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Tracing the rise of Christian nationalism, from Trump to the Ala. Supreme Court

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Christian nationalism, including an extreme version advocated by the group the New Apostolic Reformation, the NAR, has become influential in American government and parts of the judicial system. The NAR advocates for Christian dominion over government, religion, family, business, education, arts and entertainment, and the media. According to the NAR, some of its opponents are afflicted by demons, which must be cast out through exorcism. The NAR has aligned itself with Donald Trump and efforts to overturn the election. Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House, has said he's been profoundly influenced by Dan Cummins, a Christian nationalist activist. A flag associated with the NAR hangs outside Johnson's office.

An Alabama Supreme Court decision just made it illegal to destroy frozen, fertilized embryos that are used in infertility treatments because those embryos are people. The chief justice of the court wrote a concurring opinion that says even before birth, all human beings have the image of God and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory. My guest, Brad Onishi, not only studies Christian nationalism. He used to be part of that movement. He left after studying theology at Oxford University. He's the author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." He also co-hosts the podcast "Straight White American Jesus," which reports on and analyzes the impact of Christian nationalism on American democracy. He teaches at the University of California, San Francisco.

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Brad Onishi, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you think Christian nationalism has entered the mainstream?

BRAD ONISHI: I think it has. Christian nationalism is having a moment. It's having a moment in ways that it's requiring those who adhere to its principles and ideologies to respond to it. Folks like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and others have talked about the ways that Christian nationalism not only informs their understanding of politics, but how they identify explicitly as Christian nationalists. And so we are at a point in American politics where Christian nationalism is something that many people are discussing.

GROSS: Are there many people in Congress who are affiliated with Christian nationalism?

ONISHI: I think it's fair to say that, yes. One of the things that's true about our Congress is that it is disproportionately Christian. Now, there are many different types of Christian people in our Congress from various denominations. However, if we look at the GOP and we look at the tenets of the party's policies and its approach to the upcoming elections, we find core Christian nationalist ideals in that platform. And we find many, many, many members of Congress from the GOP who support those principles. So from outgoing Speaker Kevin McCarthy to current speaker Mike Johnson, all the way to senators and other members of the House, there are many folks who I would describe as Christian nationalists in the United States Congress.

GROSS: What are some of the fundamental principles of Christian nationalism? Like, how would you define Christian nationalism?

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ONISHI: I think in very simple terms, Christian nationalism is the idea that Christian people should be privileged in the United States in some way - economically, socially, politically - and that that influence and that privilege is a result of the country being founded by and for Christians. Christian nationalism is not the idea that others can't be here - that if you're a Muslim or an atheist, that you have to leave. It's also not the idea that only Christians can be part of the government. However, for most Christian nationalists, there is a core belief that the story of the United States is one where it has been elected by God to play an exceptional role in human history, and as being chosen by God, it's the duty of Christian people to carry out his will on Earth.

So Christian nationalists take an approach to their Christianity that says it should have an undue influence on our government, on our economics, on our culture, and that it is by dint of our history, the religious faith that is meant to be privileged in our public square. With that said, there are different kinds of Christian nationalists and different ways that people manifest their understanding of the term. But when it comes down to it, if we all sit down as Americans at a table and there are people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different faiths, and someone who is a Christian says, just by being at this table, I should have a special place, well, to me, that's Christian nationalism because you're saying that somehow this country is yours in a way that it is not for everyone else. And to me, therein lies the problem.

GROSS: Do you think the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in his concurring opinion that has outlawed the destruction of frozen embryos, equating frozen embryos used in infertility treatments with murdering people - do you think his concurring opinion, which keeps referencing God, is an example of Christian nationalism?

ONISHI: So this is an example of Christian nationalism par excellence. The concurring opinion by Justice Tom Parker uses as its evidence to arrive at his legal opinion - it uses the Bible. It uses Christian manifestos. It uses work by the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, by the reformer John Calvin. These are the pieces of data that he uses to justify an opinion at the Supreme Court of Alabama. He said on the very same day that that decision came down, on a podcast, that God created government, and the fact that we have let it go into the possession of others is heartbreaking. The very idea that we would have a Supreme Court of any state in this country who would deliver an opinion based on the Bible, is the most clear example of Christian nationalism that I can think of.

GROSS: And just as a sidebar here, he was mentored by a former Alabama Chief Justice, Roy Moore, who was famous for having a marble replica of the 10 Commandments in his courthouse. The Supreme Court declared that unconstitutional. He refused to take it down, and so he was ousted from the Supreme Court as a result.

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ONISHI: Tom Parker is really the protege of Roy Moore, and Roy Moore was notorious for the 10 Commandments controversy that you just mentioned. Roy Moore was also notorious for his Senate run a couple of years ago, when he faced off against Doug Jones in Alabama. What I think those of us who don't pay attention to Alabama politics in detail every day perhaps did not understand is that Tom Parker is a continuation of Roy Moore's politics, and he may even be more savvy when it comes to articulating his understanding of the United States as a Christian nation than his predecessor.

GROSS: An extreme group of Christian nationalists is the New Apostolic Reformation, and they advocate the Seven Mountain Mandate, which is that Christian nationalists or Christians should lead government, family, religion, business, education, media, arts and entertainment, and that they - all of these sectors should reflect the kingdom of God. And I think I mentioned all seven there. So what does that mean to reflect the kingdom of God in family, religion, business, education, media, arts and entertainment, and the government?

ONISHI: The Seven Mountains mandate is a particular form of understanding human society that says that Christian people are not called to persuade their neighbors to practice the Christian faith, to demonstrate to their fellow Americans that the Christian faith is the faith of love and truth. The Seven Mountains Mandate is, as my colleague Matthew Taylor says, a mandate to colonize the Earth for God. The seven domains as you listed them - arts and leisure and the economy and the government, the family - are seen as mountains of conquest. The goal is not dialogue with neighbors who may be Muslim or atheist or Hindu. The goal is not to simply reflect the character of Christ on earth by way of living a life that upholds his glory and his teachings. The goal is to have absolute authority and power over every facet of human society.

And so we can see here what I take to be a very dangerous approach to practicing Christianity in the public square. It is not one that recognizes democracy or dialogue, pluralism as sacred values. The goal is power. The goal is conquest. And so when one hears about a politician or a leader or anyone in influence, especially as part of our government, who adheres to the Seven Mountains Mandate, that should set alarm bells off immediately.

GROSS: What is the strategy for fulfilling the Seven Mountain Mandate?

ONISHI: When it comes to government, I think we're seeing the strategy play out in real time. The goal is to institute people at every level of government who will either act as Christians carrying out God's mission on earth, this mission to colonize or take dominion of every part of human society, or to elect and work with those who are going to carry out that mission, whether or not they are doing so as conscious purveyors of God's plans themselves. So when we think about something like Project 2025, the forecasted ideal of the second Trump term, when we think of...

GROSS: And this is a project of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

ONISHI: The conservative Heritage Foundation. But if we look at the sponsors of Project 2025, we have others. We have Hillsdale College. We have Liberty University. We have the Claremont Institute. We have TP USA, many Christian nationalist universities or organizations. And so the goal when it comes to government is to institute people at every level, whether that be national politics, the White House, the United States Senate, the United States House or all the way down to the hyperlocal, the school boards, the mayor, the county supervisor.

And to say the goal is to have people in those cogs of the government's machine that will work to colonize this government for God to return it to glory, to make America great again by instituting a very narrow and hardcore vision for a Christian society. We see that with the recent decision in Alabama. We see that in other proposed policies, whether that is overturning Obergefell and the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality, whether that is a national abortion ban and so on and so forth. So we're seeing that strategy play out in government, I think, right in front of our eyes.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here and then we'll talk some more. And when we come back, I want to talk about Donald Trump. My guest is Brad Onishi, author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview about the impact of Christian nationalism on American democracy with Brad Onishi. He's the author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." He co-hosts the podcast "Straight White American Jesus." He teaches at the University of San Francisco.

People often wonder, why do so many evangelicals support Donald Trump when his lifestyle is hardly a model of Christian values? His business practices, hardly, you know, a model of Christian values. The New Apostolic Reformation, an extreme group of Christian nationalists, sees Trump as the anointed person to help create a Christian state. Can you begin to explain that?

ONISHI: The New Apostolic Reformation and the Seven Mountains Mandate have their goal as conquest and power, as we discussed earlier. And so if your goal is to colonize the earth for God and to dominate American politics and governance, then you want somebody who's willing to go along that road and down that road with you. If I think about previous iterations of presidential candidates who have been favored by the religious right, we can think of Ronald Reagan.

And Ronald Reagan was somebody who did everything he could to curry the favor of evangelicals and white Catholics and the Moral Majority in the election against Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan delivered on some of those promises, but he ended up frustrating some of his religious right supporters. He didn't go all the way. Well, we arrived a decade or so later to George W. Bush. George W. Bush was a self-identified evangelical who had been saved by his faith in Jesus Christ. And he certainly did a lot to promote the interests of evangelicals and other conservative Christians in the country.

But George W. Bush - despite what he did in Iraq and Afghanistan, when he left office, it felt like the itch had not been scratched, that there was still something wrong with the country because even though we'd had an evangelical president for eight years, the country continued to be less religious, less Christian. It continued to get more pluralistic, more diverse, racially and ethnically. And then all of a sudden, it was Barack Obama. And Barack Obama was, like, made in a lab to scare white Christian nationalists. So Barack Obama is president, and then we get Obergefell, and gay marriage is legalized.

By the time Donald Trump arrives, this group of Christian nationalist voters, whether they be evangelical, whether they be conservative Catholics or Latter Day Saints, are in the mood not for somebody who simply identifies with them and their politics, someone like Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee, they're in the mood for somebody who will act as the brutalizing barbarian needed to take the country back. If you want to colonize the Earth for God, it's not enough to have a testimony that says, Jesus saved me from my sins or from my alcoholism. What you need is a bully, somebody who will put in line all those folks that you think are ruining your country and causing it to descend into the pits of hell.

You don't just need somebody who's going to go to church on Sunday and talk a good talk. You need somebody who will destroy in order to rebuild. So Donald Trump, yeah, doesn't go to church a lot. Donald Trump, been married a couple times. But you know what he promises in ways that no one in our lifetimes has? He promises to punish those who have caused this country to go the wrong way. And so eight years later, we have a base that is more rabid to make him their barbarian king than ever before.

GROSS: So when Trump says at the Ellipse on January 6, we fight like hell, and if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore, then you think that, like, the NAR really likes that kind of language 'cause it's about, like, fighting like hell, taking back the country, the kind of language that Trump uses that represents the kind of strong person who's willing to fight to take it back.

ONISHI: I think that's exactly right. The trademark of the New Apostolic Reformation is spiritual warfare. They believe that all Christians are involved in a cosmic battle of good and evil. And so any language that suggests this idea of fighting, of conflict, of war, speaks directly to their theologies and beliefs. And so when Trump says, you fight like hell, they're thinking, we've already been fighting like hell against all the powers of Satan, and we're ready to continue doing that. It only emboldens their ideas and spurs them on to further action.

GROSS: Besides the fact that many Christian nationalists support Trump for reasons that you were describing, what are their direct connections to Trump?

ONISHI: Well, I think there's a litany of connections. I think what we saw in the first Trump term is that Trump promised to appoint to the Supreme Court those handpicked by the Federalist Society, and the Federalist Society being under the influence of Leonard Leo, a notorious Christian nationalist, who has many of the characteristics and visions that we've been talking about today. He came through on those picks, and he was willing to do as they wished. And that convinced many in those camps that he was trustworthy as a president and as a candidate.

Trump has also courted, I would say, movements and actors that are part of the Christian nationalist matrix. Trump was willing to retweet QAnon conspiracies, ideals about a satanic cabal of leaders trying to ruin the United States and ruin the globe, in essence. So we can see in terms of his ideals and his willingness to embrace conspiracy, whether those relate to Barack Obama's birth certificate all the way to COVID denialism and the ways that it was supposedly being used, the pandemic, to trick and tear down the United States, Trump was willing to take up ideas that are enormously popular in Christian nationalist circles. My colleague Paul Djupe from Dennison University has done great work showing the large majorities of white evangelicals who identify with some aspect of the QAnon conspiracy. And so when Trump takes up those conspiracies publicly, it's a signal to them that he's one of them, and he is doing what God wants in those terms.

Now, there's also more concrete connections. You know, we can think of officials who are trying to infuse Christian nationalism into a Trump second term, as Politico reported last week. Russ Vought is the official leading that charge as Politico reported. Well, Russ Vought was part of the Trump administration, along with William Wolfe, one of the most notorious Christian nationalists on social media, a former intelligence officer. So, Trump is willing not only to espouse Christian nationalist ideas to champion Christian nationalist causes, but he's willing to bring in Christian nationalists to his administration in ways that continue to convince this group of Americans that he is their man.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brad Onishi, author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." We'll talk more about the impact of Christian nationalism on American democracy after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK, MIKE MARSHALL AND EDGAR MEYER'S "CHANCE MEETING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview about Christian nationalism. My guest is Brad Onishi, a former Christian nationalist who has reversed his position and now writes critically about the movement and its impact on American democracy. He's the author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." He co-hosts the podcast "Straight White American Jesus," which reports on and critiques Christian nationalism. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.

There's a photo of Trump in the White House, and a group of evangelical leaders are kind of doing a laying on of hands, like, a group laying on of hands. What does that photo signify?

ONISHI: Well, I think it signifies a couple of things - one, that Trump is willing to allow those leaders to pray for him, and that he is showing to anyone who will see the photo and who will pay any attention that he's a president who supposedly wants the anointing of those evangelical leaders and welcomes their leadership in his administration, in his Oval Office, in his White House. It also shows that those leaders have direct access to him, that if you are someone who follows or takes guidance from any of those ministers, any of those apostles or prophets or pastors, then you are somebody who has direct access to Trump by way of them.

So the photo does so many things to bolster Trump's sense of religiosity in the eyes of the Christian nationalist segments of our country. But it also demonstrates something that evangelicals and charismatics have wanted since they got behind Reagan six decades ago, and that is direct access and influence over the United States government. If the goal is to colonize Earth for God, what else more do you want than to have the ability to lay hands on and influence the president of the United States?

GROSS: Did you recognize many of the people in that photo as being leaders within the Christian nationalist movement?

ONISHI: I did and I think one stands out, and it's somebody that I think has become somewhat infamous over the last couple of years, and that's the worship leader and influencer Sean Feucht. Sean Feucht is somebody who was raised and discipled in Christian nationalist circles in Northern California. He's become somewhat of a provocateur in the last five or six years, somebody who led anti-COVID shutdown rallies, somebody who has used the Proud Boys as his personal security force. And Sean Feucht reaches out, and he touches Trump from about four or five people away in that photo. And it really stands out to me because it's a moment where Sean Feucht is able to demonstrate to anybody who's looking that he's somebody who's made it all the way to the Oval Office with the president and is praying for him by way of direct touch to his body. It's a really symbolic and, in my view at least, really unfortunate photographic evidence of the influence of Christian nationalists on our government.

GROSS: I'm sure you've seen this, but Trump posted a video on his social media platform, Truth Social, and it's called God Made Trump. And I just want to - the sound quality on it isn't very good, so I'm not going to play the audio, but I will quote some of what is said in it. So the narrator says, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, I need a caretaker. So God gave us Trump. God had to have somebody willing to go into the den of vipers, call out the fake news for their tongues as sharp as serpents. The poison of vipers is on their lips, so God made Trump. God said, I need somebody to be strong and courageous, who will not be afraid or terrified of the wolves when they attack, a man who cares for the flock, a shepherd to mankind who will never leave or forsake them. What do you know about this video?

ONISHI: Well, (laughter) what I know is the video is audacious, to say the least. But for me, when I saw it, it confirmed everything that we had known for years now. And that is that Trump has fashioned himself as specifically chosen by God. He has put himself in the place as somebody playing not just the role of a politician, but as a cosmic savior to a Christian mission. And his followers are the ones who led him to that belief. So this video is the culmination of years and years of rhetoric about Trump's anointing.

GROSS: Trump really must love the idea that a lot of Christian nationalists see him as the anointed one (laughter) who's going to lead us to a more Christian nation. But the idea that he is the anointed one must be so affirming of everything he believes of himself (laughter).

ONISHI: It really seems that way. It really seems that this is a role he believes he (inaudible) for, and it's not one that he's shying away from. But I also think that it really reflects a place that we've arrived in American politics that is quite different from a decade ago. We're not talking about political opponents anymore, those who disagree on policy. We're talking about those who've been elected by God, like Trump, to destroy those who are in the service of Satan, like Joe Biden or anyone else on the other side. So when Trump leans into this role, he's leaning into the idea that he's divinely ordained and that American politics is a matter of good and evil, God and Satan, rather than simply the best person for the job. And that's quite a change from where we were just a decade ago.

GROSS: I want to get back to the New Apostolic Reformation, a group at the far edge of Christian nationalism. Let's talk about that group's involvement in January 6. What did you see at the actual riot that led you to believe that the people you were watching were Christian nationalists?

ONISHI: As the riot unfolded, many scholars of religion, like myself, gathered on Twitter and began using a hashtag, #CapitolSiegeReligion, in order to collect symbols and pictures and videos from the insurrection that showed the religious dimensions of what was happening. And what became clear almost immediately is that when you looked in the crowd, you saw many Christian flags. You saw many flags and signs that says, you know, Trump is my president, Jesus is my savior. But if you look deeper, you saw other things.

You saw people who were carrying icons of Mary, statues of Jesus. You saw on the gallows that were erected for Mike pence prayers and the idea that we should return the country back to God's people. You saw many folks gathering in impromptu prayer sessions and to sing songs of worship and praise using guitars, people kneeling on the ground worshiping God. And then if you looked even closer, you saw symbols that, to those uninitiated, would have not appeared to be Christian nationalists but nonetheless were - the Appeal to Heaven flag, a symbol made popular by a New Apostolic Reformation leader named Dutch Sheets about a decade ago, that signals this call for Christian revolution in the United States. Well, there were dozens and dozens of those flags at January 6. So to the trained eye, the religious dimensions of the riot were clear from the very beginning.

GROSS: I just want to intercede here and say that the Appeal to Heaven flag that you just mentioned, that's the flag that is hung outside of Mike Johnson's office, the speaker of the House.

ONISHI: It is. And that flag has roots in the American Revolution. It - George Washington, and it was inspired by John Locke. However, the argument that I've made, again with my colleague Matt Taylor, is that for the last decade, that flag has been used by New Apostolic Reformation leaders to signal Christian revolution, an upending of our government and democracy as it stands today. So when I see that flag in the crowds at J6, I'm not thinking, oh, there's somebody influenced by the enlightenment ideals of John Locke. I'm thinking that's somebody who's heeded Dutch Sheets' dozens and dozens and dozens of calls to stand up for God's people and Donald Trump and to be here at January 6 in order to help in this spiritual and actual warfare that's taking place.

GROSS: So much more to talk about. But right now, we have to take a short break. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is Brad Onishi, author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET SONG, "WEATHER REPORT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview about the impact of Christian nationalism on American democracy with Brad Onishi. He's the author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." He co-hosts the podcast "Straight White American Jesus" and teaches at the University of San Francisco.

I want to ask you about the founder of the New Apostolic Reformation, C. Peter Wagner. And again, this is the group that's really on the far fringe of Christian nationalism, like perhaps the or one of the most extreme groups. That's also kind of codified some of the beliefs. Is that fair to say?

ONISHI: It is. And I think they're very much leading the charge on the kinds of visions for America that Christian nationalists are putting forth today.

GROSS: C. Peter Wagner died in 2016, shortly after endorsing Donald Trump. I got to interview C. Peter Wagner in 2011. I had interviewed a journalist who had done a kind of investigative piece about the New Apostolic Reformation. And then right after we heard from her on our show, I interviewed C. Peter Wagner. And one of the things that Wagner believed in was demons and that demons are controlling certain territories. They're controlling certain people, and they have to be - those demons have to be driven out. So I asked him about demons when I interviewed him. And here's a clip from that interview. And this interview is from 2011.

GROSS: The word demon figures prominently into the New Apostolic Reformation. Demons figure prominently in your religious views. You and other people in the New Apostolic Reformation have described demons as if they are alive and functioning in America and in other countries around the world. So do you believe that there are actually like living demons, like Satan's representatives who are functioning in America now?

C PETER WAGNER: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, in Oklahoma City, there's a annual meeting of a professional society called the International Society of Deliverance Ministers, which my wife and I founded many years ago. This is a society of a large number, a couple hundred Christian ministers who are in the ministry of deliverance. Their seven-day-a-week occupation is casting demons out of people, and they have professional expertise in this, and they happen to meeting - be meeting right now. My wife is one of them. She's written a whole book called "How To Cast Out Demons." And I don't do that much - once in a while, when I get in a corner, I might. But that's been her ministry. And so I've been very, very close to that for years. We've been married for 60 years.

GROSS: Do you believe that there are people in American politics who are possessed by demons?

WAGNER: We don't like the word - to use the word possessed because that means they don't have any power of their own. We like to use the word afflicted or technical term demonized. But there are people who, yes, who are directly affected by demons, not only in politics but also in the arts and the media, in religion and the Christian church. And...

GROSS: How can you tell? Like, when somebody's been afflicted by a demon, how can you tell?

WAGNER: Sometimes they know. Sometimes the demon has identified itself to the person. Sometimes you can tell by manifestations of superhuman, unhuman behavior. Sometimes you can tell by skilled deliverance ministers. My wife has a five-page questionnaire that she has people fill out before she ministers to them. So she asks the kind of questions that a medical doctor would ask to find out to diagnose an illness. So she actually does diagnostic work on people to discover not only if they have demons but what those demons might be.

GROSS: OK. That was C. Peter Wagner recorded on FRESH AIR in 2011. And he, again, is the founder of the New Apostolic Reformation, an extremist but growing rapidly group of Christian nationalists. Brad, your reaction to the idea of demons and the need to cast them out, cast them out of people?

ONISHI: Well, I think that Wagner's views 10 years ago might have seemed jarring to the average American. Certainly, 20 or 25 years ago, they would have been even more fringe. However, as somebody who grew up and converted into Christian nationalist settings and was certainly adjacent to the kinds of charismatic churches that Wagner and the New Apostolic Reformation inspire and are cultivating, we thought about demons and demon affliction quite a lot. We thought about the ways that spiritual warfare played on individuals. And if we fast-forward to today, one of the things that I think is evident if we pay attention to the rhetoric of very high-level politicians and influencers surrounding the American right and our government is the idea of spiritual warfare and the demonization of those who are on the other side of the political spectrum from them.

My point is that, you know, when you interviewed Wagner, it might have seemed like this was a man on the edges of American Christianity. And yet, if we read speeches from CPAC '24 or from TPUSA or other very mainstream and important foundational aspects of American conservatism, the idea of being afflicted by satanic forces is ubiquitous. And so we've seen it become normalized and mainstreamed in ways that I don't think even C. Peter Wagner would have expected going back to the time of that interview.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brad Onishi. He's the author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND SONG, "RIDE INTO THE SUN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview about the impact of Christian nationalism on American democracy with Brad Onishi, author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism - And What Comes Next." He co-hosts the podcast "Straight White American Jesus."

So let's talk about your experiences as a Christian nationalist when you were a teenager. You first went to church - or to a Christian nationalist church because your girlfriend was a member, and you say it was a great excuse to spend time with her on a weekday night. But then you got really caught up in the teachings of the church. What were the teachings at that time that got you interested?

ONISHI: You know, I was a kind of angsty teenager who found in church two things. One, all of the answers to the questions about the meaning of life and the meaning of my life I found in church, the idea that God loved me, that if I confess my sins to God I would be forgiven and enjoy eternal life. I found answers to questions about what happens after you die and why the Earth was created in the first place, and they were very quick and easy answers. They didn't require any long division, and it's something that satisfied my soul very immediately at that time. I also found community. I found a group of people who welcomed me and kind of became my second home. And like a lot of people, whether teenagers or not, that was incredibly meaningful to me. And it meant that I was willing to convert and devote my life to that church in very extreme ways.

GROSS: And how did Christian nationalism figure into that?

ONISHI: My church was shaped by the politics of the 1960s. I grew up in Orange County, Calif. And I'm a mixed race person, but it was a predominantly white church. And it was not a church where you went to hear the sermon on Sundays and heard all about which politicians were for God and which were against. It was rather a place where you were subtly given the message about the ways that God wanted the country to go and the ways that it had fallen away from Him during, say, the sexual revolution or the women's liberation movements of the '60s or even the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

It was the kind of place where, without realizing it right away, you converted to a certain vision of the gospel, but also a certain vision of America, as it went with it. And so when it came to Christian nationalism, it was only years later that I understood that when I devoted myself to Jesus there, I was worshipping Him at the cross. But I was also always worshiping Him at a cross that was accompanied by an American flag, that our Christianity and our Americanism always went hand in hand. And I think that's true for many people across the country, too.

GROSS: So you became a youth minister when you were in your teens. What did you preach?

ONISHI: Yeah, so I became a minister at 18 and a full-time minister at 20. And I preached things that are - you know, were related to conservative Christianity, that unless you accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ, you would burn in hell forever. I was very motivated to proselytize to anyone who would listen. When I was in high school, I would go around my high school at lunchtime and ask various folks if they knew about the gospel of Jesus. Oftentimes on a Friday night, you might catch me at the local movie theater with a friend, and we would ask kids our age if they were willing to repent and ask God for forgiveness. I taught the kids in my youth group that unless we, you know, waited until marriage for sex - that we would be under God's wrath.

But I also was completely enveloped by this idea of a Christian nation, and I really did believe that if, on a Sunday morning, I passed people on the way to church or out taking a jog or riding their bike or walking the dog rather than going to church - that it was a sign that our country had fallen away from its original founding and purpose.

GROSS: How did you leave the church? I know you studied theology at Oxford, and that inspired you to challenge the views that you had held for so long. What were you exposed to at Oxford studying theology that made you rethink the foundation of your beliefs?

ONISHI: The process really began a few years before that. I was somebody who, as a convert, was incredibly zealous. And as a future professor, I was somebody who would read anything he could get his hands on. And as I did that, I started to think that the very kind of binary approach we had in our theology to life's most fundamental questions was not necessarily able to capture the complexity of being a human being. I remember telling some elders in my church that I wanted to vote for John Kerry rather than George W. Bush because I thought John Kerry would do more for the poor and more for education than George W. Bush. And they looked at me, and they said, you know, that's great. He might. But if you vote for him, that's somebody who is definitely in favour of abortion. And so you'll be voting for the Holocaust of millions of babies. Are you willing to do that?

And when I went into the voting booth in that election, I was shaking because I knew that Kerry, in my mind at least, was the better choice. But the idea of having the murder of millions of children on my head and on my heart was something I didn't know if I could live with. And I remember thinking, I don't know what to do here. And when I exited that voting booth, that was a moment I determined to find a theology and an ethic that did more justice to the most pressing questions we have, whether that's abortion and reproductive rights, whether that's the death penalty, whether that's war. And so by the end of my time in ministry, I was doubting my entire faith. And so when I went off to Oxford 6,000 miles from home, it only gave me more freedom to really figure out what I believed. And it eventually led me out of the movement.

GROSS: So one more question. Since 2018, you've been co-host of the podcast "Straight White American Jesus." That is a title that is bound to intrigue some people, confuse some people and make some people really angry. So tell us about coming up with that title and reactions that you've gotten to it.

ONISHI: It's really hard to put on a T-shirt...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ONISHI: ...Because it just gives the wrong - we have not sold a lot of T-shirts as part of the podcast. Here's the goal behind the name. My co-host Dan Miller and I wanted to help others understand why, when so many people in our country imagine Jesus, they don't think of a first-century man who, by today's standards, would be considered someone who was an immigrant and a person of color in many ways in the United States. But instead they see a projection of Jesus who's a vehemently straight, patriarchal, white American who is native-born, gun-toting and, willing to articulate very conservative political policies down the line. Why do so many Americans think of Jesus as a straight, white, American tough guy rather than as a revolutionary prophet who preached love and compassion? We wanted to help folks answer that question. And so that's what we called the show.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for coming on FRESH AIR.

ONISHI: Privilege is all mine. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Bradley Onishi is the author of the book "Preparing For War: The Extremist History Of White Christian Nationalism And What Comes Next." He co-hosts a podcast about religion and politics called "Straight White American Jesus." He teaches at the University of San Francisco. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Denis Villeneuve, the director of the new film "Dune Part Two," or actress Busy Philipps, a star of the film "Mean Girls" and the series "Girls5eva," or with neurologist Charan Ranganath about how our brain remembers and forgets, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And for a behind-the-scenes look at our show and suggestions from our producers of things to watch, read and listen to, subscribe to our free newsletter at whyy.org/freshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Meyers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.