Two crucial Supreme Court rulings in June hinged on history — one on abortion and one on gun rights. The court’s conservative majority applied a nostalgic view of the past to make it harder to limit the right to carry a concealed firearm. Meanwhile, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that any right not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution must be “rooted in our Nation’s history and tradition” and claimed that the right to an abortion did not meet this standard.
In both cases however, historians quickly pointed out that the court’s conservatives mangled the history. Justice Elena Kagan and other critics suggested that the conservative justices are playing the role of amateur historians, a job well outside the scope of their duties and training.
But the court’s conservatives did not invent this history — they merely borrowed it from the Christian right.
In the 1970s, White conservative Christians needed a strategy to reclaim the political and cultural power they believed was rightfully theirs. They abhorred the changes wrought by liberal activists in the previous decade that threatened the racial, religious and sexual hierarchies they believed to be ordained by God. They mourned the Supreme Court’s decisions to ban school-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools, legalize abortion and curtail government aid to religious institutions. They longed for the America of their childhoods.
A message coalesced: America needed to return to its old, righteous ways. The changes of the 1960s and early 1970s were not progress but decline. To save the nation, Americans needed to emulate the past.
To do that, however, White conservative Christians needed a narrative of the past that indicted the present and supported their vision for the future. So their leaders and intellectuals created one. In that Christian heritage story, the United States was founded by devout proto-evangelical Christians in a unique covenant with the Christian God. As the 1977 best-selling book “The Light and the Glory” put it: “In the virgin wilderness of America, God was making His most significant attempt since ancient Israel to create a New Israel of people living in obedience to the laws of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.”