer – that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not on moral grounds, but as a rallying cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the real motive of the religious right: to protect segregated schools.
In many ways, abortion was an unlikely choice, because when the Roe v Wade decision was handed down, most Protestant Republicans supported it. The Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions in 1971 and 1974 expressing support for liberalized abortion law, and an editorial in their news agency praised the passage of Roe v Wade, stating that “religious liberty , human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court. abortion decision. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan passed the nation’s most liberal abortion law in 1967. Conservative icon Barry Goldwater also supported liberalizing abortion law, at least early in his career. career, and his wife Peggy was co-founder of Planned Parenthood in Arizona.
Yet abortion turned out to be the essential unifying issue for two fundamentally political reasons. First, he brought together conservative Catholics who provided much of the movement’s intellectual direction with conservative Protestants and evangelicals. Second, by linking abortion to the perceived social ills of the time—the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and women’s liberation—the issue became a focal point for concerns about social change rising from below. .
Over time, pro-choice voices were purged from the Republican Party. In her 2016 book, How the Republican Party Became Pro-Life, Phyllis Schlafly details the tremendous effort it took, over several decades, to force the Republican Party to change its mind on the issue. What his book and the story show is that the “pro-life religion” we see today, crossing the denominational boundaries of the political right, is a modern creation.
Over the past few decades, the religious right has invested several hundred million dollars in developing a complex and coordinated infrastructure, features of which include right-wing political groups, networking organizations, data initiatives, and media. . An essential element of this infrastructure is its sophisticated legal sphere.
The leaders of the movement understood very well that if you can capture the courts, you can change society. Major organizations include the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been implicated in many recent cases aimed at undermining the principle of separation of church and state; First Freedom; Becket, formerly known as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; and the Federalist Society, a networking and support organization for right-wing jurists and their allies whose leader, Leonard Leo, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to a network of affiliated organizations. This infrastructure has created a pipeline to funnel ideologues into important judicial positions at the state and federal levels. According to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, nearly 90% of Trump’s appeals court nominees were or are members of the Federalist Society, and the six conservative Supreme Court justices are current or former members.
The right-wing legal movement has spent decades establishing a new regime in which “religious freedom” is reframed as an exemption from the law, enjoyed by a certain privileged class of religion. LGBT advocacy groups fear the Supreme Court’s willingness in the next session to hear the case of a Colorado website designer who wants to deny services to same-sex couples could be a crucial step to overturn a wide range of anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT Americans as well as women, members of minority religious groups and others.
The legal powers of the Christian right have also recognized that their efforts can be turned into a gravy boat of public money. It’s one of the reasons why a recent Supreme Court decision, which ruled that Maine must fund religious schools as part of a state tuition program, was predicted by observers of this movement. This decision obliges the State to finance religious schools, however discriminatory their practices and sectarian their teachings. “This court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.
This Supreme Court has already made clear how quickly our Christian nationalist legal system will change the law to fit this vision of a society run by a reactionary elite, a society with a preferred religion and a prescribed code of sexual behavior, all backed by the coercive power of the state. The idea that they will stop by overthrowing Roe v Wade is an illusion.