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Some fear Christian nationalism is getting legal legitimacy through the Supreme Court


Some recent Supreme Court rulings have added momentum to a fringe movement called Christian nationalism. There's concern now that this extreme ideology is gaining legal legitimacy through the country's highest court.

NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef joins us. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: Begin by explaining what Christian nationalism is. What do its followers believe?

YOUSEF: Well, I got a really good explanation of this, Ari, from Samuel Perry. He's a professor at the University of Oklahoma. And he was talking to me specifically about the court's decision to overturn Roe and the people who are celebrating it.

SAMUEL PERRY: You don't have to be a Christian nationalist to want to outlaw abortion, but the vast majority of Americans who want to outlaw abortion fall on that scale of Christian nationalism. They believe that bringing about the kingdom of God requires institutionalizing biblical principles as the law. They want to declare the United States a Christian nation. They want to institute Christian values as a part of our national policy.

YOUSEF: So, Ari, in addition to the overturning of Roe, Perry says this segment of the population was also celebrating the recent ruling on behalf of a public school football coach who was leading students in Christian prayer and another Supreme Court decision to allow public funding for private religious schools.

SHAPIRO: So in the introduction, we described Christian nationalism as a fringe movement, as an extreme ideology. Put that in a context for us.

YOUSEF: So it is an anti-democratic ideology. You know, when researchers talk about Christian nationalism, they're specifically talking about white Christian nationalism, Ari; you know, people who seek to return to the days when white Christians held privilege in America. And to add to this, the ideology revolves around a persecution narrative. It posits that white Christians are the victims of increased secularization. So Christian nationalists often rally under a call for religious freedom or religious liberty.

But Perry's research finds that they're actually not supportive of increased expression of other faiths in American life. They're only interested in privileging Western white Christianity and a very conservative understanding of Christianity at that. It's true that fewer and fewer Americans support Christian nationalism, but Perry says this has made Christian nationalists more militant. And we saw that on January 6.

SHAPIRO: What role did Christian nationalists play in the January 6 insurrection?

YOUSEF: You'll recall, Ari, you know, in and among the imagery you saw from the violence that day, there was also imagery of people with Christian symbols, clothes and signs invoking God and Jesus. And we saw prayer groups. You know, there was a subset of Americans there who conflate patriotism with Christianity. And data show that the ideology is linked to violence when political differences are framed as spiritual battles between good and evil because that provides a kind of justification for violence.

SHAPIRO: You said that Christian nationalists are celebrating some recent Supreme Court rulings. Is there any evidence that the justices themselves are influenced by this ideology?

YOUSEF: We don't know if they've been influenced by this thought. But what we do know, Ari, is that the positions they've taken recently, especially on abortion, are out of step with the majority of Americans. And we also know that extremists are intentional about expanding the window of ideas that are considered politically acceptable. John Finn is a former professor of government who's studied extremist challenges to the Constitution.

JOHN FINN: The idea that these extreme right-wing philosophies are inconsequential or unimportant because nobody believes them ignores the fact that, over time, they help shift the window. They become part of mainstream political thinking or mainstream, in this case, judicial thinking.

YOUSEF: And Finn notes, Ari, that, you know, some people might point and say that the Supreme Court has in the past made rulings that were to the left of American consensus. But he says those decisions generally favored an expansion of rights, whether it was for women to vote or for same-sex couples to marry. With this recent set of decisions, he says the majority on the court seem to be comfortable with a future in which some Americans are stripped of rights.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.