Historian Examines the Links Between Evangelicals and Constitutional Originalism

Austin Lee Steelman, a PhD candidate at Stanford, discussed the long-standing affinity between the religious right and originalism, a legal movement which advocates for reading the Constitution according to the framers’ original intent.

Historian Examines the Links Between Evangelicals and Constitutional Originalism
Steelman spoke to students in Pruyne Lecture Hall. The event was sponsored by the religion department. Photo courtesy of Alicia Xin ’27.

Stanford Ph.D. candidate and former litigator Austin Lee Steelman gave a talk titled “American Scripture: The Long Evangelical Fight for a Literalist Bible and an Originalist Constitution” in Pruyne Lecture Hall on May 3.

The talk was sponsored by the religion department, and it addressed the long-running connection between evangelical Christianity and constitutional originalism — the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the context of the time when it was adopted. Steelman explained how Donald Trump’s decisions to sell a “God Bless the USA Bible” and nominate Supreme Court justices who champion originalism were intended to appeal to right-wing Christians.

Steelman’s academic focus is the intertwining of politics and religious conservatism in 20th-century America. His dissertation, which is soon to be published as a book, addresses the close ties between evangelicals and originalism. It also examines orginalism’s  historical ties to the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy, a belief that the Bible is free from error, scientifically and historically. Steelman also has experience working as a lawyer — he returned to academia shortly after Trump’s 2016 election.

The lecture began with a month-old clip of former President Trump selling a Bible containing the original words of the Constitution. “Religion and Christianity are the biggest things missing from this country,” Trump said. “I think it’s one of the biggest problems we have. That’s why our country is going haywire.”

For Steelman, the video encapsulated the need to trace the connection between the Bible and the Constitution in the minds of many religious conservatives.

The history behind this political move started in the summer of 1985, when Attorney General Edward Meese gave a speech to the American Bar Association advocating for a return to the original intentions of the Constitution’s framers, the interpretive style that would become known as originalism. Meese’s approach gave hope to the evangelical community, which had been losing court cases over issues like segregation, interracial marriage, and abortion for decades.

For evangelicals, constitutional originalism could be used to defend their practices against “sins” like racial integration and argue that “the separation of church and state has once again gone too far and beyond what the Founders intended,” Steelman said.

In 2019, Trump honored Meese with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This was a clear indication that the former president’s political strategy was to leverage Constitutional debates to attract religious voters, Steelman explained.

Steelman emphasized that though originalism has never been widely accepted among legal scholars, it has nevertheless been able to achieve major political success.

“A key fact about originalism … is that it never wins in America’s elite law schools,” Steelman said. “What matters for making originalism influential in American law is not how many law students and legal scholars believe in it, but how many American voters vote for candidates who promise to appoint originalists.”

Thus, for many scholars in academia, the makeup of the Supreme Court is strangely unrepresentative of the legal community. Rather, it has obvious leanings toward legal theories associated with religious fundamentalism. Steelman explained that this originalist bent is due to the fact that American evangelicals are so important to the Republican Party — and the Supreme Court is so important to them.

Audience members said that the talk added to their understanding of evangelical ways of thought and their influence on politics.

“The evangelist worldview gives you an ideological meeting space. That world view is built on biblical inerrancy, which is really interesting,” said Eva Shimkus ’27.