Daniel Bennett, John Brown University
Yesterday evening, in his first national address from the White House, President Trump formally announced his pick for the year-long opening on the U.S. Supreme Court: Neil M. Gorsuch.
Though the seat has been vacant since the death of Antonin Scalia last February, Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. They argued that the next president should be able to fill Scalia’s seat. This was a gamble, since Hillary Clinton would almost certainly have selected a younger and more liberal nominee than Garland, which would have swung the Court in a more dramatically progressive direction.
But the gamble paid off. And instead of the moderate Garland taking Scalia’s conservative seat on the Court, it will be Gorsuch, a law school classmate of Barack Obama’s and reliable judicial conservative with a resume seemingly designed to please the religious conservative voters crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory.
Gorsuch, a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals since 2006, has had a hand in several cases appealing to religious conservatives. Gorsuch sided with Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor in their respective cases opposing the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement – the Supreme Court’s eventual decisions backed up Gorsuch’s opinions in both cases. And in another religious liberty decision, Gorsuch ruled in favor of a Native American prisoner who had requested access to a sweat lodge for religious reasons.
Gorsuch is no William Pryor, the 11th Circuit judge (and one-time favorite for the Scalia vacancy) who would have energized pro-life activists with his declaration that Roe v. Wade is “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.” But Pryor also irritated religious conservatives at times: he once ruled in favor of a transgender woman in a sex discrimination lawsuit, and as Alabama’s attorney general he worked to remove the state’s fiery evangelical chief justice, Roy Moore.
With Gorsuch, there are few nits for religious conservatives to pick. While his record on abortion is not as detailed out as some would like, he has authored a book critical of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Further, his endorsement of originalism as a judicial philosophy should comfort religious conservatives looking for a justice to advance Scalia’s legacy on the Court.
So far, the religious conservative response to Gorsuch–an Episcopalian who would be the only Protestant on the Court–has been overwhelmingly positive. Jay Sekulow described Gorsuch as “immensely qualified” for elevation to the Court. Ralph Reed hailed the selection as a “great pick.” And James Dobson praised the Trump administration for “[delivering] on one of its most critical campaign promises.”
More importantly, though, religious conservatives skeptical of Trump’s candidacy and presidency have lavished praise on the Gorsuch pick. Russell Moore called Gorsuch “a magnificent choice” for the Court. David French was equally pleased, saying, “This is a great moment for the Constitution, the rule of law, and individual liberty.” And on his Facebook page, Robert George applauded the pick: “Judge Gorsuch, whom I know well, is a faithful constitutionalist and extraordinarily well-qualified. President Trump could not have done better.”
This praise from religious conservatives is not insignificant. Religious conservative elites were bitterly divided over Trump’s candidacy, with those supporting him pointing to the Supreme Court as the dominant reason why. But the rank-and-file in the religious conservative community overwhelmingly supported Trump, including over 80 percent of self-described evangelicals who voted for him. By picking Gorsuch, Trump may be able to mend some fences among elites while continuing to endear himself to the religious conservative masses.
Simply put, if these early endorsements are any indication, Trump scored the first significant win of his presidency among religious conservatives in naming Gorsuch to the Court. And given the tumultuous opening to his presidency, it was a win Trump desperately needed.
Daniel Bennett is assistant professor of political science at John Brown University. He studies the intersection of law, religion, and politics in the United States. You can follow him on Twitter.