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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Carter Sherman

What Alabama’s IVF ruling reveals about the ascendant Christian nationalist movement

a person holds a flag that reads
According to a study released this week, 30% of Americans support tenets of Christian nationalism. Photograph: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

In the Alabama state supreme court case that dubbed embryos “extrauterine children” and imperiled the future of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the state, the first reference to the Bible arrives on page 33.

“The principle itself – that human life is fundamentally distinct from other forms of life and cannot be taken intentionally without justification – has deep roots that reach back to the creation of man ‘in the image of God’,” the Alabama supreme court justice Tom Parker wrote in an opinion that concurred with the majority. Attributing the idea to the Book of Genesis, Parker’s opinion continued to cite the Bible as well as such venerable Christian theologians as John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas.

For experts, Parker’s words were a stunningly open embrace of Christian nationalism, or the idea that the United States should be an explicitly Christian country and its laws should reflect that.

“He framed it entirely assuming that the state of Alabama is a theocracy, and that that is a legitimate way of evaluating laws and policies,” said Julie Ingersoll, a University of North Florida professor who studies religion and culture. “It looks like he decided to just dismiss the history of first amendment religious freedom jurisprudence at the federal level, and assume that it just doesn’t apply to Alabama.”

Debates over the centrality of Christianity in US life have raged since the founding of the country. But now that Roe v Wade has been overturned and Donald Trump is once again running for president, observers say Christian nationalism has gained a stronger foothold within US politics – and its supporters have grown bolder.

“They’re sort of saying the quiet parts out loud,” said Paul Djupe, who studies Christian nationalism as the chair of data for political research at Denison University in Ohio, of Parker’s decision.

Today, 30% of Americans support tenets of Christian nationalism, according to a study released earlier this week from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Researchers asked more than 22,000 Americans how much they agreed with statements such as: “The US government should declare America a Christian nation”; “Being Christian is an important part of being truly American”’; and “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.” Ultimately, about 10% of Americans qualify as “adherents” to Christian nationalism, and another 20% are “sympathizers”.

White evangelicals are particularly likely to support Christian nationalism: 66% hold Christian nationalist views.

PRRI did not ask whether people self-identify as Christian nationalists, because many people who may hold those beliefs shy away from the divisive label. Yet over the last several years, conservatives at the local, state and federal level have notched major legal and political victories that have cleared the way for Christian nationalist priorities such as the overturning of Roe v Wade and the proliferation of efforts targeting sex education, LGBTQ+ rights and the separation of church and state in schools. Now, supporters are seeing further opportunity in a potential second Trump term.

Whether someone openly claims the label of “Christian nationalist” is almost beside the point, Ingersoll said.

“There are all kinds of people who are influenced by it in ways that they’re not even aware of,” Ingersoll said. “Most people couldn’t tell you who Thomas Aquinas was, but that doesn’t matter. They don’t have to know who that is to have been shaped by a form of Christianity that arose from his work. And I think that happens with Christian nationalism all over the place. It’s a way of shaping the public discourse.”

Parker has ties to proponents of the “Seven Mountain Mandate”, a theological approach that once seemed fringe within evangelicalism but is now gaining traction. Backed by a network of nondenominational, charismatic Christians known as the New Apostolic Reformation, this mandate calls on its adherents to establish what they believe to be God’s kingdom over the seven core areas of society, including the government. On 16 February, the day the Alabama supreme court issued its ruling, a prominent proponent of the Seven Mountain Mandate released an interview with Parker.

“God created government and the fact that we have let it go into the possession of others is heartbreaking,” Parker said in the interview, whose existence was first reported by the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America. The interview took place in front of a framed copy of the Bill of Rights.

A spokesperson for the Alabama state supreme court did not immediately return a request for comment from Parker.

“It is clear that in the US, there have been two competing visions of the country,” said Robert P Jones, PRRI’s president and the author of The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future. “They’re mutually incompatible visions of the country, but they really have been: are we a pluralistic democracy, where everybody stands on equal footing before the law, or are we a promised land for European Christians?”

‘I’m going to be your defender

Support for Christian nationalism is deeply linked to partisan politics. Residents of red states are far more likely to espouse Christian nationalist beliefs; in Alabama, 47% of people are adherents of or at least sympathetic to Christian nationalism, according to the PRRI survey. More than half of Republicans also hold Christian nationalist beliefs, compared with a quarter of independents and just 16% of Democrats.

According to Jones and the PRRI survey, Christian nationalists’ top litmus tests for politicians are support for access to guns and opposition to immigration, although they are also very likely to say that they would only vote for a candidate who shares their opposition to abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

The 2015 US supreme court decision Obergefell v Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, sparked a huge backlash among many conservative Christians. Galvanized by the ruling, they threw their considerable electoral power behind Trump, who had announced his presidential candidacy just days before Obergefell was decided.

“Conservative Christians have long had this kind of worldview that they’re embattled by the broader culture,” Djupe said. The Obergefell decision “was a huge spur and Trump played with it. He came on the scene to run for president about the exact same time saying: ‘You’re about to be persecuted. I’m going to be your defender.’”

Trump went to great lengths to reward rightwing Christians for their support. According to one analysis, Trump’s judicial appointees were more than 97% Christian and a majority had some kind of affiliation with a religious group such as churches, the Christian law firm the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Catholic fraternal order the Knights of Columbus – far higher rates than judges who were appointed by Democrats or other Republicans. (The judges were no less well-credentialed.) Trump-appointed judges were also much likelier to vote in favor of Christian and Jewish plaintiffs embroiled in cases over the free exercise of religion.

Trump also appointed three of the six US supreme court justices who voted to overturn Roe. The supreme court’s new conservative majority has steadily eroded the separation of church and state embedded in the US constitution.

The post-Roe skirmish over abortion rights illustrates another key element of a Christian nationalist worldview: the tendency to not only cast issues in binary terms, but to believe that the opposing side is a force of literal evil.

“If you believe that babies are being murdered – which is the rhetoric that you often find in these ‘pro-life’, anti-abortion circles – if you believe that, then that is a very troubling and even diabolical activity,” said Matthew Taylor, Protestant scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies and author of an upcoming book about Christian extremism, The Violent Take It by Force. “There’s no dialogue with the other side … in their mind, you never compromise with demons. You exorcise demons.”

Christian nationalists are roughly twice as likely as other Americans to believe that political violence is justified, according to the PRRI survey.

‘They’re seeing the energy’

In 2022, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Republican congresswoman from Georgia, openly embraced Christian nationalism. “We need to be the party of nationalism,” she said. “I am a Christian and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.”

But Greene is something of an outlier. Powerful organizations within the Christian legal movement, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, are not yoked to the charismatic strain of evangelical Christianity that is today more closely linked to Christian nationalism, according to Djupe – even if they often work toward similar aims.

Still, Djupe believes that the energized charismatic movement is pulling other Christian groups further to the right. Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House, has ties to the New Apostolic Reformation, which has also been linked to Trump’s rise. Johnson once suggested that no-fault divorces were responsible for school shootings.

“They’re seeing the energy, they’re seeing the growth among charismatics, and saying, ‘Hey, you know, there’s clearly something to that formula that’s influential,” Djupe said. I think they’re starting to adopt it.”

Politico reported last week that the Center for Renewing America, a rightwing thinktank close to the former president, is drawing up plans to infuse Christian nationalist ideas throughout a second Trump administration. The Center’s president, Russell Vought, has also advised another powerful conservative thinktank, the Heritage Foundation, on its Project 2025, a playbook of proposals for a Trump administration 2.0, according to Politico.

If Trump does win in November, experts fear what may happen next.

“This is a worldview that does cast political struggles into an a kind of apocalyptic struggle between good and evil,” Jones said. “We stop thinking about our fellow citizens as political opponents and we start seeing them as existential enemies. And that really, at the end of the day, is poison to the blood of democracy.”

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