The US Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights has opened deep fissures in an already splintering society. Fifty years after Roe v Wade, the court rescinded that landmark ruling. During that half century, many leading jurists, including those who agreed with the decision, held that it had been arrived at on shaky legal argument. All it needed was a court with a conservative leaning majority to expose its flaws and declare it invalid. And it did take all of 50 years – and Trump’s promise to reinstate a socially conservative judiciary – for that to happen.
What a great majority of Americans fear now is that the abortion ruling will merely serve to whet the appetite of the Supreme Court for further imposition of its views on liberal freedom. Already there have been hints that same-sex marriage laws will become a target for revision, or that gender related rights will be revisited.
On two other occasions this year, the court has moved to give religious claims precedence over the present separation of Church and State. The first was in the case of the state of Maine, which for educational purposes is divided into school districts. Where it happens that there is no public secondary school in a particular district, the State pays tuition fees in an ‘approved’ private school of the parents’ choice, provided the school is non-sectarian.
Three sets of parents who wished to send their children to a religious school challenged the rules on the grounds that the fees system discriminated against schools which were overtly Christian in ethos and policy. The Supreme Court ruled in their favour, directing the State to include religious run schools in the system, even if such schools showed religious bias.
The second case concerned a Joseph Kennedy, a Christian high-school football coach who had taken to the practice of kneeling and praying on the pitch after each football game. In time, he came to be joined by his players, friends and even the rival team. The school board, holding that his behaviour infringed the law separating Church and State, and after many attempts to reach a compromise, declined to renew his contract.
Kennedy sued the school board; the lower courts, hearing after hearing, sided with the board. But when the case reached the Supreme Court, the majority verdict was that the board had acted improperly, and that Kennedy’s right to free expression of his religion took precedence over any other.
It might be drawing a long bow to connect the revivalism of what is called the Christian Right to the politics of Donald Trump. On the other hand, it might explain why millions of otherwise moderate, sensible Americans would have voted for a braggart whose behaviour was so opposed to their own. And who might do so again.
America is still a conservative nation. A huge swathe of the electorate still cleave to ‘old’ values, suspicious of what they see as the wave of liberalism sweeping the land, and eager for a return to the way things were. And if that meant having to vote for a blowhard who, in their hearts, they despised, it was still a good trade-off. Trump played to their fears and desires; he promised them a Supreme Court that would turn back the clock, and he delivered.
In doing that, he created a society of extremes, where civil unrest is now more real a threat than at any time in the past. The danger is that the mindset that abetted the storming of the Capitol by a mob could just as easily be exploited, on the other side, to overthrow the Supreme Court itself.