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How conservative Catholics became supreme on GOP's court

If the Senate confirms Barrett to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that would mean all six Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents were raised Catholic. Two of them -- Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first nominee -- later attended Protestant churches as adults, although Thomas subsequently reverted to Catholicism.

This consistent tilt in Republican nominees for the high court is especially remarkable because Catholics represent a smaller share of the GOP's electoral coalition than both mainline and especially evangelical Protestants; those evangelicals are by far the party's largest religious faction, according to annual studies by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. And yet every Republican president since Ronald Reagan has looked mostly to conservative Catholics, rather than to those two other groups, in choosing candidates for the highest legal prize the party can bestow.

"You have a situation where the evangelicals have been outsourcing their judicial appointments to conservative Catholics," says Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth University, who has written extensively on the history of evangelical political activism.

The Catholic dominance in these selections, many observers say, simultaneously reflects an ideological convergence and an institutional divergence. The ideological convergence is that conservative Catholics, including those in the legal field, have displayed as much commitment to conservative social causes, particularly banning abortion, as evangelical Christians. The institutional divergence is that there is a vastly stronger legal network -- from well-respected law schools to judicial clerkships to lower court appointments -- to provide conservative Catholics with the credentials required to obtain a Supreme Court nomination than exists for evangelical Protestants.

The Republican tilt toward Catholics over evangelicals "has to do, in really simple terms, with supply and demand," says Joshua Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Denver and co-author with Amanda Hollis-Brusky of "Separate But Faithful," an upcoming book on conservative Christians in the legal world. "You don't have a robust pool of evangelical Protestant lawyers and judges, whereas you do have a robust pool of conservative Catholic judges and lawyers and academics."

While this pattern of high court appointments testifies to the solidity of the political bond between socially conservative Catholics and evangelicals, it also underscores the choices that have limited the GOP's appeal to more culturally moderate voters. Many close observers of Republican politics say that one critical reason evangelicals have been comfortable with GOP presidents picking so many Catholic justices is that they believe they share the evangelicals' desire to overturn or curtail Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision creating a nationwide legal right to abortion; Barrett, whose writings have signaled she might be open to overturning or severely retrenching Roe, could provide the decisive vote to do so.
But polls have consistently found that a solid 60% or more majority of Americans want abortion to remain legal. In a Pew Research Center survey last year, support for legal abortion ranged from four-fifths of adults unaffiliated with any religion to nearly two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics and three-fifths of White mainline Protestants; even a slight majority of White Catholics supported legal abortion, according to detailed results provided by Pew. Among the major religious groups only a majority of evangelical Protestants (nearly four in five) thought abortion should be illegal in most circumstances.

Success for conservatives in ending the legal right to abortion at the court could produce a sharp recoil at the ballot box, particularly among younger voters and most women.

The rise of Catholic justices

Until Reagan's election, only about half a dozen Catholics had ever been confirmed to the Supreme Court. Reagan named two more -- Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. But they didn't dominate his decision-making: He also chose Sandra Day O'Connor, a Protestant, and tried to nominate Robert Bork (a Protestant who later converted to Catholicism) and Douglas Ginsburg (who was Jewish). Bork was rejected by the Senate and Ginsburg withdrew his nomination, which ultimately led to Kennedy's confirmation.
George H.W. Bush, the next GOP President, picked Thomas, an African American who was raised Catholic, and David Souter, a little-known state judge from New Hampshire, who was an Episcopalian. George W. Bush placed two more Catholics on the Court: John Roberts and Samuel Alito, though Alito's nomination came only after bipartisan opposition forced Bush to withdraw his choice of Harriet Miers, a longtime legal adviser who was an evangelical Christian. Trump has now chosen three justices raised Catholic: Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett.
Over this same period, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the two Democratic presidents, won confirmation for three Jewish justices (Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Ginsburg) and one Hispanic Catholic (Sonia Sotomayor); Obama also nominated Merrick Garland, who is Jewish, but the Republican-led Senate refused to consider his appointment in 2016.
All of the Catholic GOP appointees have won widespread support among evangelical Christians. Prominent social conservative groups led by evangelicals have quickly rallied for Barrett. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, for instance, has framed questions about Barrett's association with conservative Catholic groups as a "startling level of anti-Christian bias."
Previewing what's likely to be a major GOP theme throughout the confirmation process, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, two staunch social conservatives, reinforced the message with tweets on Saturday that sought to portray Democratic criticism of Barrett's views as an attack on her faith.

The language from Perkins, an evangelical minister, is especially revealing because it shows how religious conservatives now almost all unite Catholics and conservative Protestants under the same joint banner of "Christian." That testifies to the enduring success of the religious and political alliance that has transformed the GOP coalition and reordered American politics more broadly.

Tension between Protestants and Catholics had been a feature of American political and social life since the first large-scale arrival of Catholics in the US in the decades before the Civil War. Evangelical Protestant denominations were especially dubious of Catholics, particularly in politics: It was to an audience of Southern Protestant ministers in Houston that John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic President, delivered his famous speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the church. Even liberal mainline Protestants in those years raised alarms about growing Catholic political influence, notes Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute.

"In the 1950s and the 1960s the big battle lines were really between Protestants and Catholics; that was the big culture war fight," says Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long," a history of American Christianity's relationship with White supremacy. "If you were Protestant and you married someone who was Catholic, that was a big deal mid-century."

Politically in those years, Catholics leaned mostly, though not entirely, Democratic while Protestants divided: Northern mainline Protestants were the backbone of the Republican Party, while Southern evangelical Protestants, like the rest of the region, "voted the way their daddy shot" and reliably supported Democrats against the Republicans who had prosecuted the Civil War.

These alignments started to scramble in the 1960s as a White backlash against the civil rights movement moved both more Northern Catholics and Southern evangelicals to the GOP. Social issues that emerged during the 1970s -- particularly the conservative backlash against Roe, but also the first stirrings of the movement for gay rights -- drove cultural conservatives in both groups closer together, while simultaneously loosening the GOP's hold on mainline Protestants. As Ballmer has written, the final sparks that ignited the modern wave of evangelical Protestant political activism were efforts by Jimmy Carter's administration to revoke tax-exempt status from racially segregated religious schools.

Finding common ground

One political visionary, more than any other, midwifed the electoral truce between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. The late Paul Weyrich, though a Catholic from Wisconsin, worked for years to encourage more culturally conservative Southern evangelical ministers to engage in politics and to shift their allegiance to the GOP, as the Democratic Party more consistently tilted left on social issues through the 1970s. It was Weyrich (who also co-founded the Heritage Foundation, for years the right's premier think tank) who, by most accounts, coined the phrase "the Moral Majority" and helped to convince fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell to found that landmark religious right organization.

Despite the long years of doctrinal and social conflict between Catholics and evangelicals, Ballmer says, "I think [Weyrich] thought that the common ground was the sense of moral decay in society, and if he could form what he called a moral majority -- and then he actually used that term in his correspondence, lowercase letters -- he could transform the nation. And he was right."

Years of demographic decline since then hardened the alliance Weyrich conceived, Jones says. "As the number of White Protestants began to shrink, they brought in White Catholics to this conservative Christian movement," he says. The alliance, he adds, "got welded on as the Christian right picked up momentum and essentially needed more foot soldiers than White Protestants could provide at that stage in the game."

Both White Protestants and Catholics have steadily diminished as a share of the nation's population as America has grown more racially and religiously diverse, with people of color representing a growing proportion and more Americans than ever identifying as secular or unaffiliated with any religious tradition. Just since 2006 in Public Religion Research Institute data, Whites who identify as Catholic or mainline or evangelical Protestants have each fallen by about 5 percentage points as a share of the population; together they now compose only a little over two-fifths of American adults, compared with nearly three-fifths then.

But those three communities remain the dominant groups inside the Republican coalition, with evangelical Christians (at 28%), mainline Protestants (21%) and Catholics (16%) still comprising about two-thirds of the party's supporters, according to 2019 data from the Public Religion Research Institute. (By contrast, those three groups make up only a little more than one-third of Democrats, who rely much more than Republicans on both non-White Christians and Americans of all races who don't identify with any religious tradition.)

White Catholics have become a reliable Republican constituency in presidential elections. Since 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 is the only Democratic nominee to have carried them, according to exit polls. In 2016, Trump won just over three-fifths of them, the best performance for any GOP nominee since at least 1980.

But evangelical Protestants are an even more steadfast GOP group: Trump won about 80% of them, and previous Republican nominees attracted nearly as many. And while the Pew Research Center's validated voters study found that many White Catholics drifted back toward Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, evangelical Protestants still gave Republican candidates more than four-fifths of their votes. Public Religion Research Institute polling earlier in September found Trump's favorability among White evangelicals was nearly 20 percentage points higher than his ratings among White Catholics.

A strong pipeline

All of these electoral measures of the GOP's reliance on evangelical Protestants only underscores the striking nature of the Catholic dominance in GOP Supreme Court nominations. Few involved in the selection process over the years have discussed why Republicans favor Catholics so often, and those who have portrayed it as essentially a large-scale coincidence.

In an email, for instance, Karl Rove, the top political adviser for George W. Bush, told me that religion was irrelevant in Bush's picks. "That Roberts and Alito were Catholics was known but not a factor in their appointment, either for or against," he wrote. "Their judicial philosophy, character, record on the Federal bench, relative youth, even geography were discussed as considerations, not their religious affiliation. Identity politics concerns ('we better get an evangelical because they are 28% of our coalition and none of the last three Republican appointees have been evangelicals!') was not considered by 43."

Political scientists who have studied the conservative legal movement say the principal explanation for the disparity isn't happenstance but a deep institutional disparity: Conservative Catholics have built a much stronger pipeline for producing potential judicial nominees than evangelical Protestants have. Over decades, Catholics have established vastly more well-respected undergraduate colleges and universities than evangelical Protestants have, which has allowed more of their graduates to obtain entry to the top-tier Ivy League law schools, led by Harvard and Yale, that have become indispensable for Supreme Court nominations.

Even at the law school level, institutions controlled by conservative Catholics -- principally Notre Dame Law School, where Barrett taught -- have vastly more prestige than Regent and Liberty, the overtly evangelical law schools attached to universities created by televangelists Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.

In their upcoming book, Hollis-Brusky and Wilson cite data from the American Bar Association showing that the share of recent Notre Dame Law School graduates serving as judicial clerks, an important step on the path toward later judicial appointments, was twice as high as for either of those evangelical institutions. While Notre Dame prides itself on its identity as a legal farm team for the right, Wilson says, for Regent and Liberty, "I think it would be impossible ... in the foreseeable future for a graduate of one of those schools to be appointed to the Supreme Court. It's too much of a leap."

At the top of the conservative legal pyramid, even the Federalist Society, a group that exerts enormous influence over Republican judicial selection, is headed by a conservative Catholic, Leonard Leo.

Wilson says it's possible that more evangelical Protestant judges will advance through the Republican pipeline over time. The Alliance Defending Freedom, perhaps the leading legal arm for social conservatives, runs a legal fellowship (for which Barrett has served as an instructor) that marks, in its words, "exceptional Christian law students" for advancement on the right; although the group is extremely secretive about its activities (the alliance did not respond to a request for comment), Wilson says that eventually it may position more evangelical conservatives for judicial careers that could culminate in a Supreme Court appointment.

But that day, if it comes, almost certainly remains many years away. For now, Barrett's nomination continues the striking trend of Republican appointments and would ensure a majority of conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court even if one excludes Gorsuch. That majority would stand as an enduring monument to the alliance of culturally conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants who have won control of the GOP.

Yet that same conservative court majority may also serve to isolate and limit the Republican Party's appeal in a country growing more racially and religiously diverse. Already, according to Public Religion Research Institute data, fewer than three in 10 adults younger than 30 identify as White Christians. The GOP is installing a court majority whose views may collide explosively over the coming decade with the dominant perspective among millennials, Generation Z and the younger generation behind them on questions ranging from abortion to racial justice, climate change and gay rights.

Replacing Ginsburg with Barrett on the Supreme Court represents a triumphant moment for the conservative social and legal movements. But if the court majority cemented by Barrett alienates the rising generations who will represent the nation's largest voting bloc by the middle of this decade, that judicial victory could turn to electoral ash.

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