What Christian Colleges Stand to Gain With Trump
Joshua Wilson is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Denver. He is the author of The New States of Abortion Politics and The Street Politics of Abortion: Speech, Violence, and America's Culture Wars. Wilson's areas of research includes law and society, social movements, abortion politics, American conservative politics, and American constitutional law and civil liberties.
Six months ago, it looked as if the Christian Right were headed for a prolonged walk in the political wilderness. The Supreme Court had ruled against the most promising means of chipping away at abortion access and the anticipated election of Hillary Clinton would give Democrats the ability to fill the long-vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Just as discouraging for conservatives, the fight against gay marriage appeared lost, and the emerging battle against the trans community was met with potent resistance.
The election in November changed everything.
At a speed difficult to comprehend, this election has redirected the Christian Right from the margins to the center of power. Two moves made by President Trump clearly illustrate this shift, especially as it relates to the Christian Rights’ legal movement. While one of these events—the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court—is dominating the news, the other—Trump’s pick of Jerry Falwell Jr., an early supporter and president of the conservative Christian Liberty University, to head a task force on higher education—has hardly garnered attention. When seen together, however, a complete view of what the Christian Right stands to gain comes into focus.
Judge Neil Gorsuch has been hailed as a natural successor to the late Antonin Scalia. Like Scalia, Gorsuch favors state’s rights and is deeply skeptical of the regulatory state. But whereas Justice Scalia demonstrated a hesitance to elevate religious liberty concerns over general health, safety and welfare regulations in past rulings, Gorsuch has consistently favored a muscular interpretation of religious liberty. Gorsuch’s staunch support derives from a commitment to natural law – the belief that there are specific, God-given rights that form the basis of law.
As Jeffrey Rosen recently detailed, Gorsuch seems interested in a “constitutionally recognized right to life,” which would have implications for reproductive rights, physician-assisted suicide and, perhaps, even the death penalty. This commitment to natural law forms the heart of the Christian Right's legal movement, and it is at the center of the intellectual life and curricula of a group of newer Christian conservative law schools such as Regent Law, Ave Maria Law School and Falwell’s own Liberty Law School.
Since it was announced on the same day as Gorsuch’s nomination, Trump tapping Falwell to head a task force on higher education initially appeared unrelated and less significant. Many of the details regarding Falwell's new position are still unknown, but the move appears to be targeted in part at opening up accreditation standards and federal qualifications for higher education institutions, like religious universities, that have had problems in the past.
Christian law schools such as Liberty are the beneficiaries of the now-defunct O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University. It was here that Christian leaders initially faced questions about how to preserve their institutions’ unique character in the face of accreditation standards and federal rules regarding diversity and non-discrimination. At least one other school faced internal battles over whether to allow students to apply for federal financial aid since doing so was seen as threatening the school’s ability to control its mission. In heading Trump’s task force, Falwell stands to lower the costs of creating such schools and to strengthen their abilities to control their Christian character in the face of conflicting federal rules and laws. This sets the conditions for the proliferation of more insular religious universities and professional programs.
Along with providing a familiar space for devout Christians to pursue legal training, these law schools have larger aspirations. In the words of Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of Liberty University and its law school, the institution was created with the “belief that we needed to produce a generation of Christian attorneys who could, in fact, infiltrate the legal profession with a strong commitment to the Judeo-Christian ethic.”
As with the Christian Right more generally, these schools’ prospects of being able to reach their goals was in question half a year ago. In order to “infiltrate the legal profession” and hold sway, graduates from these schools would need to follow the well-worn path of previous legal elites. Federal judicial clerkships, for example, are a gateway from law school to influential legal positions in elite firms, government agencies, legal academia and, eventually, judgeships. These schools have done much to try to attract students with the potential to travel this path, but another Democratic administration would have hobbled their efforts. The elevation of Falwell and the nomination of Gorsuch are both demonstrations of Trump’s recognition of the importance of empowering the Christian Right. As such, they also signal to Christian professional schools and their graduates that this administration is ready to reward them.