SCOTUS Nominee Gorsuch Will Face a Religiously Polarized Judiciary Committee

Andrew R. Lewis, University of Cincinnati

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a primetime Tuesday event, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to be the next Supreme Court justice. Since the announcement, several have profiled Gorsuch, estimating his judicial ideology and discussing how he would be a boon to conservative Christians. But before Gorsuch can have an impact on the Court, he must first be confirmed by the United States Senate, with his toughest test coming from the hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee. We know the Judiciary Committee is politically polarized, but it is also religiously polarized.

At least since the thwarted nomination of Robert Bork in 1987, the Judiciary Committee has been a site of enormous political theatre. Justice Clarence Thomas’ controversial primetime hearing in 1991, for example, captivated national attention with tales of pornography and unwanted sexual advances. Aside from asking nominees’ views on constitutional interpretation, prior legal precedents, and litmus tests, they also get to ask them about the most controversial issues of the day, such as the constitutionality of abortion, same-sex marriage, and abortion restrictions.

Who would serve on such a committee? At first blush, there do not seem to be state-level benefits to the committee, as it does not dole out money or alter policies that certain states prefer. Nor does Judiciary have enormous prestige, falling behind plush assignments such as Finance, Appropriations, and Foreign Relations. What it does have is that it is ground zero for the most important cultural battles in Congress—the composition of the Supreme Court.

In a recent article published in Congress & the Presidency, I examined whether being assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee might be a function of representing state religious interests. To investigate this, I paired Senate Assignment to the Judiciary Committee from 1973-2009 with state-level religious demographic data from the Glenmary Research Center’s U.S. Religious Census.

After controlling for a variety of personal, political, and state-level factors, I found that there was a strong relationship between the percentage of conservative Christians in a state (evangelicals & Mormons) and assignment to the Senate Judiciary Committee. BUT, this relationship was mediated by partisanship (an interactive effect). Republicans from high conservative Christian states were more likely to serve on the Judiciary Committee, as were Democrats from states with few conservative Christians. But in mis-matched states, such as Democrats from states with more conservative Christians, senators were much less likely to be on the committee. (The figure below shows the predicted probabilities of serving on Judiciary for Republicans and Democrats of states with different percentages of conservative Christians.) Senators from these mis-matched states seem to avoid the Judiciary Committee surely so that they are not forced to take controversial cultural positions that their constituents would reject.

Even more, this relationship fully develops after the rise of the Christian Right (post-1980), when the culture wars reached full throttle. In the 1970s, the relationship between state-level religion and assignment to the Judiciary Committee is in the right direction but is statistically insignificant. The effect of party affiliation and state religious make-up on committee assignment is also strong for freshmen senators in the Christian Right era, suggesting that is a strong motivator for incoming members.


So as you watch the partisan polarization of the Judiciary Committee during the Gorsuch hearings, be mindful of the religious polarization that is exacerbating the political divide. You are likely to see it in Republican senators from Iowa (Grassley – 14% conservative Christian), Utah (Hatch – 71%), and South Carolina (Graham – 31%), as well as Democratic senators from California (Feinstein – 11%), Vermont (Leahy – 4%), and Rhode Island (Whitehouse – 3%).

Andrew R. Lewis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati. His research covers the intersection of religion, law, and politics in the U.S. You can follow him on Twitter and see more of his research on his personal website.

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