The nine most powerful people in America may be the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court – the highest court in the land, comprised of lawyers who get a lifetime appointment and are protected from political partisanship and reprisals. The latest survey released by the American Culture and Faith Institute (ACFI) among Christian conservatives shows that these voters have deeply held opinions about “The Supremes” – and those views sometimes differ from the majority opinion in America.
Those opinions are especially meaningful as the 2016 election roars to a conclusion. While most Americans consider the economy to be the most important challenge facing the nation, most Christian conservatives perceive the future of the Supreme Court to be the single most compelling election issue that will influence which candidate they support for the presidency.
There is no doubt in the mind of SAGE Cons – the Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged Conservatives who were the focus of the nationwide survey – that the Supreme Court matters in their lives. Four out of five (81%) said that the decisions made by the Supreme Court impact their daily life “a lot” with almost all of the rest (18%) saying the Court’s decisions have at least “some impact” on their life from day to day.
Given that perception, it is not surprising that half of the SAGE Cons (52%) say they follow the major decisions handed down by the Court “very closely” and most of the remaining respondents (43%) follow those renderings “somewhat closely.” In total only 5% said they do not follow the decisions closely. To place this in context, nationwide surveys of the entire public indicate that SAGE Cons are over three times more likely than the typical American to track SCOTUS decisions very closely.
Concerned about the Justices
SAGE Cons are much more concerned about the ideological bias of the top jurists than are other Americans. Nearly all SAGE Cons (96%) believe that the current Court is “too liberal.” Nationally, a recent survey of the entire population revealed that only one-third of all adults (37%) hold that same concern. In fact, that Gallup survey found that two out of ten (20%) said the Supreme Court is too conservative, and four out of ten (39%) said it is ideologically “just about right.”
The perceived ideological bias of the Court explains why only 1% of SAGE Cons strongly approve of the Court’s performance, with 9% approving somewhat. The vast majority either disapproves somewhat (43%) or disapproves strongly (48%). Gallup’s most recent reading of the aggregate national sentiment found a dramatically different outlook: 45% of the general public approved and 47% disapproved of the Court’s performance – strikingly divergent from the 10% approval and 91% disapproval of Christian conservatives.
The ACFI study also discovered that three-quarters of SAGE Cons (76%) believe that appointing Supreme Court justices for life is bad because “it gives them too much power and protects them from accountability.” This perception is undoubtedly related to the decisions of the Court since the passing of conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia, altering the precarious ideological balance of the Court and providing a glimpse into the future if Hillary Clinton is elected and nominates additional judges who have a liberal bent.
Bias in Decisions
National surveys of the general public suggest that roughly three-quarters of adults believe the Supremes sometimes let their own personal or political views influence their decisions. SAGE Cons are almost unanimous in their belief this is the case: 97% claim that the justices allow such bias to creep into their decisions from the bench.
The religious views of the jurists are believed to have significant influence on Court decisions, too. Almost half of all SAGE Cons (46%) say the religious beliefs of the justices influence their decision-making “a lot” while another four out of ten (42%) estimate that those beliefs influence Court decisions somewhat.
The survey showed that SAGE Cons are nearly unanimous in their opinion that the Supremes should base their rulings on their understanding of what the Constitution meant as it was originally written. A whopping 98% of Christian conservatives desire a Court that follows that procedure, rather than one that interprets the Constitution within today’s cultural context.
Similarly, a huge majority of Christian conservatives (86%) contends that the Supremes should solely consider the legal issues involved in the cases it hears without consideration for current public opinion on the issue at-hand. This sentiment reflects the conservative expectation that the court will interpret the Constitution based on the intent of the writers of that longstanding document, thereby applying the law rather than remaking it.
SAGE Cons are generally of one voice when it comes to vetting Supreme Court nominees. Reflecting the importance that Christian conservatives attach to abortion law, nearly nine out of ten (88%) believe that nominees should be expected to publicly answer questions about their position on abortion before their candidacy is voted on by the Senate. Similarly, 86% believe that nominees should be expected to publicly answer questions about how they would have ruled on past cases before the Senate votes on their nomination.
Criminal Justice System
Toward that end, the ACFI research found that Christian conservatives say the criminal justice system is inconsistent in the performance of its duties. For instance, seven out of ten (69%) believe the courts provide blacks and other minorities with equal treatment to that received by whites. However, more than four out of five (84%) do not believe that the criminal justice system handles matters related to terrorism fairly because it gives terrorist suspects too many rights. Surveys by Quinnipiac Research show that most Americans agree with SAGE Cons on that issue.
Of One Mind
“SAGE Cons are unusually united in their beliefs about matters related to the Supreme Court,” noted George Barna, Executive Director of ACFI and the researcher in charge of the survey. “Anytime you have at least four out of five members of a constituency agreeing on such a range of issues, you have a solid block of supporters. Given that unity of perspective and the fact that they have a different vision of the Court than do some of the candidates, it is surprising that conservative candidates have not placed more emphasis upon the importance of Court nominations and the role the Court should play in America’s governance.”
Barna also indicated that if Republicans win the White House and the Senate on November 8, it would not be surprising to find SAGE Cons follow those victories by pushing for some fundamental changes in Court life. “You can imagine Christian conservatives leading a move to replace lifetime appointments with a limited term for the justices. A majority of Americans concur that such a shift would be beneficial. Whether there is enough energy behind that preference to produce a solid movement that leads to a systemic change is another issue altogether. It would require a change in the Constitution, which is a massive undertaking. If the Democrats win the presidency, the Senate – or both – that might provide the urgency and enthusiasm required to fuel such a movement, but the process would likely take so long that the change made might wind up being too little, too late.”
About the Research
The research described in this report is part of the RightView™ longitudinal survey, a national study undertaken among spiritually active, governance engaged conservatives who are registered voters – a segment known as SAGE Cons. The survey undertaken for this report had sample size of 1,250 qualified adults and was conducted online by the American Culture & Faith Institute during the first week of October 2016.
In RightView™ studies SAGE Cons are identified as adults who are registered voters; conservative on political matters; have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; are active in pursuing their Christian faith; and are actively engaged in politics and government. They represent about 12% of the national adult population, which constitutes a segment of approximately 30 million individuals.
The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians related to the political process. The organization does not support or promote individual candidates or political parties.
Additional information about this and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com.