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The Christian Right is winning in court while losing in public opinion

Former President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during its annual "Road To Majority Policy Conference" at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Seth Herald
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during its annual "Road To Majority Policy Conference" at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.

There's an influential minority of Americans who envision the United States as a Christian nation. Lately, this group has been making significant progress in its mission. Recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade and protecting prayer in schools are chief among these victories.

These legal wins for the Christian Right, though, are happening at a time when a growing majority of Americans are strongly opposed to their views.

"This is the most disproportionate power that the Christian Right has had in my lifetime," says Robert Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute — a nonpartisan group that conducts research on the intersection of politics, culture and religion.

Church and state

More and more white evangelical Christians are now talking about the U.S. as a Christian nation in ways that verge on or outright embrace Christian nationalism — the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation and its laws should be rooted in the Bible.

On the Sunday after the Supreme Court reversed a decades-old ruling that legalized abortions in the U.S., Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert spoke to a crowd at a church in Colorado. Among other things, Boebert complained that faith communities have long had to deal with laws in the U.S. that they don't agree with.

"The church is supposed to direct the government," she said. "The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our founding fathers intended it. And I am tired of this separation of church and state junk. It's not in the Constitution."

Of course, the Constitution does explicitly ban the establishment of a specific religion. It's in the First Amendment.

But Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, says he thinks that part of the Constitution was written to keep the government from interfering with religion.

"Not to keep anybody that holds a religious view out of government," he said. "All of us have certain kinds of worldviews. Some of those are based on college professors, or your favorite philosophers, or a comedian somewhere. It just so happens that some people base their worldview on biblical teachings."

Jones said even though the Christian Right is currently as emboldened as it's ever been in a long time, it is not winning over public opinion.

"White evangelicals in particular have lost a lot of ground," Jones said.

Moral minority

Since at least 2008, white evangelicals have been shrinking in population size, and median age – now 56 – has been climbing. During the Christian Right's heyday in the 1970s and 80s, though, Jones says it was aligned with most of the country.

"When they said things like 'We are the moral majority,' there was a kind of truth to that – even if it wasn't a demographic truth," he said. "If you look at some of the issues, for example, like same-sex marriage, most of the country agreed with them."

But those days are gone. Jones said about seven in 10 Americans support same-sex marriage now – and that number also keeps growing. And about six in 10 Americans say abortion should be legal in the U.S.

Amelia Fulbright, a progressive pastor at the Congregational Church of Austin, said religious communities should not expect to see their particular theology reflected in the country's laws.

"I don't think it is the role of faith communities to use politics to impose their worldview on others," she says.

Fulbright has spent almost a decade advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people, as well as abortion rights, in Texas. She said in the past few years Republican state lawmakers have been crossing a line — making the case for laws by citing Christian ideas.

"There is not even an effort to conceal that these are theological ideas – that there is just a full-throated unapologetic attempt to impose a certain Christian worldview on everyone else.

Fulbright said for years she relied on the Supreme Court to block laws in Texas that were explicitly rooted in Christian theology. But since Republicans secured a conservative majority on the court, Fulbright and others say those guardrails have been knocked down.

A spiritual battle

Tim Whitaker, creator of a group called The New Evangelicals, says this is how the Christian Right has decided to respond to waning public opinion — instead of embracing changing views.

"White evangelicalism rejects pluralism – completely," he said. "They do not see themselves as coexisting with other religious views or other sexuality ethic views. They see it as a spiritual battle and they are on God's side."

Whitaker, who created his group to counteract less tolerant strains of evangelicalism, said decades of this sort of campaigning has amounted to an immense amount of influence, particularly in the Republican Party.

"When they start getting a taste – a small taste – of just making room for other viewpoints, that's perceived as a loss of power," he said. "And then they campaign on that."

Donald Trump put three anti abortion-rights justices on the Supreme Court in his four years in office, delivering on an essential campaign promise to the Christian Right. These groups have also galvanized power in state legislatures across the country.

Head dismissed the assertion that Christian conservatives are trying to push their views on everyone.

"I don't think that religious views or Christian people should be given special positions," he said, "but they also shouldn't be excluded from the public discourse either."

And while Whitaker said not all Christian conservatives support extreme views like Christian nationalism, an influential number of them do.

"It truly does concern for the future of the country because ultimately Christian nationalism is not about democracy," he says. "It's really about – I hate to use such blunt language – but it's really more about theocracy."

Jones said he also sees the Christian Right beginning to part with democratic norms. For example, many Christian conservatives have been supporting voting restrictions and backing Trump's election lies. Jones said it's one of the ways they can make sure their country is a Christian nation.

"I think we are seeing the last kind of desperate grasp – that by the way includes violence – that is kind of a desperate attempt to kind of hold on to that vision of the country and to hold on to power," he says.

Ultimately, Jones said, this period in American history could be a hingepoint for democracy.

"I think if we can protect our democratic institutions and we can weather these attacks on it, then I think there is light at the other end of the tunnel," he said. "But I do think we are in for some dark days."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.