This interview is a collaboration between Mother Jones and Interfaith Alliance, a national organization that champions an inclusive vision of religious freedom to protect people of all faiths and none.
Religious freedom (and the pluralism it guarantees) has been a passion of mine for longer than my forty years as a rabbi. In my view, true religious freedom respects freedom of conscience and belief as bedrock democratic values, while recognizing that, under our Constitution, no American has the right to impose their personal beliefs on others. When I retired from leading a congregation, I became the president of Interfaith Alliance, an organization devoted to protecting the integrity of both religion and democracy in America. I knew the organization well, having served on the board for many years, including a stint as chair, before succeeding The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy following his retirement in 2014.
Throughout my involvement with this organization and especially during my time of leadership, I grew increasingly alarmed at the influence of the religious right. Not only were churches and church infrastructures being deployed to influence public policy, but the rationale behind this movement morphed from an attempt to amplify faith voices to explicitly promoting the idea that the United States is, or should be, a Christian nation. For these activists, religious freedom is less a constitutional right than a limited tolerance for dissent from evangelical standards.
I found plenty of allies among my fellow liberals and progressives. Yet, what encouraged me most were the partners among people of faith who described themselves as theologically conservative while devoted to the guarantees of the First Amendment. They included Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others, but especially devoted evangelicals. Among them was the most unlikely ally of them all: Rev. Rob Schenck.
By all rights, Rob should have pushed all my buttons. He was born and raised a secular Jew but accepted Jesus as a teenager. And he embraced his new faith with an extremism that we have seen among the religious right: he became an evangelical minister and one of the key architects of the anti-abortion movement, not only in protests across the country, but in the White House, the halls of Congress and, yes, the Supreme Court. He and his organization were responsible for some of the most provocative language and actions in the campaign against Roe vs. Wade. All sorts of other fundamentalist positions, such as opposition to gay marriage, came along with him.
Shortly before we met, he had changed profoundly. His studies of German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer deepened and broadened his faith. Years before Trump’s election, the massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, opened his eyes to the hypocrisy of his anti-abortion but pro-gun colleagues. But increasingly he saw unsettling parallels between the way in which the German evangelical movement had systematically aligned with the Nazis and the way his fellow evangelicals had unquestioningly followed the Republican party—an alliance that fully realized its disturbing potential with the election of Donald Trump. Rob and I were introduced by a mutual friend in a context of reluctance. We found ourselves surprised by a powerful friendship.
When the draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority ruling on Dobbs was leaked, I thought of the conversations Rob and I had about his ministry to the Supreme Court. I wouldn’t call myself his confessor, but our common vocation gave us the freedom to speak openly about matters of conscience and faith. So when Rolling Stone and then Politico published stories about evangelical activists praying with some of the Justices and, it appears, influencing them, I invited him to talk with me more publicly on “State of Belief,” Interfaith Alliance’s weekly radio show and podcast. The interview aired on July 16.
For me, the critical question is whether these revelations will change the troubling ethics that seem to be impugning the integrity of the Court. Like Rob, I am skeptical. But also, like Rob, I am convinced that the American people deserve to know this story
The transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length, appears below. Here is the link to the full broadcast.
Rob, you’re just the right person to talk with as the very effective architect, long ago, of strategies that likely led directly to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last month. What were your thoughts when that ruling was announced?
They were deeply conflicted. I had dedicated 35 years of my life to achieving that outcome. I had been told personally by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, that it would never happen in my lifetime or in his. He was half wrong. He died, of course, before this decision was rendered. So, it did happen in my lifetime, but I had thought it was still a number of years into the future. When I saw it tumbling out, particularly, with the release of the leaked draft opinion, I was stunned. Initially, I didn’t believe the leak because I knew how protected that information was. I came and went from the Supreme Court, including from chambers of the justices for 20 years. I knew how they locked down their clerks. For example, they were forbidden to go to parties or socialize at bars while those decisions were being finalized for fear, they might leak in an indiscreet moment after one too many drinks. I didn’t believe it until I saw the document itself and realized, yes, that’s authentic. And then, the Chief Justice confirmed that. I had set myself up to rejoice over this moment when in fact I was seeing it now as a catastrophe.
I can only imagine. Is it your impression, knowing Justice Scalia as you did, that he would have encouraged this decision? Or would he have resisted it?
I can’t say for sure. I won’t say he most certainly would have voted with the majority on this, particularly in the way that justice Alito wrote it. I think he would have taken some issue with the way it was done; and as you said, how thin its jurisprudence was. It was filled with popular religious sentiment. You know, I’m not a lawyer; I’m most certainly not a Supreme Court litigator. But I was around enough of them and submitted briefs in enough cases I was interested in that I know what a good legal argument is, and this didn’t seem to be one. It seemed to be more of a polemic from our side of the movement! Which startled me, it took my breath away. Alito was using phrases we had invented as bumper sticker slogans in a Supreme Court decision! I don’t think Scalia would have ever signed onto that.
When you had your office on Second Street, I visited you there as we began some of our work together. You showed me how the window of your office faced the chambers, where the justices would gather to deliberate. You knew that because you were outside and inside the court building with the justices. How did that happen? And what were the meetings like that you had with the justices?
A lot of people don’t know that you can tour the Supreme Court as a tourist. And you can even do more than that and gain access to the conference rooms for various meetings. As with other federal venues, you have to provide a lot of information and be vetted, and you always need a principal sponsor. In the case of the Court, you have to have a Supreme Court justice sponsor and appear personally at that event. Washington is built on relationships. So you build relationships. And the Supreme Court justices have a very tight constellation of people who they keep company with. My relationships were exclusively with the conservatives and I knew the company they kept. I set out to meet those people and build relationships with them and set up arrangements where there were reciprocal debts owed. And one of the ways you pay a debt in Washington is you give access. You open doors that are otherwise—as with the court—impenetrable. I benefited from that. It took a long time to do that, at least a decade. In the first decade, I was at the Court, it was mostly serendipity. In the second decade, it was mostly the payoff of my investment. I was able to talk with the justices, to visit with them in their chambers—often.
What does “often” mean in this context?
“Often” is a relative thing at the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court crawls. It does not run anywhere. Things are small, not large. On occasion, I would say a prayer; or I might have a small group of people with me who would say a prayer with the justices. That didn’t happen often in chambers; I want to say that. That was a rare occasion—it did happen, but not often. It would happen more often in a conference room, or across the street at the Capitol, or at a different venue—sometimes a restaurant. And it was always something to hear a Supreme Court justice say the simple word, “amen” – especially with the content of our prayers, which, these days as I’m gaining my sobriety, I realize were highly, highly politicized prayers.
Is it too difficult for you, for me to ask you to give me an example of the kinds of things you might say in prayer?
It would be hard to quote verbatim because, you know, evangelicals pray spontaneously. But you had to observe boundaries with the justices, always. And even in your language. So, for example, it would be a big no-no to pray something like, “Lord, we pray that same-sex marriage will never be legalized in America.” That would be too forward. It would be everything from boorish to a technical violation of their quasi-ethical rules. (I say that because they really have no code of ethics.) I’ll just say the prayer might go something like, “Lord, we thank you that Justice So-and-so is on the bench at a time when we must defend the sanctity of marriage and the family.” That was code language, and it meant we must keep same-sex marriage and the “homosexual agenda,” as we referred to it in those days, quote, unquote, words I regret today. What it really meant was we have to keep those things illegal.
Did you ever get pushback from the justices or the people immediately around them on that kind of language?
Yes, we did. Justices have handlers and protectors like a lot of influencers and principals. There are people around them who rightfully guard them against the crazies. And I was asked more than once, “Is your gang, safe or are they crazies?” I never quite knew how to answer that question, but I tried. Yes, we would get a little bit of pushback; even, on occasion, a justice might squirm uncomfortably, turn and leave a little circle that began as a conversation circle and turned into a prayer circle. So we pushed the envelope. I certainly did.
You talked about investing in the relationships so that there would be a payback in terms of access or whatever it happened to be. And we know that for example, Justice Scalia died suddenly when he was on a hunting trip with friends who were also supporters of his. We had a lot of discussion during the Trump administration about the nature of emoluments, which are of course illegal for the President of the United States; but they’re not illegal for the justices of the Supreme Court. Is that correct?
For the most part that’s correct. I mean, they can receive speaking honoraria. They can take people up on invitations for travel hospitality, entertainment, etc. So yeah, that’s correct.
You can’t know the mind of any other human being but was it your hope that by providing these emoluments, I’ll call them, there would be more of an openness to hearing your message on the part of the justices?
I’ll just say that what I did over the course of 20 years was to encourage mostly wealthy, influential couples who were all of strong conservative political sensibilities, who were deeply religious—mostly Evangelical though some Catholics too—to come to Washington on a routine basis and befriend justices or build relationships with them. And some were quite successful in doing that. Others failed miserably. Some were good at it, some were not. I think all were sincere in their belief that by doing so they would help the country. And I believed that too. I was never a charlatan; I didn’t do this cynically. I really believed in the mission. I thought this was one way to accomplish good for America and for American culture and so on. They did too. And some of them were quite generous to the justices in terms of their invitations and their hospitality and so forth.
You could not have been nearly as effective in the work that you did over those years as a leader in the anti-choice movement, if you had not profoundly understood the thinking of your followers, and had not been an expert at teaching them how to dismiss the risks and realities of making abortion illegal. Take this galvanizing story that we’ve heard of the 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio, the child whose family had to flee to neighboring Indiana to terminate her pregnancy because of the rulings of the governor and the legislature there. How do the activists who you used to lead—and for that matter, the lawmakers and Supreme Court justices you talked to—how do they tune out these kinds of unspeakable horrors while battling for the rights of fetuses, including those that aren’t even viable?
This goes to what I see as the Achilles’ heel of evangelical and arch-conservative Catholic thinking or rather religious belief. The world that I occupied and fostered for three-and-a-half decades sees that sort of critical thinking and self-critical analysis as a vice, not a virtue. It’s counter to faith. We would often quote Bible verses that equate disbelief or the questioning of God with the worst forms of spiritual rebellion, even witchcraft. In other words, to look critically at something that you believe is a mandate from God, is to actually engage in satanic activity. There’s a real fear—even for one’s personal salvation—that attaches to all of this.
The thinking is basically this: God creates life in the womb. It is life from the very moment of conception and continues until natural expiration without any assistance. During that time, God places supreme value—no pun given our present context—supreme value on that life so you must preserve life at all costs. That means risking the odd, rare chance that something like this 10-year-old’s rape and pregnancy might occur. But after all, if we give her support, and we pray for her, we surround her with love and we provide her with resources, she can come through that and will likely in the end be stronger for it. That would be the thinking.
Was there anything else involved in this thinking?
For many, it would be dismissive: there’s something that isn’t being said here. In this case, how convenient that such a story would arise. There’s an enormous amount of suspicion about the opponents of what we used to call the sanctity of human life. So, somebody invented this; this is some kind of a prop in the effort to denigrate pro-life advocacy. Even though now, as we speak, the alleged perpetrator has been arrested and confessed – there will still be an enormous amount of denial in my old world. They’d suggest that was a setup; he was threatened or paid or some deal was made with him to confess to a crime he never committed. Because again, this, it doesn’t fit with critical thought and analysis. It’s too far to go.
You lived deeply in that world for a long time. Was there a period of time, or maybe the entirety of that time, when that was your mindset as well? Did you believe that these were satanic intrusions and incursions into God’s will?
Yes. And, and my dear Rabbi friend, it gets complicated, because when I would have doubts about my own certainty on these matters, I kind of blamed it on my dad. My dad was Jewish; a deeply reflective, thoughtful man. And I would say to myself: that’s dad’s gene jingling here, let’s move on. I suppressed that for a very long time because it threatened a lot of what I was building my life and my vocation on. It got even dirtier than that because nuance and doubt do not work well in fundraising or promotion. Let’s just say that giving any room to doubt on any of these certainties would have had financial consequences for me and for the organization I was building, and certainly for the wider world of allies with whom I worked in those years.
That organization that you built, Faith and Action, doesn’t exist anymore; it’s been sort of handed over to another group of people who are very much in the mold that you used to be. Do you think that there’s sort of a winner-take-all politics that has taken over the leadership of these far-right political religious organizations?
During those years I wasn’t a cynic or a charlatan. But there were certainly elements of cynicism and charlatanism in me— and in others, especially in the political operatives with whom I was allied. I remember one conversation. We were in the US Capitol, and a staffer said: “When we put abortion on the table, we gotcha. Where else are you gonna go? You’re gonna go to the Democrats? Never! We’ve got you.” His words dripped with cynicism, but there were other evangelical leaders in the room with me, and everybody, including me, just kind of nodded. “Yeah. You got us on that one.” Religious leaders, movement leaders, and certainly political leaders saw abortion, and later same-sex marriage as devices to keep the political loyalties of evangelicals and conservative Catholics. The pro-lifers needed to be kept in the camp and locked down. Now that this phase is kind of done, it has to be continued now on the state level. The veil hasn’t quite dropped, but it’s fraying and I’m starting to see that come to the surface. OK, abortion got us here; now we’re here, so we can move on. And suddenly the quote unquote unborn child isn’t so important anymore because we’ve achieved that; we’ve closed that chapter. Let’s move on.
Could the Dobbs decision have happened without the efforts that were reflected in the work you’d been doing for all those years? I think that’s an essential question at this point.
I don’t know with certainty the answer to that. I can say with a certain level of certainty, that I don’t think we would’ve gotten the decision as it was worded by Justice Alito without the work we did. We coined a phrase in those years that we called the “ministry of emboldenment.” What we meant was shoring up the sympathetic justices so that they would use stronger language. They would be bolder and far more assertive in their opinions, even in their dissents. They would stop using cautious language or guarded language or even reasonable language and become more—I wouldn’t have said it then—more strident. Behind the scenes when I would be together with various players in this – some far more influential than I was, people would say—pardon the vulgarity—”These guys don’t have any balls. We gotta give them balls so that they’ll say it like it is, do what needs to be done, without apology.” That’s the way they were positioned when Donald Trump—whom I did not support, and by then I was leaving the movement—but by the time he made his appointments, they were in good form to deliver.
Are some of these same groups behind efforts to create trigger laws in various states, so that the moment the Supreme Court announced that decision, millions of women lost their access to reproductive healthcare within hours?
Absolutely. Unequivocally yes, they were working years ago on that; the state side was always secondary. In terms of everything—organizing, deploying, allocating money and so forth. It was always secondary, but it was being done all along the way, knowing that when Roe did fall, we would have to shift immediately to the states. . Those trigger laws were already in place and they are working for more.
So this is far from over.
Far from over. And the talk now among my old interlocutors is, at the very least, for Congress to work for a national ban on abortion, period. Never mind that that’s contradictory to conservative sensibilities about state autonomy; because we’re not really in a conservative time anymore. I don’t think what happened at the Court in Dobbs or what is happening among the Republicans now in Congress or especially on state levels, is conservative. It’s radical, it’s fascist. And we should start saying that.
And you just did.
And I did.
So a lot of people reacted to the Rolling Stone or the Politico articles with shock but you actually wrote very openly about these tactics in your book, Costly Grace, four years ago, in 2018. Looking back, do you wish you’d done anything differently either to sound the alarm more, or find a different way to influence your former followers?
I told a lot in my memoir, but I didn’t tell much about the Court. And there were many reasons for that. There were innocent players in this equation, people who unwittingly became part of this operation. There were some good people who, if compromised, I was afraid would pay for my actions. I was still a little conflicted four years ago about who was doing what for what reason. It took a while to figure all that out. The consequences for all this stuff can be severe. For example, if blame for the Dobbs decision leak is ever assigned to an underling, that person’s life will be ruined, professionally and perhaps personally, forever. The stakes are very, very high. I’ve had to weigh all that in the balance. I’m still doing it as we speak. I know things I would like to say, I’d like to say right now here with you. I don’t know what the consequences of that would be for some people who shouldn’t be penalized. So I’m trying to sort it out, and it’s pretty rough. Let’s just say I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep.
You look a little tired. Do you expect that there will be a time down the road either when you’ve come to terms with this, or when the people you’re concerned about are no longer likely to suffer for their actions? Are we going to know the whole story eventually?
Yes. I want to tell that story. I just want to tell it safely for others.
You’re invited back as soon as you’re ready to have that conversation. We’ve heard about the relationship between, Ginni Thomas and her husband Justice Clarence Thomas. We’ve talked about Justice Scalia and his willingness to be engaged in social activities and travel and vacations with people of a particular perspective. We know that there was this leak on the Supreme Court of the Dobbs decision and perhaps other situations in which things have happened that are coming to light that have cast a shadow on, maybe not the integrity, but the dependability of the reputation of the justices. And nothing has happened. Is anything beneficial going to come out of these revelations about the nature of the justices’ behavior and the people who’ve tried to influence them?
At the very least, the American people will know more about the court, and that’s really important because the Court has, you might argue, a more important role than, perhaps, in many ways, the other two branches of our federal government. It has an enormous impact on our lives, as we’re seeing now in the wake of this Dobbs decision. Remember Sy Syms, an old men’s clothier who used to say an educated consumer is our best customer. An educated electorate, an educated populace, an educated citizenry are the best of those. I’d like to make a little contribution towards helping the American public to know more about the Court and about the conduct of the justices. Not if the Republicans take the majority in Congress in this next election, but if Democrats remain in the majority, there may be some hearings, some review of the judicial branch, particularly the Supreme Court and how it conducts itself. The Court itself might undertake some kind of reform of itself. It would be good for all of us. It would be good for the Republic. It would be good for the judicial branch. I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see all of that happen, but it seems that the founders left a vacuum here. There’s a reason we’ve amended the Constitution. We’ve changed things as time has gone on because they needed to be changed. And in this instance, it’s no different. I think things need to change at the Court. I realize that I’m not the best messenger, but somebody needs to herald that message.