Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Political Engagement at Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on July 11, 2022.
When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, it felt like the beginning of the end for many conservative causes. The court was already moving left. Obergefell, the case in which liberal justices invented a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, was still fresh in our memory. Chief Justice John Roberts, the most recent Republican nominee to the court, was unreliable, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, the moderate on the bench, had become a reliable vote for the sexual revolution. Justice Scalia’s death seemed likely to make the situation worse. After all, President Barack Obama was in the final year of his term and was poised to replace one of the court’s most reliable conservatives with someone decidedly not conservative.
Overturning Roe v. Wade had long been a goal of the pro-life movement, but at that moment, it seemed generations away, if possible at all. For many social conservatives, abortion wasn’t even the most pressing issue. Increasingly, we wondered if the First Amendment to the Constitution would long endure as it had always been understood. Christian bakers, florists, and print shop owners were regularly told to choose between their livelihood and their faith by a political left that now saw religious freedom as something that ought to be confined to one’s thoughts, home, or church.
The partisan differences over religious liberty were a relatively new development. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act after it passed Congress almost unanimously. But by 2016, RFRA had become a four-letter word to the left. State legislators who proposed their own versions of RFRA were called bigots, and corporate America joined progressive states with threats of boycotts. Religious liberty was now a problem—a “license to discriminate” became the new poll-tested lingo of the left.
Progressive state legislatures targeted people with unpopular religious beliefs under the guise of “non-discrimination” laws, and those who were targeted looked to the Supreme Court for help. With the death of Justice Scalia, it was less certain that help would ever come.
The Lord works in mysterious ways, and the reversal of Roe shows that history is not a series of perpetual wins or setbacks. History is messy, but political chaos does not thwart God’s providence.
The political climate was also concerning. Hillary Clinton appeared to be the all-but-inevitable replacement for President Obama. The presumptive first female president was sitting on a pile of cash while a field of 16 Republican candidates slugged it out. To the surprise of almost everyone, Donald Trump was gaining momentum. While much of America still struggled to see him as a serious candidate, the possibility that he would win the GOP nomination became more real by the day. Every poll and every bit of conventional political wisdom assured us a Trump nomination would guarantee a Clinton victory. Even if he won, his promises to nominate conservative justices to the high court were not assurances in which conservatives had any confidence.
The only apparent hope for conservatives concerning the Supreme Court was found in the Republican-controlled Senate, which would have to confirm Obama’s nominee. In the best-case scenario, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would hold the seat open for nine months until a Republican candidate was elected president. But that plan had two problems. The Senate had never held a Supreme Court seat vacant for that long. Even if it did, a likely Clinton victory could result in a nominee even more radical than Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland.
But you already know the rest of the story. McConnell did hold that seat open, and evangelical Christians voted in record numbers for the long-shot, reality TV star with a more-than-dubious past and tendency toward incivility. In his four short years in office, President Trump didn’t just put one pro-life justice faithful to the Constitution on the Supreme Court, he nominated three of the five justices who would go on to overturn Roe v. Wade. But that was just the beginning of the story. Within a week of Roe’s reversal, the court ended religious discrimination against churches in school choice programs (Carson v. Makin) and reaffirmed that high school football coaches couldn’t lose their jobs for praying in public (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District). The First Amendment is alive and kicking, and millions of babies, Lord-willing, soon will be as well.
But as we celebrate, it is wise to remember how we got here. It happened, in part, because the death of Justice Scalia led to an energized electoral base putting an unconventional and morally “complicated” president into office who received an assist from the senior U.S. senator from Kentucky. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and the reversal of Roe shows that history is not a series of perpetual wins or setbacks. History is messy, but political chaos does not thwart God’s providence.
The difference between good and bad news isn’t always as obvious as it seems, at least as we look to the future. Sometimes, the correct response to a bad day is to wait and see what God is doing. And let’s be careful should we resent the imperfect people God uses to accomplish great things. After all, imperfect people are the only ones available. If He can use them, maybe there’s hope for a wretch like me.