For many, the national debate over same-sex marriage culminated on Friday with the United States Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor. However, some conservatives, such as Mike Huckabee, haven’t admitted defeat. Instead, they have attacked the Supreme Court itself, encouraging people and future presidents to rebuff the Court’s decision. Could his argument work? New data suggests that it could.
At root in this debate is the question of judicial supremacy, or whether the Supreme Court has the final say on what is constitutional or not. Huckabee has been the most vocal opponent of judicial supremacy. In May, Huckabee declared,“Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black-robed and unelected judges the power to make law as well as enforce it.” On Friday right after the decision, Huckabee returned to the claim in a USA Today op-ed, “As president, I will never bow down to the false gods of judicial supremacy.”
Huckabee’s statements led to a debate among conservative elites. George Will criticized Huckabee’s interpretation of the Constitution. Others countered that Will should learn a lesson about judicial supremacy from Abraham Lincoln — who, in his First Inaugural address, declared that if citizens and the president accept the Supreme Court’s wrong decisions they will have “practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”
Huckabee has been undeterred. The day the Court announced its decision, Rick Santorum followed suit, saying, “The stakes are too high and the issue too important to simply cede the will of the people to five unaccountable justices.”
But will the public be swayed by arguments of judicial supremacy to oppose the Supreme Court? The week before the Supreme Court’s ruling, we tested Huckabee’s argument frame among a sample of 1200 Evangelical Protestants, who are arguably most likely to be swayed by the arguments from Huckabee and Santorum. Evangelical respondents were recruited online via Survey Sampling International.
As part of an eight-minute survey about faith and politics, we embedded an experiment. A third of the respondents was shown the following statement:
In a recent speech, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee discussed the U.S. Supreme Court’s impending decision that is likely to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. Huckabee said, “Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black-robed and unelected judges the power to make law as well as enforce it.”
Another third was given the same quote (“Many of our politicians…”) without attribution to Huckabee. The final third was not given any statement.
Each of the respondents was then asked whether “Presidents should ignore Supreme Court decisions they disagree with” and whether “The Power of the Supreme Court to overturn the will of the people should be eliminated.”
Evangelical respondents who were given no statement were ambivalent about the Court’s performance and neither agreed nor disagreed that the Court’s power of judicial review should be removed. They tended to disagree that presidents should ignore Court decisions.
Reading the version of the statement that didn’t refer to Huckabee did change people’s views. In particular, it made evangelicals who supported same-sex marriage (26 percent of this sample) more likely to favor eliminating the Court’s ability to overturn the will of the people. In this sense, Huckabee’s argument made evangelical supporters of same-sex marriage more like other evangelicals, who already favored weakening the Court in this way.
The statement had a stronger effect on whether respondents believed that the president should ignore the Court. Everyone, including both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage, became more likely to endorse this view. Overall, support for the president’s prerogative to ignore the Court increased by 25 percent.
But there is one important caveat, and it concerns Huckabee in particular. We found that the statement about the “false god of judicial supremacy” only had these effects if it was not attributed to Mike Huckabee. Although one might expect that Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, would have credibility with evangelicals, this was not the case. The substance of Huckabee’s argument, not Huckabee himself, appears more persuasive.
Since the Obergefell decision, there have been consistent soundings from some on the right, who have promised to continue the fight. Although it is far too early to make predictions, our results suggest that their campaign could find adherents among American evangelicals.
Paul A. Djupe and Andrew R. Lewis are political scientists at Denison University and the University of Cincinnati, respectively. For more on this topic, see: