Evangelical Fear Elected Trump

The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.

White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.

Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life.

  1. Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew
  2. God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.”
  3. The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.

But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.

Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.

But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.

A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.

Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”

When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.
But other evangelical options were also available. While Federalists like Boudinot and Morse railed against Jefferson and his followers, frontier evangelicals—mostly Baptists and Methodists—flocked to Jefferson in droves. They understood that Jefferson’s defense of religious freedom would allow evangelical faith to flourish in America. They were right. When religion in America was separated from state sponsorship, it resulted in a massive religious revival which historians have described as the Second Great Awakening.

In the antebellum South, evangelicals, according to some historians, made up close to 80 percent of the region’s population. Southern evangelicals were caught up in a slave system that kept them in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Slave rebellions against their white masters were relatively scarce, but when insurrections did take place they brought paranoia and panic. One South Carolina widow claimed to lie in bed each night fearing that at any moment one of her slaves would break into her house and hack her to death with an axe.

The aggressive moral rhetoric and publishing campaigns of Northern opponents of slavery threatened the white Southern evangelical way of life and prompted fears of a race war. In response, some of the South’s best evangelical minds went to work constructing a complex biblical and theological defense of slavery.

But other evangelical options were available. Modern-day attempts by Southern evangelicals—especially those in the Southern Baptist Convention—to come to terms with its slaveholding and racist past imply that the Northern abolitionists, the thousands of evangelicals who came to South during Reconstruction, and those who fought for racial equality during Jim Crow, were on the religious high ground. They represented a much more consistent evangelical ethic on this moral problem.

The very short history of evangelical fear would certainly need to spend some time in the decades following the Civil War as evangelicals waged intellectual and religious battles against Darwinism and the higher criticism of the Bible. Some of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism converged in the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. It was stridently anti-Catholic, and on occasion worked closely with the Ku Klux Klan to guard the white Protestant character of the country.

Fundamentalists, committed to the otherworldly teachings of the Holiness or “Higher Life” movement, chose to separate from the world rather than engage it. They promoted a theology of the “end times” that led them to spend considerable energy trying to identify the appearance of the Antichrist on the global stage.

In defending the “fundamentals of the faith,” these anti-modernists relied on authoritarian clergymen. These fear-mongers gained followers, built large congregations, and established national reputations by sounding the alarm of the modernist threat whenever they saw it rearing its ugly head. They took on the role of ecclesiastical strongmen, protecting their congregations from outsiders who threatened to destroy their faith and the Christian identity of the nation.

But once more, other evangelical options were available. Those concerned about doctrinal drift could have learned something from the biblical virtues of love and humility. The sense of certainty that defined the fundamentalist movement in America might have been replaced with a sense of mystery and the embrace of a God who could not always be confined to man-made doctrinal formulations and end-times speculations. Perhaps such an approach might have tempered the militancy of the movement and provided fundamentalism with a more respected public platform in the decades following the 1925 Scopes Trial.

Since World War II, evangelical anxiety has intensified. In 1947, in the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court announced a “wall of separation between church and state [that] must be kept high and impregnable.” The court drew on this decision when it banned prayer and mandatory Bible reading in public schools in 1962 and 1963 respectively.

The demographic makeup of the country was also changing. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 opened American shores to millions of Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. Many of these new immigrants brought their non-Christian religious beliefs and practices with them, creating unprecedented religious diversity.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Supreme Court efforts at desegregating Christian academies and colleges led to fierce resistance from Southern evangelicals who viewed the federal government as taking away their local autonomy and the religious freedom to control their own admissions policies. (These arguments were not unlike to those put forth by the Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861.) By the late 1960s, the feminist movement was posing a threat to the long-held conservative evangelical commitment to patriarchal households, and in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. For those who saw all these things contributing to the decline of a Christian culture in the United States, there was much to fear.

Any effort to make sense of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump cannot ignore evangelicals’ fear of the Barack Obama administration. Obama was an exotic figure to many white conservative evangelicals. He grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country. He was the son of a white woman and an African man. He had a strange name; that his middle name was “Hussein” did not help.

Obama had a Christian conversion story, but it was not the kind of conversion story from which many white conservative evangelicals would find inspiration. His embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation in Chicago under the guidance of a pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins of slavery and racism.
Obama’s social policies alienated conservative evangelicals. Though “pro-life” could be used to describe his views on

  • immigration,
  • health care,
  • the death penalty,
  • the fight against poverty, and
  • civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities,

Obama was “pro-choice” on abortion and, for most evangelicals, that was all that really mattered.

And then there was gay marriage. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he supported same-sex unions, but defended marriage as a union between a man and woman. During his first two years in office, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that prohibited married same-sex couples from collecting federal benefits.

But in February 2011, he changed his position on the Act and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to stop defending it in court. In a May 2012 interview with ABC News, Obama announced that he had gone through an “evolution” on the issue. He was now willing to affirm that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, declared the Defense of Marriage of Act unconstitutional and the Obama administration began extending federal rights and benefits to same-sex married couples. By 2015, when the Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the United States government would recognize same-sex marriages, the practice was legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C. On the evening after the Obergefell decision, Obama showed his appreciation by illuminating the White House in rainbow colors.

The LGBT community saw the Obergefell decision as the culmination of a long struggle for civil rights. Conservative evangelicals cringed. For them it all happened too fast. In the hours after the decision they turned to their blogs, websites, and media outlets and wrote apocalyptic opinion pieces on how to cope in a post-Christian society.

This history of evangelical fear would come to an end, at least for the moment, with a chapter on Hillary Clinton. After a recent lecture on Trump and his evangelical supporters, a woman approached me at the lectern and identified herself as an evangelical who voted for Trump. “I am part of the 81 percent,” she said, “but what choice did I have?” I have heard something similar many times from evangelicals who voted for Trump.

Evangelicals are not supposed to hate. But many hate Hillary Clinton. The history of that antipathy is long, reaching back at least to Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. But it was solidified among white evangelical baby boomers when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced in 1998. Conservatives who challenged Bill Clinton’s character were outraged when Hillary attacked her husband’s accusers and went on The Today Show and claimed that the impeachment charges against her husband were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Hillary Clinton did not help herself among evangelicals in the 2016 election campaign. She lied about using a private email server in her role as secretary of state. She placed Trump supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” She made no effort to court evangelical votes, a strategy that the progressive evangelical writer and Clinton supporter Ronald Sider called “dumbfounding and incredibly stupid.”
On the policy front, Clinton was, for most white evangelicals, an extension of the Obama presidency—a candidate who would steamroll their long-cherished conservative values.

Faced with a choice between Clinton and a race-baiting, xenophobic, lying adulterer who promised to support conservative Supreme Court justices, white conservative evangelicals chose the latter. In 2016, American evangelicals were looking for a strongman to protect them from the progressive forces wreaking havoc on their Christian nation. Donald Trump was the strongman.

Most evangelicals did not believe more traditional candidates of the Christian right such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson could protect them as well as the bombastic big-talking New York real-estate tycoon. As Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and early Trump supporter put it, “I couldn’t care less about a leader’s temperament or his tone of his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. They don’t want Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.”

Ironically, some evangelicals have found a savior. They sought after Trump, he answered them, and he delivered them from all their fears.

But other evangelical options are available. Evangelicals are people of hope, not fear. The practice of Christian hope points us to a life beyond this world, but it also requires us to act in such a way that models God’s coming kingdom. The Kingdom of God is characterized by the love of enemies, the welcoming of strangers, the belief in the human dignity of all people, a humble and self-sacrificial posture toward public life, and a trust in the sovereign God of the universe. Fear is a natural human response to social change, but evangelicals betray their deepest spiritual convictions when they choose to dwell in it.

The Trump era presents a host of new challenges for evangelicals who believe in the Gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. The first step in addressing these challenges must come through a reckoning with our past. Evangelicals have taken many wrong turns over the decades even though better, more Christian, options could be found by simply opening up the Bible and reading it. We must stop our nostalgic gaze into a Christian golden age in America that probably never existed to begin with and turn toward the future with renewed hope. It is time, as the great theologian of hope Jurgen Moltmann taught us, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Biden Wants to Work With ‘the Other Side.’ This Supreme Court Battle Explains Why.

In the clash over Robert H. Bork’s nomination, Joe Biden’s moderate instincts defined a winning strategy.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. was on the brink of victory, but he was unsatisfied.

Mr. Biden, the 44-year-old chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was poised to watch his colleagues reject President Ronald Reagan’s formidable nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert H. Bork. The vote was unlikely to be close. Yet Mr. Biden was hovering in the Senate chamber, plying Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, a Republican of modestly conservative politics and regal bearing, with arguments about Bork’s record.

Rejecting a Supreme Court nominee was an extraordinary act of defiance, and Mr. Biden did not want a narrow vote that could look like an act of raw partisan politics.

“We already had Bork beat,” said Mark Gitenstein, who was then chief counsel to Mr. Biden’s committee. “But Biden really wanted to get Warner because he had such stature.”

Mr. Biden’s entreaties prevailed: Mr. Warner became one of 58 senators to vote against Bork, and one of six Republicans.

The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons. The vote ensured that the court’s swing seat would not go to a man with a long history of criticizing rulings on the rights of African-Americans and women. It also enraged a generation of conservatives and transformed the judge’s name into an ominous verb: Fearful of getting “Borked,” no nominee would ever again speak so freely about his views as Bork did.

The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Robert H. Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons.

It was also a personal turning point for Mr. Biden. In the Bork debate, Mr. Biden’s political ethos found its most vivid and successful expression.

A review of Mr. Biden’s conduct in the debate — including interviews with 16 people directly involved in the nomination fight, and a review of the hearings and Mr. Biden’s speeches — yielded a portrait of Mr. Biden as an ambitious young senator determined to achieve a vital liberal goal by decidedly unradical means.

The strategy Chairman Biden deployed then is the same one he is now proposing to bring to the White House as President Biden.

In the 1980s, as today, he saw bipartisan compromise not as a version of surrender, but as a vital tool for achieving Democratic goals.

Then, as now, Mr. Biden saw the culture and traditions of the Senate not as crippling obstacles, but as instruments that could be bent to his advantage.

And in both defining moments — his leadership of the Bork hearings and his third presidential campaign — Mr. Biden made persuading moderates, rather than exciting liberals, his guiding objective.

Mr. Biden, whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview, has strained to defend this approach in the 2020 presidential primary, offering only a halting rationale for a political worldview that other Democrats see as out of date. His rivals have branded him as a timid and even reactionary figure — a creature of the Senate cloakroom who partnered with former segregationists to pass draconian anti-crime legislation and joined with the business lobby to tighten bankruptcy laws.

And Mr. Biden’s opponents point not to the Bork hearings but a different confirmation battle as proof that his instincts are flawed. Four years after Bork was defeated, Mr. Biden would again take an accommodating approach to his Republican colleagues during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, allowing harsh and invasive questioning of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused the nominee of sexual harassment. Mr. Biden would later express “regret” for the treatment she endured.

But he has never regretted the conciliatory style that led him to triumph against Bork. In that process, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans — men like Mr. Warner.

Now 92, Mr. Warner said in an interview that his memories of the Bork hearings had grown foggy over the years. But two impressions were indelible, he said. The first concerned Reagan’s nominee: “I never encountered a man with a shorter temper,” Mr. Warner said.

The second concerned the caliber of the Senate’s deliberations.

It was a real, solid, good debate, led by Biden,” Mr. Warner said. “He showed extraordinary leadership.”

The outcome was not foreordained, for either Bork or Mr. Biden. The debate unfolded at a moment of humiliation for Mr. Biden, whose first campaign for president unraveled as the Bork hearings approached their climax. And the judge was no timid adversary, as the journalist Ethan Bronner wrote in a book on the nomination.

Robert Bork,” Mr. Bronner wrote, “was a man of war.”

Mr. Biden was seated behind a desk in a spacious living room adjoining his study at his Wilmington, Del., home. A few aides sat or stood around the room, where pizza was in generous supply. Squared off against Mr. Biden was Robert H. Bork — or rather, a convincing simulacrum played by the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.

Mr. Tribe and Mr. Biden would spar for hours in a series of sessions that August, joined occasionally by other legal experts who would help Mr. Biden hone his queries on subjects from antitrust regulation to sexual privacy.

Biden’s questions were really smart, and they also needed some sharpening,” Mr. Tribe said in an interview, citing Mr. Biden’s tendency to “ask one thing and mean something slightly different.”

Mr. Biden came to those training sessions by a jagged path, shaped by pressure from progressive activists and the delicate politics of the Judiciary Committee. He was arming himself to oppose Bork, but not with the methods of the left.

On the day Bork was nominated, liberals viewed Mr. Biden with suspicion. Taking over one of the Senate’s great committees at a boyish — for the Senate — age of 44, Mr. Biden had already split with progressives on the issue of busing as a means of desegregating schools. Until Bork, the authors Michael Pertschuk and Wendy Schaetzel would write, Mr. Biden “had been reluctant to challenge Reagan’s transformation of the federal judiciary.”

The previous November, the soon-to-be chairman had given liberals new reason for concern, suggesting to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he might one day vote to put Bork on the Supreme Court, should he be Reagan’s next nominee.

“I’m not Teddy Kennedy,” he told the newspaper.

When Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a flexible conservative, resigned from the court in late June, Mr. Biden found himself in the shadow of Kennedy, the party’s leading liberal, and laboring to reconcile his own moderate instincts with a mood of alarm on the left. When the White House announced Bork’s nomination on the first day of July, Kennedy delivered a thunderous warning from the Senate floor: In “Robert Bork’s America,” Kennedy said,

  • women would be forced into back-alley abortions,
  • blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”

The scathing address was a call to arms for the left, and it helped animate a coalition of progressives — led by feminists, civil rights activists and labor unions — that applied pressure to undecided senators throughout the summer.

His record was so extensive, and it touched almost every issue of importance to American life,” said Nan Aron, a leading anti-Bork activist. “It wasn’t simply a single issue that caused people to be alarmed.”

Another purpose of Kennedy’s speech, his allies have said, was to ensure Mr. Biden would not cave.

One of the reasons for ‘Robert Bork’s America’ was to freeze Biden,” Jeffrey Blattner, a Kennedy aide, would say decades later, in an oral history for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. “He’s running for president. We didn’t want to leave him any choice.”

Mr. Biden quickly aligned himself with Kennedy, and, at his liberal colleague’s urging, secured an agreement from Senator Strom Thurmond — the 84-year-old former segregationist who was the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican — to delay Bork’s hearings until September.

Biden was under a lot of pressure, particularly from the liberal senators,” said former Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, a centrist Democrat who said he began the confirmation process favorably disposed toward Bork. “At first, I was leaning strongly to vote for him.”

Even as he pledged to oppose Bork, Mr. Biden made clear to progressive leaders in a private meeting that he saw his role as sharply distinct from theirs. He would play an inside game aimed at swaying Senate moderates, starting with the four undecided members of his committee:

  1. Mr. DeConcini and two other Democrats,
  2. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and
  3. Howell Heflin of Alabama, and a Republican,
  4. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Ralph Neas, a civil rights activist who joined the liberals’ initial meeting with Mr. Biden, said the chairman conveyed “that he would take the lead and we would try to put together a bipartisan coalition.”

Biden’s street cred with a lot of the centrists was quite high,” Mr. Neas said.

Mr. Biden was blunter with his aides: He would not adopt Kennedy’s rhetoric or make abortion his central cause. According to a book Mr. Gitenstein published in 1992 about the confirmation fight, Mr. Biden feared Bork would overturn Roe v. Wade but told aides he did not see the case as “great constitutional law.” More disturbing to him — and, he believed, more likely to sway undecided voters — was a Connecticut case on contraception that revealed Bork’s doubts about a broader right to privacy.

“It really concerns me more than abortion,” Mr. Biden is quoted as saying in the book.

In their sessions, Mr. Tribe said, the future vice president wrestled not just with Bork’s record but also with the idea of disqualifying nominees based on individual issues.

“I remember pushing back on Biden, saying, ‘If you think Roe v. Wade really ought to be the law of the land, shouldn’t that count?’” Mr. Tribe recalled. “He said, ‘Yes, it should count a lot, but I still don’t want to have a flat litmus test.’”

Mr. Tribe remembered thinking: “This guy’s a little bit more cautious than I am. But that’s fine, he’s playing a different role.”

Mr. Biden’s self-assigned role was readily apparent as the Bork hearings began in mid-September. Beaming down at the judge from a crowded dais, Mr. Biden praised him as man of towering achievement and “provocative” views. Flanked by Kennedy at one elbow and Thurmond at the other, Mr. Biden said the hearings should not be “clouded by strident rhetoric from the far left or the far right.”

Anytime you feel you want to expand on an answer, you are not bound by time,” Mr. Biden encouraged Bork, adding in a tone of levity, “Go ahead and bog us down.”

In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.CreditJose

The judge, bearded and broad shouldered, did not recognize the trap.

Few men could have been more prepared to face a constitutional interrogation. A former Yale Law School professor who served as the country’s solicitor general and, amid the maelstrom of Watergate, as acting attorney general, Bork brought to the hearings a reputation for quick eloquence and utter mastery of the law.

Mr. Biden had no such reputation, and the columnist George F. Will spoke for much of Washington when he predicted Bork would be “more than a match for Biden.”

The chairman gave his colleagues wide latitude to question Bork, whose testimony consumed five days. It culminated in an unusual Saturday hearing that was dominated by an hourslong debate between Bork and Specter, a former district attorney who frequently rode the Amtrak rails with Mr. Biden, about the meaning of constitutional intent. Mr. Biden had offered Specter half an hour for his questions; when Specter balked at the time limit, Mr. Biden relented and opened the way for a crucial exchange.

“His debate with my father on constitutional law did reveal him to be not sufficiently respectful of precedent, which pushed my father against him, and pushed other swing senators against him,” said Shanin Specter, the senator’s son and a Philadelphia lawyer. “It would not have happened if Biden, as chair, hadn’t permitted the hearings to go exactly as long as they needed to go.”

Mr. Biden sought, too, to quash attacks on Bork that he saw as risking political backlash. He shot down a plan to ambush Bork with a recording of a speech he gave in 1985, insisting on sharing it with the judge before airing it in the committee. And Mr. Biden and his aides refused a request from a number of prominent activists, including Ralph Nader, to testify in opposition to Bork. The left was applying powerful pressure from outside the Senate, but Mr. Biden preferred that its leaders stay there — on the outside.

Ms. Aron, who would later clash with Mr. Biden over the nomination of Justice Thomas in 1991, said the combination of popular pressure on the Senate and Mr. Biden’s high-minded hearings doomed the nominee.

What defeated Robert Bork was public pressure,” Ms. Aron said. “But what allowed the public to engage was a review of Bork’s record.”

And Bork did himself few favors: While he assured senators, in his rumbling voice, that he would not overturn rulings capriciously, he struggled to explain away past comments decrying “dozens” of shoddy Supreme Court decisions or deriding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or ridiculing the concept of a constitutional right to privacy. He startled even some allies by describing as “troublesome” the reasoning behind a 1954 case desegregating public schools in the nation’s capital.

In his questions, Mr. Biden posed as a mere mortal grappling with the ideas of a giant.

“Clearly, I do not want to get into a debate with a professor,” Mr. Biden stressed, prodding Mr. Bork about the Griswold v. Connecticut case that ended a state prohibition on birth control: “As I hear you, you do not believe there is a general right of privacy that is in the Constitution.”

“Not one derived in that fashion,” Bork said of the popular decision. “There may be other arguments, and I do not want to pass upon those.”

Watching Bork’s testimony, his political backers knew he was losing. He was articulate, but he was also argumentative. His knowledge of the law was powerful, his political antennae were not.

“I can’t blame Biden,” reflected Tom Korologos, the Republican lobbyist tasked with ushering Bork onto the court. “I blame Bork and Specter, and the other senators, for going on and on.”

Every swing vote on Mr. Biden’s committee swung against Bork, sending him to the floor with a negative recommendation by a vote of 9 to 5. The White House offered Bork the chance to withdraw; he chose martyrdom instead.

His supporters gave him that much, accusing Bork’s opponents of bowing to activists like Mr. Neas and Ms. Aron. “The man’s been trashed in our house,” Senator John Danforth, Republican of Missouri, lamented on the Senate floor. “Some of us helped generate the trashing. Others of us yielded to it.”

Mr. Biden called Mr. Danforth’s complaint an insult to the Senate.

“I have a higher opinion of the ability of my colleagues to do what’s right than, apparently, the senator from Missouri does,” he said.

Mr. Biden’s approach to the Bork nomination was a legislative and political success, one he experienced as personal redemption after his presidential candidacy crumbled. It brought to maturity the strategic instincts that defined him in subsequent battles — including his contested stewardship of the Thomas hearings — and that shape his candidacy today.

The fate of Mr. Biden’s campaign, and perhaps a future presidency, may hinge on whether that version of leadership, defined by collegiality and adherence to procedure, can inspire Democrats and coax cooperation from Republicans. In the presidential race, there is no Ted Kennedy to sound a trumpet for the left while Mr. Biden plays a methodical inside game. And there are no Republicans to be found in the Senate like Specter, who eventually, at Mr. Biden’s urging, quit the G.O.P. to become a Democrat before his death in 2012.

Still, Mr. Gitenstein said he had encouraged the former vice president to draw public attention to his role in the 1987 court fight. The defeat of Robert Bork averted a solidly conservative majority, handing the court’s decisive seat to the more pliant Anthony M. Kennedy, who became a decisive figure in a generation’s worth of eclectic rulings on subjects from campaign finance and union rights to abortion and the legal definition of marriage.

“I don’t think he or anyone else makes enough of the fact that, but for Biden, Roe would be dead 30 years ago, and, but for Biden, we wouldn’t have the gay marriage decision,” Mr. Gitenstein said. “I’ve talked to him about it. He’s got so much on his platter.”

Mr. DeConcini, who at 82 is a supporter of Mr. Biden’s campaign, said he hoped a strategy of moderation could prevail again.

But he admitted to having doubts.

“I’d like to think so, I really would,” Mr. DeConcini said. “I’m just not sure.”

Liberals Who Cry Roe

A obscure case over state sovereignty triggers a Supreme Court exchange over precedent.

Progressives outside the Court correctly interpreted the subtext of the Breyer dissent. “Clarence Thomas Just Showed How Supreme Court Would Overturn Roe v. Wade,” declared one columnist. Liberals are skiing so fast down this slope they can’t stop to think.

Justice Thomas is the only Justice who has endorsed overturning Roe. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh are wary enough of abortion politics that they declined to hear a case last year involving Medicaid provider contracts ostensibly because Planned Parenthood was a plaintiff. The High Court will eventually address abortion rights, but it is likely to do so incrementally unless it is forced to take on Casey and Roe directly by some state law. And even then we don’t know what the Justices would do.

A New Front in the War Over Reproductive Rights: ‘Abortion-Pill Reversal’

When the abortion pill became available in the United States in 2000, 12 years after it was approved in France, activists on both sides of the debate predicted that what was then called RU-486 would revolutionize the abortion landscape. One Planned Parenthood medical director told a journalist in the late 1990s that he expected medication abortions to make up 30 percent of all abortions within three or four years. Anti-abortion leaders, meanwhile, foresaw the procedure’s becoming effectively invisible, and therefore difficult to confront directly. George W. Bush, then the Republican nominee for president, said he feared the new protocol would ‘‘make abortions more and more common.’’

.. In 2014, the number of abortions in the United States dropped below one million for the first time since 1975.

.. A decade after RU-486’s arrival in the United States, fewer than 18 percent of abortions took place via medication

.. Even among women whose pregnancies were eligible for the abortion pill — at the time, eight weeks’ gestation or less — almost three-quarters underwent surgery instead.

.. As public discussion about abortions has focused on surgical abortions, the anti-abortion movement has notched victory after victory, chipping away at abortion access through a constellation of state laws that heavily regulate clinics, starve providers of funds and require women to undergo ‘‘counseling’’ or waiting periods before procuring the procedure. As a result, at least 162 abortion providers closed or stopped offering the service between 2011 and 2016

.. In the Midwest and the South, more than half of all women live in counties with no abortion provider at all.

.. But today, 17 years after RU-486 was approved, medication abortion is approaching its initial promise — or threat, depending on your point of view. American women now end their pregnancies with medication almost as often as they do with surgery

.. The experience of taking a few pills in private is on the cusp of becoming what we mean when we say ‘‘abortion.’’

.. This steady rise of medication abortion, or what the anti-abortion movement calls chemical abortion, presents the movement with a significant challenge, one that has turned out to be more complicated than the fear that abortion would become more common.

.. Medication abortions take place relatively early in pregnancy, and they are eliminating many of the images and narratives — the abortionist’s instruments, the impersonal clinic — that have historically served as persuasive scare tactics.

  • .. What the anti-abortion movement has thought through carefully is how to tell stories about abortion’s impact. Early activists, who were mostly Catholics, were almost solely concerned with saving the life of the fetus.
  • Feminists arguing for choice, in turn, made a convincing case for their own rights — and accused people opposed to abortion of not caring about women at all.

.. By the 1990s, emphasizing abortion’s supposed harms to women had become a full-fledged strategy, one that changed both the public face of the anti-abortion movement and its self-identity. Today many young anti-abortion activists frame their work as feminist

.. Promoting abortions as murder had always carried the uncomfortable implication that the women who procured them were killers. In the revised narrative, ‘‘the women are viewed as essentially victims,’’ Williams says. ‘‘The argument is always that they didn’t have the knowledge they really needed.’’

.. And ‘‘abortion pill reversal’’ implies exactly that — that a woman made an uninformed decision and has now thought better of it. The brainchild of a San Diego doctor named George Delgado, ‘‘reversal’’ is a medical protocol that floods a woman’s body with progesterone, the so-called pregnancy hormone, within hours after she has taken mifepristone, the drug that begins a medication abortion. ‘‘If you have something that’s poisoned a specific spot in your body and we know what the antidote is, then you just take the antidote,’’

.. For all the challenges that the abortion pill poses to the anti-abortion movement, it turns out to have at least one unexpected benefit: The hours between the two doses of medication represent an extra decision point to interrupt and redeem. ‘‘With a surgical abortion, once the instrument enters the uterus, then it’s over,’’ Delgado says. Medication abortion, by contrast, gives women ‘‘a second chance at choice.’’

.. Natural Procreative Technology, a Catholic-friendly approach to women’s reproductive health. Developed by an anti-abortion OB-GYN named Thomas Hilgers who was also inspired by ‘‘Humanae Vitae,’’ ‘‘NaProTechnology’’ eschews most forms of birth control and fertility treatments and relies instead on tracking widely used ‘‘biomarkers’’ like cervical mucus and body temperature.

..  he knew that mifepristone, the first drug in the abortion-pill protocol, works by blocking progesterone from the uterus. Couldn’t an extra dose of progesterone overcome the mifepristone? Within hours, he sketched out a plan to inject the woman with 200 milligrams of progesterone and to con­tinue giving the progesterone until the end of the first trimester.

.. Delgado later found out that a doctor in North Carolina, Matthew Harrison, had received a similar call from a crisis pregnancy center in 2006 and independently made the same guess about progesterone counteracting the effects of the mifepristone. That fetus, too, survived, after the mother received progesterone injections through her 26th week of pregnancy.

.. They soon published a small case series in the journal Annals of Pharmacotherapy. The article, just four pages long, describes seven pregnancies treated with progesterone after mifepristone. Two of the abortions completed, but four of the fetuses survived.

.. Delgado’s hotline received just 28 calls in all of 2012. But the volume increased over the years: 200 calls in 2013, more than 400 in 2014 and more than 600 for each of the last two years

.. When a call comes into the hotline, the nurse’s job is to connect the caller as quickly as possible with a local doctor willing to administer the reversal protocol. The program has a network of about 350 doctors

.. If the caller doesn’t live within driving range of one of those providers, the hotline nurse immediately starts calling local doctors and hospitals to explain what reversal is, hoping to find a sympathetic provider. Catholic hospitals are usually a good place to start.

.. One fan gave Harrison a T-shirt that read ‘‘Reversed RU-486. Now reverse Roe vs Wade.’’

.. A vanishingly small percentage of women decide they want to reverse a medication abortion halfway through. In fact, regret is quite rare when it comes to abortions in general. A 2013 study found that although women experienced a wide range of often conflicting responses to the procedure, relief was the most common emotion one week after. A later study found that women who had abortions were also confident in their decisions beforehand — more confident than people who decide to get reconstructive knee surgery, for example.

.. ‘Most women are certain of their decision when they present for care,’’ says the study’s lead author, Lauren Ralph, an epidemiologist at the Univer­sity of California, San Francisco. Their certainty is largely unchanged by waiting periods and mandated counseling, which suggests ‘‘women do not change their minds.’’

.. Ralph also found that women who do experience uncer­tainty are more likely to already believe a myth about abortion, such as that it causes breast cancer.

.. In Cynthia’s memory, it wasn’t the pressure from a priest, a doctor, her mother and her boyfriend that changed her mind. It was the ultrasound. ‘‘When I saw the heartbeat, I mean, truly everything changed,

.. Women who regret their abortions, and are willing to speak publicly about it, have long been valued spokeswomen for the anti-abortion message. But reversal offers a twist to those stories: a happy ending.

It also represents a concrete action that women can take to atone for their initial mistake.

.. While Delgado claims that flooding a woman’s body with progesterone saves the fetus, other doctors say that in many cases the fetus would have survived if the woman simply declined to take the second pill, misoprostol, after the initial dose of mifepristone.

.. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a strongly worded statement against reversal in 2015 that said the fetus would survive 30 to 50 percent of the time.

.. The question, in other words, is whether the progesterone protocol is effectively just a placebo. ‘‘There’s no evidence that any kind of treatment is better than doing nothing,’’

.. Delgado and Davenport are also preparing a larger case series for publication later this year, which they say will include about 350 women. Delgado says it shows that the most effective progesterone protocol results in an embryo survival rate between 60 and 70 percent.

.. Critics say that even if those numbers are valid, they aren’t what they seem. Many women who decide to take progesterone undergo an ultrasound first, to see if the pregnancy remains viable; those whose fetuses have died do not go forward with reversal, which means the initial pool of subjects is skewed toward women whose pregnancies had a good chance of continuing even without progesterone.

.. The protocol, however, has attracted almost no interest from the mainstream medical community, in part because the presumed audience is so small.

.. Since 2015, legislators in 10 states have introduced bills requiring doctors to inform women procuring the abortion pill that they can change their minds after taking the first dose. ‘‘These laws are essentially forcing physicians to tell their patients about a treatment that is unproven and essentially kind of encouraging them to participate in an unmonitored research experiment,’’

.. The anti-abortion movement has effectively promoted the idea that many women regret their abortions. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, considered a wild card on abortion questions, waxed eloquent on the topic in his ruling in Gonzales v. Carhart, a 2007 case that upheld the ban on ‘‘partial-birth’’ abortion. ‘‘It seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,’’ he wrote in the majority opinion. ‘‘The state has an interest in ensuring so grave a choice is well informed.’’ That assumption undergirds huge swaths of contemporary abortion law: waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds and requirements that doctors give women more (sometimes dubious) information about the procedure and its effects. The idea seems to be that many women understand what an abortion is only after they have one.

.. Stories from individual women who struggle with remorse remain a powerful weapon in the anti-abortion arsenal, and the abortion rights movement has often stumbled in its attempts to respond.

.. Just raising the question of uncertainty and regret affects the abortion pill’s reputation. ‘‘You’re changing cultural norms about what people think about this kind of abortion,’’ she says. ‘‘You can do that regardless of what the research ultimately shows.’’