WASHINGTON – Franklin Graham, one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the United States, has mostly been satisfied with the Trump presidency over the past three and a half years. But last week, following a dramatic ruling by the Supreme Court on the rights of LGBTQ Americans, Graham expressed alarm and disappointment. The court, he wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post, had “gone too far” and was eroding religious freedom.
President Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned in Graham’s post, but the opinion Graham so strongly criticized was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first pick to the Supreme Court. At the time of his nomination in January 2017, Gorsuch was supported by evangelical groups, who celebrated the addition of a new conservative justice to the highest court in the land. His decision last week, however, could spell trouble for Trump’s hold over the evangelicals who helped make him president.
Trump owes much of his upset victory in the 2016 election to evangelical voters, who gave him unprecedented levels of support in that year’s battle against Hillary Clinton. Some 80 percent of white evangelical voters gave their ballot to Trump, and most political analysts believe the 45th president will need a similar level of support from the group in order to win in November.
Gorsuch and the five justices who sided with him in last week’s LGBTQ rights ruling, including Chief Justice John Roberts, have made it more difficult for Trump to achieve this already challenging goal. By ruling that members of the LGBTQ community deserve the same workplace protections available to other minority groups under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the justices disappointed and infuriated prominent evangelical groups (as well as conservative Catholics).
One implication of the ruling is that religious institutions, such as churches and Christian schools, won’t be able to fire workers who openly identify as gay. These institutions also won’t be able to use a person’s sexual orientation as a reason not to hire them. Some evangelical and Catholic leaders warn that this new reality will hurt their institutions’ religious freedoms, and force them to act against their beliefs.
If the ruling itself wasn’t bad enough for many evangelicals, the fact that the opinion was written by Gorsuch – a conservative icon until recently – added insult to injury. Some experts believe their disappointment could impact Trump’s chances in the upcoming election.
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“The dream of taking over the Supreme Court was a key factor behind the evangelical support for Trump last time around,” says historian Frances FitzGerald, author of the 2017 book “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.”
In an interview with Haaretz, she explained that “some evangelicals vote exclusively in order to change the makeup of the court and shift it toward a more conservative direction. For many others, it’s a top priority, along with support for Israel. This is very important to Trump’s base.”
The evangelical focus on the Supreme Court, FitzGerald said, started in the 1980s, in reaction to some of the court’s landmark liberal rulings such as Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in all 50 states. “You will hear from many evangelical leaders that America is experiencing a religious and cultural war, and the court is one of the most important battlefields. They think they can’t win as long as the high court keeps ruling against them,” she said.
“George W. Bush knew very well how to activate the evangelical voters by focusing on the court,” FitzGerald added. “He did it very well in his reelection campaign in 2004.” As for Trump, she said, he enjoyed a great slice of fortune in 2016: Some nine months before the election, Justice Antonin Scalia – one of the court’s most admired conservative justices – died in his sleep. The political battle over his replacement excited evangelicals and helped Trump secure huge levels of support among this demographic group.
“Trump was originally viewed skeptically by many evangelical leaders, and some of them even attacked him during the Republican primary in 2016,” said Josh Kraushaar, senior national political columnist for National Journal. As the 2016 election got closer, though, evangelicals began to coalesce around Trump. Kraushaar told Haaretz that the Supreme Court vacancy created by Scalia’s death played a crucial part in that process. “The Supreme Court was Trump’s strongest argument why conservatives should vote for him despite all his shortcomings,” Kraushaar said.
FitzGerald concurred. “There were people who were uncomfortable with his personality and his style of politics, but they said, ‘If we vote for him, at least we get the Supreme Court. And if Hillary wins, the Supreme Court will become more liberal and we’ll never overturn the things we don’t like, such as abortion and gay marriage.”
The ‘But Gorsuch’ factor
Political analyst Henry Olsen wrote in the Washington Post last week that the Supreme Court was crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory. “The 2016 exit poll found that 21 percent of all voters said Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their vote; Trump carried them by a 56 to 41 percent margin. It’s clear that fear of a culturally liberal court drove a crucial number of normally Democratic-supporting white voters to back Trump,” he wrote.
But Olsen warned that the recent ruling on LGBTQ rights could make things very complicated for Trump as he seeks another term in office. “Gorsuch’s decision Monday could throw all of this into the political dustbin,” he opined.
Olsen explained in the article that many evangelicals and other religious conservatives used Trump’s two Supreme Court appointments – Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 – as powerful excuses to justify their continued support for him, despite the dozens of scandals he has brought upon the presidency.
“‘But Gorsuch’ was a common phrase used to justify continued support for Trump among religiously motivated voters throughout 2017 and 2018,” Olsen wrote. “Now that Gorsuch has proved himself untrustworthy in their eyes, they would be right to question whether Republican assurances meant anything at all.”
Olsen didn’t predict an exodus of evangelical voters from Trump to Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee; Biden, who was vice president in the Obama administration, will likely appoint justices who will be much more liberal than Gorsuch on most issues. But the risk for Trump, he wrote, is that some of these voters will simply stay home, feeling disillusioned with Trump and the Republican Party.
“Even a small reduction in the Republican margin among the devout will destroy any hope Trump will be reelected,” Olsen wrote. “Evangelical voters made up between 21 and 38 percent of the vote in the key Southern states of Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina in 2016.” He also noted the evangelical presence in Michigan and Wisconsin, two crucial Midwestern states that Trump won by a margin of less than 1 percentage point in 2016.
Kraushaar said he believed Trump had genuine reason for concern when it comes to the evangelical vote. He mentioned a recent Fox News poll that showed him getting the support of less than 70 percent of evangelical respondents. “People who are shocked by the direction of the court and disappointed that a justice appointed by Trump issued such an opinion aren’t going to switch sides to Biden,” Kraushaar said. “But if a small percentage of them decide to stay home on Election Day, Trump will be in serious trouble.”
“Even if he loses ‘only’ 5 percentage points of his evangelical support compared to 2016 – meaning he gets 75 percent instead of 80 percent – that would still make a huge difference,” Kraushaar added. “Trump has made no effort so far to win over people in the middle. As a result, even a small defection from his existing base of support can spell doom for his campaign.”
FitzGerald noted that despite the fact that evangelical voters played a major role in securing Bush’s reelection in 2004, “In retrospect, there is a sense in the evangelical community of a missed opportunity when people talk about the Bush presidency. And the Supreme Court is a big part of that. They look at [Bush appointee] John Roberts as someone who was supposed to be ‘on their side,’ but ended up disappointing them on some important issues – such as ‘Obamacare.’”
That, FitzGerald said, is a risk that political movements take by placing too much importance on control of the court. “Some justices will vote consistently and reliably for a specific ‘side.’ But every once in a while, you will have surprises because some of the justices are actually willing to be convinced by arguments,” she said. “That’s why evangelicals have been disappointed by the court before, and will probably continue to feel the same way in the future.”