This consistent tilt in Republican nominees for the high court is especially remarkable because Catholics represent a smaller share of the GOP's electoral coalition than both mainline and especially evangelical Protestants; those evangelicals are by far the party's largest religious faction, according to annual studies by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. And yet every Republican president since Ronald Reagan has looked mostly to conservative Catholics, rather than to those two other groups, in choosing candidates for the highest legal prize the party can bestow.
"You have a situation where the evangelicals have been outsourcing their judicial appointments to conservative Catholics," says Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth University, who has written extensively on the history of evangelical political activism.
The Republican tilt toward Catholics over evangelicals "has to do, in really simple terms, with supply and demand," says Joshua Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Denver and co-author with Amanda Hollis-Brusky of "Separate But Faithful," an upcoming book on conservative Christians in the legal world. "You don't have a robust pool of evangelical Protestant lawyers and judges, whereas you do have a robust pool of conservative Catholic judges and lawyers and academics."
Success for conservatives in ending the legal right to abortion at the court could produce a sharp recoil at the ballot box, particularly among younger voters and most women.
The rise of Catholic justices
The language from Perkins, an evangelical minister, is especially revealing because it shows how religious conservatives now almost all unite Catholics and conservative Protestants under the same joint banner of "Christian." That testifies to the enduring success of the religious and political alliance that has transformed the GOP coalition and reordered American politics more broadly.
"In the 1950s and the 1960s the big battle lines were really between Protestants and Catholics; that was the big culture war fight," says Jones, author of the new book "White Too Long," a history of American Christianity's relationship with White supremacy. "If you were Protestant and you married someone who was Catholic, that was a big deal mid-century."
Politically in those years, Catholics leaned mostly, though not entirely, Democratic while Protestants divided: Northern mainline Protestants were the backbone of the Republican Party, while Southern evangelical Protestants, like the rest of the region, "voted the way their daddy shot" and reliably supported Democrats against the Republicans who had prosecuted the Civil War.
Finding common ground
One political visionary, more than any other, midwifed the electoral truce between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. The late Paul Weyrich, though a Catholic from Wisconsin, worked for years to encourage more culturally conservative Southern evangelical ministers to engage in politics and to shift their allegiance to the GOP, as the Democratic Party more consistently tilted left on social issues through the 1970s. It was Weyrich (who also co-founded the Heritage Foundation, for years the right's premier think tank) who, by most accounts, coined the phrase "the Moral Majority" and helped to convince fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell to found that landmark religious right organization.
Despite the long years of doctrinal and social conflict between Catholics and evangelicals, Ballmer says, "I think [Weyrich] thought that the common ground was the sense of moral decay in society, and if he could form what he called a moral majority -- and then he actually used that term in his correspondence, lowercase letters -- he could transform the nation. And he was right."
Years of demographic decline since then hardened the alliance Weyrich conceived, Jones says. "As the number of White Protestants began to shrink, they brought in White Catholics to this conservative Christian movement," he says. The alliance, he adds, "got welded on as the Christian right picked up momentum and essentially needed more foot soldiers than White Protestants could provide at that stage in the game."
Both White Protestants and Catholics have steadily diminished as a share of the nation's population as America has grown more racially and religiously diverse, with people of color representing a growing proportion and more Americans than ever identifying as secular or unaffiliated with any religious tradition. Just since 2006 in Public Religion Research Institute data, Whites who identify as Catholic or mainline or evangelical Protestants have each fallen by about 5 percentage points as a share of the population; together they now compose only a little over two-fifths of American adults, compared with nearly three-fifths then.
But those three communities remain the dominant groups inside the Republican coalition, with evangelical Christians (at 28%), mainline Protestants (21%) and Catholics (16%) still comprising about two-thirds of the party's supporters, according to 2019 data from the Public Religion Research Institute. (By contrast, those three groups make up only a little more than one-third of Democrats, who rely much more than Republicans on both non-White Christians and Americans of all races who don't identify with any religious tradition.)
White Catholics have become a reliable Republican constituency in presidential elections. Since 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 is the only Democratic nominee to have carried them, according to exit polls. In 2016, Trump won just over three-fifths of them, the best performance for any GOP nominee since at least 1980.
A strong pipeline
All of these electoral measures of the GOP's reliance on evangelical Protestants only underscores the striking nature of the Catholic dominance in GOP Supreme Court nominations. Few involved in the selection process over the years have discussed why Republicans favor Catholics so often, and those who have portrayed it as essentially a large-scale coincidence.
In an email, for instance, Karl Rove, the top political adviser for George W. Bush, told me that religion was irrelevant in Bush's picks. "That Roberts and Alito were Catholics was known but not a factor in their appointment, either for or against," he wrote. "Their judicial philosophy, character, record on the Federal bench, relative youth, even geography were discussed as considerations, not their religious affiliation. Identity politics concerns ('we better get an evangelical because they are 28% of our coalition and none of the last three Republican appointees have been evangelicals!') was not considered by 43."
Political scientists who have studied the conservative legal movement say the principal explanation for the disparity isn't happenstance but a deep institutional disparity: Conservative Catholics have built a much stronger pipeline for producing potential judicial nominees than evangelical Protestants have. Over decades, Catholics have established vastly more well-respected undergraduate colleges and universities than evangelical Protestants have, which has allowed more of their graduates to obtain entry to the top-tier Ivy League law schools, led by Harvard and Yale, that have become indispensable for Supreme Court nominations.
Even at the law school level, institutions controlled by conservative Catholics -- principally Notre Dame Law School, where Barrett taught -- have vastly more prestige than Regent and Liberty, the overtly evangelical law schools attached to universities created by televangelists Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell.
In their upcoming book, Hollis-Brusky and Wilson cite data from the American Bar Association showing that the share of recent Notre Dame Law School graduates serving as judicial clerks, an important step on the path toward later judicial appointments, was twice as high as for either of those evangelical institutions. While Notre Dame prides itself on its identity as a legal farm team for the right, Wilson says, for Regent and Liberty, "I think it would be impossible ... in the foreseeable future for a graduate of one of those schools to be appointed to the Supreme Court. It's too much of a leap."
At the top of the conservative legal pyramid, even the Federalist Society, a group that exerts enormous influence over Republican judicial selection, is headed by a conservative Catholic, Leonard Leo.
But that day, if it comes, almost certainly remains many years away. For now, Barrett's nomination continues the striking trend of Republican appointments and would ensure a majority of conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court even if one excludes Gorsuch. That majority would stand as an enduring monument to the alliance of culturally conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants who have won control of the GOP.
Replacing Ginsburg with Barrett on the Supreme Court represents a triumphant moment for the conservative social and legal movements. But if the court majority cemented by Barrett alienates the rising generations who will represent the nation's largest voting bloc by the middle of this decade, that judicial victory could turn to electoral ash.