A Tale of Two Supreme Court Decisions

Frank Newport

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The two major decisions recently handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court have very direct relationships to public opinion. One of the decisions fits well with majority public opinion. The other, in a broad sense, does not. The first corresponds to public opinion that has shifted significantly over the past several years, while the second relates to public opinion that has been more fixed. One of these is an issue that has very much been tethered to or anchored by Americans' underlying religious beliefs; the other is a purely secular issue unrelated to the usual concerns based on religion. But it is the religiously tethered attitude that has seen the biggest change and that ends up more in line with the Supreme Court decision, while the secular attitude has remained unchanged and is more out of sync with the court's ruling.

The first of these two major SCOTUS decisions, of course, is the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that in essence legalized same-sex marriage across the country. The second -- albeit basically a ruling on a technicality -- is the King v. Burwell decision that validated the continuation of the Affordable Care Act.

Obergefell falls in line with majority public opinion in the U.S. Americans' attitudes toward legalizing same-sex marriage have shifted dramatically in recent years, as has been well-documented, with six in 10 in our latest Gallup reading (before the decision) in favor.


This dramatic change in attitudes has occurred despite the fact that the issue of same-sex marriage is one of a cluster of family and reproduction issues that traditionally are strongly connected to religious doctrine, and highly correlated with an individual's religiosity. Given that religious beliefs are tethered to fundamental beliefs in a Supreme Being and in overall worldviews, one would thus hypothesize that religiously connected attitudes have a very fundamental anchor that would be resistant to change.

But that hasn't been the case. In fact, attitudes concerning a list of moral behaviors and values traditionally linked to religious doctrines -- including same-sex marriage -- have shifted quite substantially in recent years, all toward acceptance of what may previously have been more negatively sanctioned behaviors. There are still marked religious differences in tolerance for these types of behaviors, but the shifts have occurred among segments that are both highly religious and not so religious. In short, attitudes connected to the type of family and reproduction issues most highly related to most religions' normative structures have been the most labile.

We've seen relatively little change in terms of attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act, albeit over its fairly short existence and the brief period in which we have measured it. Less than half of Americans said that they approved of the Affordable Care Act in our latest measure, before the SCOTUS decision (we are updating this measure now). And there has been no rapid or significant change in those attitudes in recent years as the provisions of the healthcare law have become operational.


These attitudes about Obamacare are thus the ones that appear to be connected to an underlying anchor or foundation, certainly more so than is the case with same-sex marriage. (While attitudes about the Affordable Care Act are correlated with religiosity, I think that's more of an artifact of the relationship between religion and politics than it is a representation of religiously driven attitudes.)

If it's not religion, what is that anchor? One answer to that question is Americans' fundamental attitudes toward government. It's quite likely that the healthcare law has become symbolic of the role of government in people's lives, and that in turn appears to be a very strong and apparently stable base issue in Americans' minds.

Check out this trend on a core Gallup question asking Americans about their views of the role of government in Americans' lives:


This trend graph does not show the same type of progressive change seen in moral attitudes since the mid-1990s. The one strong shift in the period immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks quickly dissipated, as attitudes fell back into the accustomed pattern shortly thereafter. If Obamacare is bound up with these fundamental underlying attitudes that are relatively stable and fixed, even though secular in nature, that could help explain why views toward Obamacare are not moving a lot. Government and its role in society, in other words, may be the type of bedrock or fundamental underlying attitude we traditionally associate with religion, while moral issues appear much more likely to be built on "shifting sand."

There has been a good deal of discussion as to how the presidential candidates -- particularly Republican candidates -- will handle a changing environment in which their positions on moral issues and values are less mainstream than they were even just a few years ago. Many of the candidates will no doubt back off from a heavy focus on these issues, taking account of public opinion, unless they assume that the quickness with which attitudes changed in one direction means they could change back in the other just as fast -- an unlikely possibility.

But a campaign focus on the Affordable Care Act is another matter. Unlike same-sex marriage, the healthcare law does not enjoy majority public opinion (unless that changes in new, post-decision measures). And the lack of a major shift in attitudes toward Obamacare or toward the underlying issue of the role of government in Americans' lives suggests that these attitudes are strongly held.

Some commentators have assumed that expansion of the role of government is the simple and logical next step in the evolution of American society. Others still view government expansion as a strong evil. But if conservatives have the equivalent of a religious underpinning to their opposition to big government -- and if liberals have just as strong an underpinning to their support for big government -- then the debate has the potential to become a powerfully important fulcrum on which the election could turn.

If candidates on the left are going to focus on their conviction that the role of government needs to be expanded -- say, in terms of intervening in the economic system to reduce inequality or create jobs by increased focus on infrastructure -- they are going to have to try to understand why this provokes such a strong reaction from those who are more in the center or on the right. Similarly, if Republican candidates are going to focus on a call for reducing the role of government in Americans' lives, they are going to have to try to understand why this is so strongly unacceptable to those more in the center or on the left.

I've pointed out before how these attitudes about government are two-pronged, involving both philosophic and practical concerns. Candidates are going to have to deal with both. The role of government -- along with the usual suspects of the economy and international relations -- could be the major playing field on which the coming election is played out. Moral issues and values may be less so.