The Unholy Alliance Among Trump, Kavanaugh and the Evangelicals
Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is a gift to evangelical Christians. It was their ardent hope the president would pick a justice friendly to their cause that drove many evangelicals to vote for Trump in the first place. As Ed Stetzer, writing in Christianity Today, put it: “It’s the Supreme Court, stupid.” Stetzer’s piece was published in early 2017 after Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the position Republicans had blocked President Barack Obama from filling with his own nominee. Stetzer wrote, “Simply put, the Supreme Court is the reason that many Evangelicals voted for Trump.” By swallowing their moral standards and voting for a president who violates so many evangelical sensibilities, religious conservatives may achieve—if Kavanaugh is confirmed—a 5-4 hard-right majority on the court for decades.
Evangelical leader Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son) posted to his Facebook page a month before the 2016 election: “The most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court. That impacts everything.” Appearing critical of both major party presidential nominees, he added, “There’s no question, Trump and [Hillary] Clinton scandals might be news for the moment, but who they appoint to the Supreme Court will remake the fabric of our society for our children and our grandchildren, for generations to come.”
In an interview on NPR, another evangelical American, Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University, concurred with Graham as she explained how easy it was for Christian conservatives to become Trump’s bedfellows in order to make long-term gains on the Supreme Court. Even though she hopes for “better candidates” than Trump in the future, she was confident Kavanaugh “would uphold the dignity of human life—of all human life.” And that apparently has made tolerating the Trump presidency worth it.
Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. This was a higher percentage than the last three Republican presidential nominees—Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush—despite the fact Trump was the least likely to embody the actual values this demographic claims to uphold. But knowing their political support would be crucial to his election, Trump courted evangelicals ahead of the election, emphasizing he would have the power as president to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice. With the ill-timed retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, evangelicals who backed Trump are being granted a two-for-one deal. Their compromise with the devil is paying off.
As if to seal the deal, Trump hosted about 100 evangelical leaders at a White House dinner a week before the Kavanaugh hearings began. At the event, he boasted about ending “attacks on communities of faith” before expressing his quid pro quo requirement: “I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote.” He left nothing to chance as he equated his presidency with their religion and used the White House to campaign for re-election, saying, “This November 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion.” He then conjured up visions of violence, using his favorite tactic of fear as political tool, just in case those present were not entirely convinced of the need to vote for him:
[The opposition] will overturn everything that we’ve done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence. When you look at antifa—these are violent people.
A week after that dinner, Trump’s pre-election gift to evangelicals commenced with the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in the Senate. On the second day of those hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., questioned Kavanaugh about a specific abortion case on which he had dissented. Abortion is arguably the single most important issue for evangelicals, and Kavanaugh’s dissent in the case of a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant who wanted to obtain an abortion is a critical part of his judicial record. Kavanaugh asserted in the case of Garza v. Hargan the young woman in question would have to find an immigration sponsor (considered to be a guardian such as a relative or friend) before being allowed to have an abortion. In his dissenting opinion, he wrote the majority was trying to create “a new right for unlawful immigrant minors in U.S. Government detention to obtain immediate abortion on demand.” The phrase “abortion on demand” is favored by anti-choice factions. At his confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh obscured his position, saying, “I did my best to follow precedent.”
If evangelicals used Trump to get an anti-choice Supreme Court justice, and Trump used evangelicals to get elected, it may be that Kavanaugh is also happy to use Trump to get his position on the court. When Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., questioned Kavanaugh about Trump’s claim he had the absolute right to pardon himself, Kavanaugh sidestepped the issue, saying, “It’s a hypothetical question that I can’t begin to answer in this context.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal then asked Kavanaugh if he would recuse himself from any cases involving President Trump that reached the Supreme Court, but Kavanaugh refused to answer, claiming he didn’t want to pre-judge a case and adding, “I need to be careful.” Of course, Kavanaugh is treading carefully as he attempts to portray himself as a reliably conservative judge who will be driven by ideology and as someone who can be counted on to absolve the president should the opportunity arise.
Not all conservative Christians have compromised their morality for political gain. In a New York Times op-ed, Baptist minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove laid out “The Evangelical Case Against Judge Kavanaugh.” In it, Wilson-Hartgrove said he and others like him find Kavanaugh’s nomination to be “a threat to the Christian ethic we are called to preach and pursue in public life.” He cited a group of evangelical women who are rethinking their positions on abortion by considering tackling poverty as a more effective means of fulfilling their pro-life agenda. He illustrated the growing divide between white evangelicals and non-white Christians, saying the “issues that matter most are voting rights, living wages, environmental protection, access to health care and public education,” and he accused “reactionary conservatives” of having “hijacked our faith to serve their narrow interests.”
American secularists are also angry about the stranglehold that evangelical conservatives have had on government. The organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has filed a complaint saying Trump’s evangelical advisory board—which was honored at the aforementioned White House dinner—violates federal rules. In a letter to White House officials and the head of the board, the organization said, “It is clear that the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board is doing substantive work with the Trump administration behind closed doors—without any sunlight for the public to understand how and why decisions are being made.”
It is past time for the U.S. government to be wrested out of the stranglehold of evangelical conservatives. The rights of women and the LGBTQ community especially cannot be held hostage to the retrograde visions of this politically powerful faction.