WASHINGTON – On a January morning in 1980, a day when thousands of abortion opponents protested the anniversary of Roe v. Wade across from the White House, a group of conservative evangelical leaders sat down for breakfast with the born-again president, Jimmy Carter.
The responses they heard on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights and other social issues left them unimpressed. A relationship that already had been strained was irretrievably broken.
By fall, white evangelicals, who four years earlier had supported the election of a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, a man quite open about the central role of faith in his life, instead voted overwhelmingly for his defeat, switching their loyalties to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.
Now, with an opening on the Supreme Court that offers President Bush the opportunity to alter the course of American jurisprudence, the alliance between Republicans and religious conservatives has reached the moment that many of those conservatives believe is long overdue.
For a quarter century, a politically awakened movement of conservative evangelicals and moral traditionalists of other faiths has played an increasingly important role in Republican electoral successes. In campaigns, they have knocked on doors, stuffed envelopes and dependably performed the other mundane but essential work behind winning elections.
Bush would not be in the White House today without their support. Half of his votes in the 2004 election came from religious traditionalists, according to a survey by the politically independent Pew Research Center. And heavy support from evangelicals gave him the margin of victory in such battleground states as Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Missouri.
Yet religious conservatives so far have not had much success on the issues that matter most to them. Abortion remains readily available, with few legal restrictions. The gay rights debate has moved from employment discrimination to marriage equality. Pornography is more accessible than ever. Popular entertainment is full of sex-drenched shows such as ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” And the Ten Commandments were just thrown out of courthouses in Kentucky.
It is a source of frustration to some leaders of the movement.
And they have not been quiet in criticizing even a prospective Bush nominee to the Supreme Court whom they deem insufficiently devoted to their cause. A torrent of criticism from social conservatives flowed when news reports suggested Bush might nominate his friend Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose views on abortion rights are considered murky.
“We have very little to show for all these years of electing Republicans. If we don’t get a decent nominee, we’ve got to ask ourselves what we’ve been doing,” said Paul Weyrich, a longtime leader of social conservatives who helped found the Moral Majority and is now chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
Religious conservatives heard Bush the candidate regularly tout Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as models for a judicial nominee. They understood that to mean someone who, like Scalia and Thomas, adheres to a narrow “strict constructionist” reading of the Constitution that does not find a basis for rights to abortion, homosexual sex or sale of pornography and allows a greater role for religion in public life.
Anything less “would be a grave error, a missed opportunity and a betrayal,” said Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum.
The replacement of O’Connor with a justice who rules against abortion rights would not in itself be sufficient to overturn Roe v. Wade, for which there appears to be a 6-3 majority among current members of the court. But such an appointment seems necessary if the decision is to be overturned in the near future. The ailing chief justice votes against abortion rights anyway. Besides O’Connor, the only Roe supporter on the court who seems likely to leave soon is 85-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens. The others who vote to uphold Roe are much younger.
“When you look at the arithmetic and actuarial tables, if Mrs. O’Connor is not replaced by a strong, strict constructionist conservative, then it’s hard to see how the court will be turned around in this generation,” said Richard Land, head of the public policy agency for the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination.