Essay

Religion, Politics, and the Supreme Court

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By Allison Vander Broek

Summer’s in full swing here in Boston. For me, that’s meant hitting the ground running on my dissertation research. Hours scouring finding aids, planning trips to the archive, going to said archives and spending hours sifting through documents, and frantically reading the secondary literature on my topic.

I’m a historian of American religion, and religion and politics is my bread and butter. My dissertation deals with the early antiabortion movement in the years right before the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, looking at how a small group of mostly religious people started what would become one of the most important and enduring social movements of the last forty years. The antiabortion movement is a movement infused with religion—with religious people, religious language and ideology—and a good venue to see how the complex relationship between religion and politics in the US plays out.

With last week’s Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, I couldn’t help but think about that momentous Supreme Court decision back in 1973 and compare the reaction to the recent SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage to the reaction to Roe. I wasn’t originally planning on writing about this. But with the decision on Friday and the various reactions in the media, in my personal life, and on social media, I couldn’t stop thinking about my dissertation project, putting myself in the shoes of those I study—some who saw the Roe decision as a great leap forward, others who saw it as the start of a steep decline in morality, in religion, in how Americans valued life—and thinking about how they felt and reacted the day of Roe.

Of course, the decisions are very different in myriad ways, with Roe seeming to me to be more of a shock than the decision on gay marriage, especially since the movement supporting same-sex marriage had gained incredible momentum in recent years in both the states and in public opinion. At the same time, both decisions were hugely important. And both were seen as divisive by many religious Americans—dealing with issues both deeply political and deeply religious at their core. With Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision unleashed decades of bitter debate. The legacy of this most recent decision remains to be seen.

In light of these similarities, I think the question of religion and politics is more relevant than ever. Despite trends that say religion is declining in importance for many Americans, it remains a powerful motivator in the public sphere. And questions that I ask in my dissertation are ones we are still wrestling with. How have religious people reconciled religious tenets with civil ones in American history? How have their religious beliefs shaped their political involvement? Or vice versa? How has religion informed American politics?

These are questions that go beyond history or politics. They have deep meaning for each of our lives. Even just perusing my Facebook feed, I started sorting my Facebook friends into various categories based on their responses—from jubilant celebration, to grudging acceptance, to dismay. In some, religion was explicit. In others, a little more implicit.

No matter your opinion on the recent court decision, start paying attention to the way religion informs people’s responses. You’ll find an interesting variety, which I think tells us a little something of the continuing dynamism of American religion. And in the coming weeks, months, years (and especially with the election year coming up) pay attention to how religion informs people’s opinions on various political issues.

Maybe most importantly, pay attention to the intersection of religion and politics in your own life. It’s something I actually like to reflect on frequently. How do I, as a religious American, participate in the secular sphere? How am I called to engage in politics, on the tough issues? How can I best love my neighbor as myself when it comes to politics? You’re probably not going to get a clear answer, but I find that asking these tough questions of yourself helps to hold you in check, keep you thoughtful and understanding in your discussions with others, and better able to love your neighbor—whomever that might be in the political scene.

Allison Vander Broek is a graduate student in American religious history at Boston College.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

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