The Supreme Court Isn’t All Powerful

President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court was welcome news for many American evangelicals and social conservatives. Her confirmation looks likely.

In the hopes of Barrett’s supporters—and the fears of her critics—her addition to the court will dramatically alter its jurisprudence on social issues, particularly abortion. However, the reality of a 6-3 conservative court will probably be more mundane for a number of reasons, including that the most common SCOTUS voting pattern is 9-0, that Chief Justice John Roberts has adopted a strategic balancing role, and that a GOP-appointed court majority is no guarantee of conservative triumphs.

Moreover, if the rulings of the past five years are any indication, religious liberty far more than abortion is the social issue for which SCOTUS composition presently matters. But religious liberty advocates are deluding ourselves if we think the court is what matters most. Far more important is the fact that a chasm of incomprehension is widening between practicing Christians and other devoutly religious Americans on the one hand and the nominally religious and irreligious on the other. This cultural misunderstanding is politically dangerous, and adding Barrett to the Supreme Court will do nothing to halt its expansion.

Writing in his email newsletter about Christianity and masculinity in 2017, CT contributor Aaron Renn posited a three-part framework for thinking about the place of Christianity in American society. Before around 1994, he argued, we lived in a “Positive World,” where Christianity enhanced a person’s social status and breaking traditional Christian behavioral norms harmed it. Between 1994 and 2014, Renn said, we had a “Neutral World,” in which Christianity was no longer culturally dominant but religiosity was not a social disadvantage. Since 2014, however, Renn believes we’ve moved into a “Negative World,” where “being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high-status positions.”

I think this framework is too tidy in its history and too narrow in its consideration of American Christian experiences. (As another CT contributor, Matthew Loftus, has queried, “If you asked African-American Christians to assign dates for a Negative World, a Neutral World, and a Positive World, where do you think they’d put 1965?”) But I also think Renn’s scheme communicates something more substantive than the now-familiar statistics on the rapid decline of American Christianity and concurrent rise of the religiously unaffiliated .

The political result of the shift we’re experiencing can’t be grasped through a simple numbers game, where we check which demographics support which party and anticipate policy accordingly. It’s about a fundamentally different view of what religion is, and its area of greatest policy import is religious liberty.

For Christians, our faith is (or should be) the core determinant of our lives—in Christ “we live and move and have our being,” as Paul said in Athens (Acts 17:28). We ask God to “fill [us] with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that [we] may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9–10). Following Jesus is supposed to be all-consuming.

For many Americans, faith is a hobby and church a social club. And, given that view, a robust version of religious liberty doesn’t make sense.

But for many Americans, faith is a hobby and church a social club. And, given that view, a robust version of religious liberty doesn’t make sense. We don’t have “chess club liberty” or “soccer team liberty” or “wine mom liberty.” To elevate your hobby to competition with others’ human rights is indefensible and immoral, and doing so in the name of adherence to a religion centered on an act of self-sacrificial love comes off as hypocrisy, a selfish refusal to play by your hobby’s own rules.

A side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is its revelation of exactly how far these two understandings of faith have diverged. In June, when debate over some cities’ suspension of pandemic assembly bans for the George Floyd protests reached a fever pitch, The Washington Post published an article quoting a Harvard epidemiologist named Ranu S. Dhillon. “Protesting against systemic injustice that is contributing directly to this pandemic is essential,” Dhillon told the Post. “The right to live, the right to breathe, the right to walk down the street without police coming at you for no reason … that’s different than me wanting to go to my place of worship on the weekend, me wanting to take my kid on a roller coaster, me wanting to go to brunch with my friends.”

For Christians, one of those three activities is very unlike the others. That’s not to say churches shouldn’t take pandemic precautions—I’ve written at CT that they should—but that’s not because church is merely a hobbyists’ meeting. The “striking point here is the blasé assumption that the decision to worship on the weekend is simply a consumeristic choice among a menu of options including theme parks and brunch dates,” wrote Brad Littlejohn at Breaking Ground. “[I]f the blood of Christ and a brunch mimosa are on par, then why shouldn’t we stop these particular consumers from engaging in pandemic-prone practices?”

I doubt most Americans would consciously equate church and brunch, but that’s no longer an outlier perspective (and service attendance habits may contravene stated opinions). New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made similar remarks to a reporter from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish publication who asked why protests were permitted when gathering more than 10 people to worship was not. Dhillon’s comment is where the median of public opinion is heading, whether the “Negative World” label is fair or not.

The Supreme Court’s task is interpreting the Constitution, not culture, but for both good and ill, culture obviously influences its rulings. This past summer’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County is a timely example: The textualist ruling said a 1964 employment law bans discrimination against LGBTQ workers, though no one imagines the legislation’s authors had that in mind. The cultural consensus has moved, and SCOTUS moved with it.

If the cultural shift away from faith in America continues, it will do so with or without a Justice Barrett. The Supreme Court can only do so much—and will only be willing to do so much—if the public conception of religion withers, because the value our society places on religious liberty meaningfully depends on that conception. If Christians and other religious people—Barrett during her hearings included—cannot better communicate to our fellow citizens the significance of faith in our lives, our governance will increasingly reflect the assumption that it is not very significant at all.

Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.


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