NEW YORK — For evangelical Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., this is their political holy grail.
Like many religious conservatives in a position to know, the Liberty University president with close ties to the White House suspects that the Supreme Court vacancy President Donald Trump fills in the coming months will ultimately lead to the reversal of the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade. But instead of celebrating publicly, some evangelical leaders are downplaying their fortune on an issue that has defined their movement for decades.
What people don't understand is that if you overturn Roe v. Wade, all that does is give the states the right to decide whether abortion is legal or illegalJerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University president
"What people don't understand is that if you overturn Roe v. Wade, all that does is give the states the right to decide whether abortion is legal or illegal," Falwell told The Associated Press in an interview. "My guess is that there'd probably be less than 20 states that would make abortion illegal if given that right."
Falwell added: "In the '70s, I don't know how many states had abortion illegal before Roe v. Wade, but it won't be near as many this time."
The sentiment, echoed by evangelical leaders across the country this past week, underscores the delicate politics that surround a moment many religious conservatives have longed for. With the retirement of swing vote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Trump and his Republican allies in the Senate plan to install a conservative justice who could re-define the law of the land on some of the nation's most explosive policy debates — none bigger than abortion.
And while these are the very best of times for the religious right, social conservatives risk a powerful backlash from their opponents if they cheer too loudly. Women's groups have already raised the alarm for their constituents, particularly suburban women, who are poised to play an outsized role in the fight for the House majority this November.
Two-thirds of Americans do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, according to a poll released Friday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Among women of reproductive age, three out of four want the high court ruling left alone. The poll was conducted before Kennedy's retirement was announced.
"The left is going to try very hard to say this is all about overturning Roe," said Johnnie Moore, a Southern Baptist minister who was a co-chairman of the Trump campaign's evangelical advisory board. The more significant shift on the high court, he said, would likely be the help given to conservatives in their fight for what they call religious freedom.
Tony Perkins, who leads the socially conservative Family Research Council, said abortion was simply "a factor" in evangelicals' excitement over a more conservative Supreme Court. He suggested that public opinion was already shifting against abortion rights, although that's not true of the Roe v. Wade ruling, which has become slightly more popular over time.
Perkins agreed with Moore that the broader push for religious freedom was a bigger conservative focus.
Many evangelicals, for example, have lashed out against Obama-era laws that required churches and other religious institutions to provide their employees with women's reproductive services, including access to abortion and birth control. Others have rallied behind private business owners who faced legal repercussions after denying services to gay people.
Yet sweeping restrictions to abortion rights are certainly on the table, Moore noted.
"There is a high level of confidence within the community that overturning Roe is actually, finally possible," Moore said. He added: "Evangelicals have never been more confident in the future of America than they are now. It's just a fact."
In Alabama, Tom Parker, a Republican associate justice on the state Supreme Court who is campaigning to become the state's chief justice, explicitly raised the potential of sending cases to Washington that would lead to the overturning of key rulings, including Roe v. Wade.
"President Trump is just one appointment away from giving us a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court," Parker said in an interview on the radio program Wallbuilders Live. "And they are going to need cases that they can use to reverse those horrible decisions of the liberal majority in the past that have undermined the Constitution and really just abused our own personal rights."
Despite Trump's struggles with Christian values in his personal life at times, skeptical evangelical Christians lined up behind him in the 2016 election, and they remain one of his most loyal constituencies.
The president's standing with white evangelical Christians hit an all-time high in April when 75 percent of evangelicals held a favorable view of Trump, according to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The unlikely marriage between the thrice-married president and Christian conservatives has always been focused on Trump's ability to re-shape the nation's judicial branch.
On the day she endorsed candidate Trump in March 2016, the late iconic anti-abortion activist Phyllis Schlafly first asked him privately whether he would appoint more judges like the conservative Antonin Scalia, recalled Schlafly's successor Ed Martin, who was in the room at the time. Trump promised he would.
The president followed through with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch less than a month after his inauguration, delighting religious conservatives nationwide. And the Trump White House, while disorganized in other areas, made its relationship with the religious right a priority.
The first private White House meeting between evangelical leaders and senior Trump officials came in the days after the Gorsuch nomination, said Moore, who was in attendance. He said the White House has hosted roughly two dozen similar meetings since then in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.
A senior administration official such as Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump or Kellyanne Conway — if not Trump himself — has always been present, Moore added. Each meeting featured a detailed briefing on the administration's push to fill judicial openings.
"The courts have been at the very center of the relationship," Moore said.
And now, as the focus shifts toward the president's next Supreme Court nomination, evangelical leaders who once held their noses and voted for Trump have little doubt he will pick someone who shares their conservative views on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues.
Falwell insisted only that Trump make his next selection from the list of prospective nominees he released before his election. All are believed to oppose the Roe v. Wade ruling.
Any deviation from the list, Falwell said, would be "a betrayal." He noted, however, that he's in weekly contact with the White House and has supreme confidence that the president will deliver.
"This is a vindication for the 80 percent of evangelicals who supported Trump. Many of them voted on this issue alone," Falwell said. "Today's a day that we as evangelicals, and really all average Americans, can say we told you so."