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Speaker Mike Johnson draws scrutiny for ties to far right Christian movements

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

House speaker Mike Johnson is the keynote speaker at an event for a National Association of Lawmakers tonight. The group is working to take conservative Christian control at every level of government.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now, their views go further than abolishing abortion nationwide or walking back same-sex marital rights. At a conference that this group held earlier this year, one speaker defended the idea of the death penalty for gay people. Johnson's ties to far-right Christian movements are unprecedented for a lawmaker in such a high position of authority.

SHAPIRO: And some warn that those movements pose a great danger to American democracy. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef reports.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Back in February, Mike Johnson organized a prayer event in D.C. for members of Congress. This was not the 70-year-old bipartisan National Prayer Breakfast. This was a new gathering, the National Gathering for Prayer and Repentance. And to Matthew Taylor, the whole thing felt eerily familiar.

MATTHEW TAYLOR: They had a number of elements that were very overt references to the spirituality of January 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOFAR BLASTING)

YOUSEF: Including the sound of a shofar, a ram's horn. It comes from the Jewish tradition. Taylor is a religious scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

TAYLOR: They had pauses in the ceremony where they had people on stage blowing shofars, and then they had prayers of repentance, prayers of spiritual warfare over the country.

YOUSEF: The tone, message and involvement of certain evangelical leaders put into public view Johnson's connections with figures that Taylor considers to be Christian extremists. Johnson is a Southern Baptist, but it's his ties with a particular network of non-denominational, charismatic Christians that's drawing scrutiny. The network is known as the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR. The movement is small but growing quickly, and so is its political influence. Its followers believe there is a theological imperative to bring America under, quote, "biblical governance." They have a plan. It's known as the Seven Mountains Mandate, or dominion theology.

FRED CLARKSON: Dominionism is the theocratic idea that Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.

YOUSEF: Fred Clarkson is with Political Research Associates, a nonprofit that tracks the far right. He's followed the Christian right for many years. Clarkson says it's notable that among Johnson's close affiliates is a former pastor named James Garlow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES GARLOW: Identify the seven spheres of influence.

YOUSEF: Garlow is a hardline anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage activist. He's also a leader in the NAR. Garlow promotes a theocratic vision for America, one where Christians control every major aspect of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARLOW: The seven spheres of influence are the home, the church, civil government, business, which includes technology, arts and entertainment, which includes professional sports, education, and the last one is media.

YOUSEF: But as leaders in this movement pursue biblical governance in the U.S., they understand it's not a popular idea. Only 6% of Americans espouse the idea of Christian control over society. That's according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, and the number of self-identified and church-attending Christians has been declining in the U.S.

CLARKSON: I've seen a tremendous uptick in the rhetoric of violence among prominent Christian right leaders.

YOUSEF: Clarkson says some in the movement talk about more than just spiritual warfare.

CLARKSON: Dominionist sorts of the New Apostolic Reformation in particular where they're predicting civil war and they're clear about the needing to take out God's enemies in the end times.

YOUSEF: But the movement has also seen in recent years that there is another path to power, and that path was the presidency. Andrew Whitehead of Indiana University-Purdue University says Donald Trump was actually a perfect test of the power of Christian nationalism.

ANDREW WHITEHEAD: Because he wasn't personally invested in looking like he was a committed Christian.

YOUSEF: Instead, Trump positioned himself as a renegade populist, not someone pursuing a theological agenda.

WHITEHEAD: But he was committed to using the rhetoric of Christian nationalism and promising access to political power for those groups.

YOUSEF: NAR leaders were early to endorse Trump when he ran in 2016. After he won, he gave them a seat at the table. Garlow, for example, was on his National Faith Advisory Board. This alliance both legitimized a movement that had long sat at the fringe of the evangelical right. It also gave them a front seat to something they'd long dreamt of - the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Trump showed that, with just the right partner in the right office, key parts of the NAR's theocratic vision could be attained. And so NAR leaders were at the center of mobilizing the Christian right to keep Trump in office up to and on January 6. Matthew Taylor says there's great hope now in the NAR that Mike Johnson, as House speaker, will be another such partner to the movement.

TAYLOR: What worries me about Mike Johnson is that he's sending signals to these people with these anti-democratic agendas that he is in their camp.

YOUSEF: Taylor points to the role Johnson played in a lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 election and to a flag that Johnson keeps outside his congressional office. It's called the Appeal to Heaven flag, and it's a popular symbol among Christian nationalists who believe the election was stolen. NPR asked Johnson's office about the flag. A spokesperson said he appreciates its history, pointing to its use during the Revolutionary War, but not to the more recent adoption by the Christian far right. Johnson has said he considers gay marriage to be settled law and that he doesn't intend to pursue a national ban on abortion. But for Taylor, the real test of Johnson's commitment to pluralistic democracy will come in a time of crisis.

TAYLOR: Like the period between the 2020 election and January 6, what is a figure like Mike Johnson going to do? It's not just about the legislative agenda. It's about the position of influence.

YOUSEF: If Mike Johnson is still speaker in November of 2024, he may well face that kind of a test. Odette Yousef, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YAYA BEY SONG, "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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