The leaked draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization has led many to recognize the grim ends-justify-the-means relentlessness of the American religious right. It should also be recognized that the movement's half-century assault on reproductive freedoms has ridden shotgun alongside a broader crusade: the endeavor to dismantle, brick by brick, the purported wall of separation between church and state.
That wall's ramparts were at their sturdiest in the 1960s. That was a moment in American history when separationist secularism was pushing prayer out of state-funded schools, abolishing religious tests for public employment and showing unprecedented concern for the rights of religious minorities. The judicial and legislative aspiration of that era was well summarized by John F. Kennedy's ringing affirmation: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
Traditionalist Catholics, as well as evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, never believed in such an America. In the 1970s, these "co-belligerents" surged back into the public square — a space they decreed to be "secular," "godless," "communist," "nihilistic," "leftist" and even "demonic." The story of how the Roe decision galvanized right-wing Catholics, and a few years later, conservative Protestants, is well known. The story of the latter's newfound alliance with the Republican Party and its contribution to "the Reagan landslide" (white evangelicals, incidentally, had previously favored the Democrats) is also well known.
Less well known are the Democrats' missteps in staving off white Christian nationalism's furious onslaught against political secularism. The leaked Supreme Court decision of last week, with its ominous potential to enable the clawback of even more existing rights, is a consequence of the wall of separation's reduction to smoldering rubble. How else does a conception of "life" unique to one particular strain of Christian theology come to dominate the laws of a polity with numerous Christianities, numerous non-Christian religions and vast numbers of non-religious citizens? That is an outcome that every credible form of secularism is built to prevent.
To understand how the party of JFK came to shun secularism, we must return to the autopsy that Democrats performed after John Kerry's defeat in 2004. How, they wondered, could George W. Bush possibly have been re-elected? How did an incumbent who had presided over an unprecedented attack on U.S. soil, an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and a sputtering economy, prevail? (Indeed, Bush in that election became the last Republican, to date, to win a plurality in the popular vote.)
The solution centered on the aforementioned co-belligerents, now called "values voters." Outrage over gay marriage and legalized abortion, among other vices, propelled them to the ballot box. In swing states like Ohio, their intervention likely determined the outcome of the election.
The 2004 disappointment led Democrats — and their battalions of consultants with divinity degrees — to conclude that the party needed to become more "faith-friendly." Never again would a presidential candidate wait until just nine days before the election to deliver a "Faith and Values" speech, as Kerry did in 2004.