Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
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Now We See What Happens When Social Conservatives Take the Wheel

The Christian right’s power finally becomes real.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

For most Americans, the extremism of the social-conservative worldview has been largely confined to the realm of abstraction. The Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Roe v. Wade will make that fanaticism vividly real.

The conservative movement traditionally consisted of three main wings: foreign-policy hawks, anti-statist libertarians, and social conservatives. All three wings have developed radical ideas in the ideologically purified sanctity of their think tanks and media organs. On multiple occasions, the economic conservatives have seized the party’s agenda and led them to political disaster: in 1995, when Newt Gingrich shut down the government to try to coerce Bill Clinton into reducing taxes for the rich while cutting health care, in 2012, when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ran on a regressive tax cut, and in 2017, when Ryan and Donald Trump tried to repeal Obamacare. The hawks had the opportunity after 9/11 to take the steering wheel and engineered a profound foreign-policy debacle.

But social conservatives have been forced to wait their turn. The Christian right has taken its payment in the form of judicial appointments, playing the long game and accepting deferred gratification on its agenda. This has allowed Republicans to harness the passion of an intense minority without being saddled with the unpopularity of its agenda.

Indeed, the skittishness of their Republican coalition partners has been evident all along. The conservative Supreme Court justices did not admit their intention to overturn Roe. Instead, they danced around the topic, conceding the value of existing precedent and leaving their escape hatches mostly unstated. They relied, crucially, on the support of senators like Susan Collins, who publicly interpreted their assurances as meaning Roe would remain standing.

Trump — who has a stronger instinctive feel for public opinion than most of his colleagues — always danced around the prospect his appointees would overturn Roe and reportedly told people privately such a ruling would hurt the party.

Now, finally, the bill will come due. The state-by-state battle for abortion rights promised by the Court’s conservative majority will, in practice, consist of fights over legislation to cruelly restrict female bodily autonomy. Some of the laws will forbid abortion immediately from conception. Some will contain no exceptions for rape or incest.

Republicans will try to confine their ambitions to poll-tested measures like a 15-week abortion ban. But it is far from certain they will restrain a base that has the taste of victory. One prologue is Florida, where social conservatives led the party into a nationalized fight over a bill restricting schools from any mention of homosexuality. The pressure to demonstrate ideological commitment will push officials farther and farther rightward.

The long era in which social-conservative ambitions were funneled into judicial appointments was also one in which social liberalism seemed to be enjoying an unstoppable march. The share of the public without any religious affiliation or that does not regularly attend church has grown. Homosexuality has been legalized and gained broad (if not quite total) social acceptance.

This has served to make the social-conservative agenda feel less threatening. But now, social conservatives perceive the opportunity to roll back the liberalizing tide and bear the confidence of a movement that sees its time has come. It is possible they will use this power to navigate a prudent Burkean course, but this would be wildly out of character with the nature of a movement that long ago gave itself over completely to fanaticism and absolutism.


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See What Happens When Social Conservatives Take the Wheel