IAN DOESCHER: Hi. This is Ian Doescher (ph) from Portland, Ore. I'm getting over a case of bronchitis, and hearing Mara Liasson with a scratchy voice made me feel like I'm not alone. This podcast was recorded at...
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
1:08 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, November 15, 2023.
DOESCHER: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, and hopefully I'll sound a little less like a frog. OK, here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Mara sounds good no matter what she sounds like.
MCCAMMON: She does. And so relatable - right? - for all of us in radio and audio.
DAVIS: Oh, absolutely.
MCCAMMON: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the presidential campaign.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: I'm Odette Yousef. I cover domestic extremism.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
MCCAMMON: Today we want to take a closer look at Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House, and to his ties to the Christian right. The Louisiana Republican has lifelong ties to Christian activists and leaders, but that also includes a rising crop of evangelical pastors who were allies of former President Trump, some of whom played a role in undermining the 2020 election results and, to some extent, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Sue and Odette, you've both been reporting on these ties, and they're getting some fresh scrutiny right now because of Johnson's rapid elevation to House speaker. So, Odette, for our listeners who are not as immersed in the world of extremism as you are, can you just step back and first explain what exactly about some aspects of this theology is considered extremist?
YOUSEF: Sure. So, you know, I think many people by now have heard the term Christian nationalism, which is this movement that believes in a history of America that many historians would refute, that the country was founded largely on biblical principles and that it should primarily be a country for Christians. Well, what we're talking about here with the ties that Mike Johnson has within certain elements of the evangelical right, we're talking about his ties to something called the New Apostolic Reformation, which is a subset within Christian nationalism and which has distinctly sort of pro-authoritarian antidemocratic tendencies.
And really, I think what it comes down to when we try to understand why this movement - which is considered to be the fastest-growing sort of segment of Christianity in the U.S. right now - why is this considered extremist, it really comes down to two things. One of them is the theology that they embrace that places a very particular meaning on America's role and relationship to God, that they believe the kingdom of God needs to be restored to America through taking over cultural institutions, different pillars of society, and asserting Christian control over those aspects of society. And the fact that, demographically, the number of people who self-identify in the U.S. as Christians has been falling since the '90s. And so when we talk about what's extremist, it's sort of this pairing of the sort of imperative that they feel in this sort of theological view that they have of America, plus the fact that the number of people who identify as Christian in America is declining.
MCCAMMON: So conservative Christian, evangelical Christian influence in politics is nothing new. I've reported on it a lot. The evangelical movement has been a pillar of the GOP base for a long time. But, Sue, how does this movement that Odette was just talking about, the New Apostolic Reformation movement, fit in with evangelicalism and conservative Christianity as a whole?
DAVIS: One of the folks I talked to in reporting this story is a scholar named Matthew Taylor, and he's at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies. And the way he put it is that this ideology has existed for a very long time. But even as much as 10 or 15 years ago, it would have been seen on the fringes of the evangelical movement and not the leaders of it. And like so many things about our politics, this really shifted during the 2016 election and the rise of Donald Trump, not only through the support of him through a lot of evangelical networks, but a lot of these pastors that subscribe to this sort of ideology became some of Trump's closest faith advisers. They were given a seat at the table. And so they've risen both in prominence in the Christian faith, as Odette noted, sort of growing in the U.S., but they've also risen in political power. You know, they have a direct line of access to Donald Trump. And with the elevation of Mike Johnson, they now have an ally as speaker of the House.
And one thing I didn't appreciate until I started reporting on this is how much these divisions within the evangelical movement have been exposed in - you know, basically since the 2016 election. And one of the people I interviewed is a man named Marvin Olasky. And if you are an evangelical, he's a household name. He was an evangelical thinker for, you know, the better part of the past 30 or 40 years. He's written many books. He's considered the godfather of what was known as compassionate conservatism, an ideology that sort of governed the pre-Trump GOP that was very prominent in the George W. Bush administration. And I spoke to him, and he made very clear that he sees it as a civil war among evangelicals.
MARVIN OLASKY: Like this country and like the democratic process - and then there are other folks - and again, this is a civil war, almost, within Christianity - who say, no, we want to achieve these ends, and we'll do it by any means necessary.
DAVIS: And what he means by that is, you know, evangelicals like Olasky, they share a lot of the same ideas. Even many evangelicals believe this should be a more-Christian nation. But they believe you should do it from the ground up. You win elections. You win over the country. And this NAR movement is governed, in some cases, by a more extreme ideology that says you don't actually have to win these elections. In some cases, maybe you need to subvert elections.
MCCAMMON: So maybe similar goals, but really different philosophies about how to get there.
DAVIS: Yeah. Should it happen within the framework of American democracy, or do you need to change the framework of American democracy in order to achieve your goal?
MCCAMMON: So you've said that Mike Johnson has allies in this movement. I mean, what do we know exactly about his connection to it?
DAVIS: Sure. I mean, Mike Johnson is also, let me be clear, someone who is very established within Christian activism across the spectrum - I would say both mainstream and among this fringe group. Prior to coming to Congress, he was a constitutional lawyer. He worked for many conservative Christian groups that oppose things like abortion rights and gay rights. He talks very openly about his Christian faith and how much it has, you know, defined both his personal life and his political existence. It's something he's very forward in talking about.
But he also does affiliate with some of these pastors that are sort of central to the effort to undermine the 2020 election and in some ways played a role in the attack on the Capitol. I'll just give you one example of that. One of these pastors is a man by the name of Jim Garlow, and he was a faith advisor to Trump. And after the 2020 election, he was instrumental in leading these prayer calls for, quote, "election integrity." They basically helped spread false claims about the election - that the election was not fair - which obviously led to a lot of the protesting on January 6. He's a friend of Mike Johnson. You know, he posted a picture of them on the day he was elected speaker, celebrating it. Johnson's elevation to speaker was celebrated by other NAR-affiliated pastors who don't even know him directly but see him as an ally to their movement. And Johnson's been very clear that Jim Garlow is a friend of his, and he's an associate of him.
And the point that Taylor made that I think, to me, is the key point here is we don't know what Mike Johnson's own personal view of this is, you know? And frankly, people are allowed to have whatever religious views and whatever political views they want. But it is a statement about what it means to be a Republican politician today.
MATTHEW TAYLOR: I don't see Mike Johnson as some sort of like, oh, man, he is really a crazy person from the margins and an outlier in this world. I think he's just a signal of what it looks like to be a right-wing Christian politician these days - is these are the people that you hang out with. These are the people that support you.
MCCAMMON: So Odette, we heard Sue talk about some of these leaders, these pastors, using prayer calls as an opportunity to sort of rally support for conspiracy theories about the election and therefore, perhaps, leading up to January 6. I mean, what else should we know? How do these movements tie into January 6?
YOUSEF: You know, some of these figures - so, for example, Sue mentioned Jim Garlow, this leader in the network that we're talking about who once was the pastor of a church in San Diego. Well, he was a member of President Trump's National Spiritual Advisory Council, right? And so he's an individual who has had really elevated access to the highest levels of power since Trump became president. And it's interesting because, you know, I was listening to a call that involved these - Spiritual Advisory Council and President Trump that happened back in April. And President Trump joined the call, and he talked about how he was able to deliver the Supreme Court and to deliver three new justices who were able, ultimately, to help reverse Roe v. Wade. And this is something that has been really quite central in the agenda of the New Apostolic Reformation. They are very much against abortion rights. And so it's interesting because you see the movement has found a way to sort of work within the system to achieve the kind of societal order that they believe is important in their theology.
But I was talking to Fred Clarkson, who writes for Political Research Associates, and he has been following some of these far-right Christian movements for many years. And he says that, in the people that he's been tracking that are affiliated with the NAR, there is even a subset within there that has been preparing for whatever it takes outside of working through the system - have been preparing for civil war to achieve what they believe to be their imperative - their duty on Earth to bring back a sort of biblical governance to America.
MCCAMMON: Do we have a sense of how big that movement is or at least that part of it, Odette?
YOUSEF: So there was a survey that had results released earlier this year from the Public Religion Research Institute, and it found about 6% of Americans believe, quote, "that God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society."
Now, when you take a step back and look at just the pool of Christian nationalists, that number rises to about 50% of adherence to the Christian nationalist ideology. So it's a small proportion of people, but it is a group that is well organized, has gained a seat at the table and that is prepared to, as we've seen with some of their involvement in January 6, to go so far as to attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election.
MCCAMMON: And Sue, one other really interesting thing you came across in your reporting is something known as the appeal-to-heaven flag.
MCCAMMON: Can you just explain what that is?
DAVIS: Sure. And I have to credit Taylor again for this 'cause he drew my attention to it. But outside of Mike Johnson's congressional office hangs three flags - the U.S. flag, the Louisiana flag and what's known as an appeal-to-heaven flag. It's a white flag that has a green pine tree in the center of it, and it says at the top of it, an appeal to heaven. And this is a symbol that - it dates back to the Revolutionary War, but it has become a very popular symbol among Christian nationalists. I'm going to sum up the ideology here, but an appeal to heaven is the idea that when the appeals to man no longer work, the last recourse is the appeal to heaven. And obviously, in the Revolutionary War, we were fighting the British. We were fighting for God and the creation of America. And this symbol has been embraced by pastors. There's one by the name of Dutch Sheets, who Taylor would say was one of the biggest drivers of Christian violence to January 6. And it has become a symbol of the movement.
And if you go back - and I was going back and looking at pictures of the attack on the Capitol, and mixed in with the American flag and, in some cases, the Confederate flag, you will see these white flags with the green pine tree in the center of it. And the fact that he keeps that outside of his congressional office, Taylor would argue, is the way that lawmakers sort of tacitly send signs of support to certain elements of their constituency. I will note that I did ask the speaker's office for comment on this story, and they had nothing to comment about any ties or affiliations with anyone in the NAR, and they had no comment about why he keeps the flag outside of his office.
MCCAMMON: OK, we're going to come back in just a second. But first, let's take a quick break.
And we're back. You know, we talk about white Christian nationalism a lot. So Sue, I'm curious to know what role, if any, race plays in this theology because, you know, most conservative Christian evangelicals are white in this country.
DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, this was a question I had in reporting it, and it was a question I put to Taylor. And his answer kind of surprised me because he said, if you think about it as sort of a Venn diagram - like, yes, of course there is going to be some overlap between white Christian nationalists who would probably put race above theology in some respects. But he said, within the NAR movement, it's really much more multiethnic. And there are Latino pastors in this movement who share this ideology. And he also said, even beyond the United States, the NAR theology is one of the fastest-growing segments of Christianity around the world. So yes, there is overlap. But to me, it was surprising to hear that this is actually a much more multiethnic movement.
MCCAMMON: And Odette, I mean, that's kind of different - isn't it? - than what we normally think of with right-wing, nationalist movements.
YOUSEF: I mean, yes and no. You know, certainly, we have been seeing explicitly racist organizing come into more public view in recent years. Often, this looks like networks or organizations recruiting, you know, young men in places all over the country. But I also think that we often misunderstand parts of far-right organizing to be about primarily race when that isn't necessarily, I think, accurate. One example - I think, you know, often, the Proud Boys are characterized as a, you know, a white nationalist or white supremacist group sometimes. I actually would describe them, first and foremost, as an ultranationalist, male supremacist group, actually.
But I think the main thing is that, you know, all of these far-right groups kind of overlap in terms of what their agenda is. You know, they tend to be Islamophobic. They tend to be against abortion rights. They tend to be against what they perceive to be the threat of communism in this country. They tend to promote traditional gender roles and a traditional understanding of gender. And so this particular wing of the evangelical right is multiracial. But in many ways, the agenda that they are pursuing aligns with the agendas that we see from far-right groups that are more explicitly racist.
MCCAMMON: You know, we've seen the influence of the Christian right in recent years in very visible ways - in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, in the election of Donald Trump in 2016, certainly. But what does this rising ideology - this extremist ideology, as we've said - mean for U.S. politics going forward?
DAVIS: You know, I think a couple of things - for me, I think it was a reminder that no voting bloc is a monolith and that there are certainly divides within the evangelical movement that are worthy to keep in mind, especially because they continue to be such a critical voting bloc for the Republican Party. I also think that all of this matters because it's not just a past look at what happened. This is still, real-time, politically important. Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee. He still denies that he lost the 2020 election. He is facing multiple criminal indictments over his efforts to overturn it. And Mike Johnson went from being a backbench lawmaker to the speaker of the House in a very rapid 14 hours a couple weeks ago, and he is someone that at least leaders of this movement are looking to as someone who could be an ally.
I do want to be very clear, though, that the speaker has not, in any official way, given any nod to this movement. If anything, in speaking in his first interview as speaker to Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, he said that, you know, he considered things like gay marriage settled law, that he wasn't interested in bringing forward abortion legislation and that his only fidelity was to the rule of law and that he's focused on very sort of mainstream policy making. So he's certainly not embracing their ideology or their agenda in any official capacity as speaker. But affiliations matter. And the thing I think about this is, you know, 15 years ago, Barack Obama was running for president. And who his pastor was - at the time, Jeremiah Wright - became a national story because his pastor had said some controversial things about America and criticizing America. And this required a presidential candidate to give a national address to respond to his pastor and ultimately had to resign his membership from that church, and there was a question of whether he could even win a presidential election subscribing to a church that had a pastor that would say such controversial things.
Now, there's a lot of - you know, this is not an apples-to-apples situation, but I do think it does show us, in some respect, how the Overton window - the sort of - the window of what's acceptable in politics - has shifted - that this is just sort of what it means to be a leader in the Republican Party in 2023 America.
YOUSEF: You know, I think the question with Mike Johnson is going to be - what will he do in a moment of crisis?
YOUSEF: You know, I also spoke with Matthew Taylor, just like Sue did. And he raised this really important question about - what if the House speaker in 2021 had been Mike Johnson rather than Nancy Pelosi, and we had this controversy over whether the results of the election were valid? What would Mike Johnson have done? And so assuming that he isn't ousted as House speaker before the 2024 election, you know, we may see similar doubts sown about the election results. And the question will be - what is he going to do in his position as House speaker at that time or in other moments of crisis when, really, what he says and does will make a difference for democracy in this country.
And there's just one more point, which is, you know, we spoke about how only 6% of Americans may actually subscribe to this dominionist (ph) theology, right? But we don't have direct democracy in this country, right? Like, the question of our political district boundaries and the proportionality of who's getting represented in Congress - these are questions that we're seeing very much being battled through the courts. You know, where district lines are - does it represent people fairly within each state? You know, these are questions that are going to be relevant when we're talking about how loud these voices will be in politics, even if it's just a small proportion of the American population.
DAVIS: And I would just note Mike Johnson is a Trump loyalist. He is a Trump guy. And he even broke with precedent this week to endorse Donald Trump. The speaker of the House tends to play a ceremonial role at the Republican convention. And historically, the speaker - neither party - doesn't endorse in an open primary field. So he broke with precedent this week to send a message to say, like, I'm with Donald Trump, and I am a Trump guy. That's important context to keep all of this in mind as we go into the election.
MCCAMMON: You know, Odette, I'm still thinking about what you said about how the true test will come when Mike Johnson faces a moment of crisis. And I'm thinking about the fact that it was Mike Pence, another favorite of the evangelical right, who was chosen for his credentials by Trump to be his running mate, who ultimately - after being loyal to Trump for many years, ultimately broke with him on January 6 and upheld the election results. Of course, he ran in part on that record, and, you know, he just dropped out of the race recently. So it just - I think that sort of illustrates the tension within the party and the kind of calculations that these leaders have to make as they think about their relationships with some of these groups.
YOUSEF: In all the interviews that I've done for my story, I've been asking people - what's the difference between Mike Pence and Mike Johnson? And what they've told me is that there is a fundamentally different view about the role of government that they see between these two politicians. You know, you're right - Mike Pence has always been very open about his religious convictions. But he never talked about it as sort of the guiding playbook for how government should look and operate. That is different from Mike Johnson, who talks continually on his podcast and elsewhere about how he feels there needs to be a restoration of religion and morality to America. And so they're coming at this idea of governance from very different places.
DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, look at it this way - Mike Pence is part of Marvin Olasky's wing of evangelical politics. They share very socially conservative views. But Mike Pence just believed that you could only affect change through the democratic process and by following the rule of law.
MCCAMMON: Well, we are going to leave it there for today. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the presidential campaign.
YOUSEF: I'm Odette Yousef. I cover domestic extremism.
DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
MCCAMMON: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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