January 2024 Church & State Magazine - January 2024

Down the memory hole: House Speaker Mike Johnson and his allies would like to cover up his history of extreme statements. It’s not that easy.

  Rob Boston

In George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984, the central character, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to change history.

Johnson: Trying to hide his past? (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Smith takes newspaper articles that no longer align with the doctrine of the ruling party and rewrites them to make them conform. The original article is tossed down the memory hole, a tube connected to an incinerator, and is never seen again.

Orwell was prescient in many ways, and an echo of his memory hole exists today when individuals attempt to scrub the internet of extreme statements they’ve made or pull down websites they’d rather people no longer see.

But the memory hole isn’t as effective as some would think. Once a video, a newspaper article or a speech gets into cyberspace, it can become next to impossible to squash it as Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) and his allies are now learning.

When Johnson became speaker of the House of Representatives, Americans United was quick to expose his longstanding ties to Christian Nationalism. (See “Going to extremes,” December 2023 Church & State.) Johnson for years worked for two Christian Nationalist legal organizations, Alliance Defending Freedom and First Liberty Institute, and briefly ran his own legal outfit called Freedom Guard. 

Since Johnson’s ascension to the powerful House post, a flood of stories has emerged focusing on his history of making extreme statements and proposals and many of the articles quote AU President and CEO Rachel Laser and incorporate AU’s research. Johnson’s past is not so easily outrun. 

A Nov. 21 CNN story, for example, focuses on how Johnson wants to overturn Supreme Court precedents protecting the right to contraception and LGBTQ+ rights, and notes his attacks on AU and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Speaking of the latter group, Johnson said in 2008, “They have convinced an entire generation of Americans that there’s this so-called separation of church and state.”

A Nov. 24 Huffington Post article outlined how Johnson spent years trying to shoehorn fundamentalist Christianity into America’s public schools, including clashing with Americans United in Bossier Parish, La., in 2018 in a lawsuit filed challenging school-sponsored religious activity in public schools. (AU, which filed on behalf of four parents in the district, was successful in ending the practices.)

Johnson also has a long history of insisting that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation, something he’s now trying to cover up.

Americans United says the efforts by Johnson to hide his past won’t work; the record is simply too extensive. 

“Any public official let alone the speaker of the House and second in line to be president who claims America is a Christian nation and discredits church-state separation is an abject danger to our democracy,” AU’s Laser told the Huffington Post.

An Oct. 26 Newsweek story quoted Johnson speaking on a 2022 podcast during which he claimed it is a “really desperate time in America” and called on Christians of his stripe to rise up, employing rhetoric that is disturbingly militant.

“Obviously, this is an increasingly hostile culture,” Johnson said. “We all know that. We need to understand why that is, and we need to commit to do our part to confront it. The kingdom of God allows aggression. … There’s a lot of misunderstanding about this principle, right? Wait, I thought we were just supposed to turn the other cheek. Well, there’s a time to every purpose under heaven; there’s a time for war. There is a time when you must stand up and contend for the faith. You have to defend.”

Johnson later quoted the biblical passage Ephesians 6:11, which says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Some evangelicals interpret this passage as a justification for war metaphorical or actual or violence.) 

Laser criticized these bellicose comments by Johnson, remarking, “From his time working at the Christian Nationalist legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, and through his roles in state and federal office, Johnson has demonstrated hostility toward our country’s foundational promise of church-state separation and advanced policies that weaponize and undermine religious freedom. This country needs a national recommitment to separate church and state. Our democracy depends on it.”

Increasingly confronted with these extreme views, Johnson and his allies are furiously trying to scrub some of this material from the web.

But it’s not working out too well. For example, two sermons Johnson delivered at a Louisiana church in 2015 during which he insisted that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation” and cited fake quotes by early political leaders were removed from the church’s website. But the Rev. Brian Kaylor, editor of Word&Way and a member of AU’s Board of Trustees, saved them.

“Johnson preached at least twice at First Baptist Church in Haughton, Louisiana, since he entered public office,” Kaylor wrote. “Rev. Gevan Spinney, the church’s senior pastor, is a former president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. He’s also listed on the most recent tax filing as board president for Onward Christian Education Services, a nonprofit Johnson’s wife Kelly started and leads.”

Kaylor reported that Spinney told him, “I was made aware that the left was trolling our website and pulling quotes out of context in their attempt to attack Mike and Kelly. I told our media team to remove them so we would not be providing ammunition to the enemy.”

In one of the sermons, which Johnson delivered on Nov. 15, 2015, Kaylor noted that Johnson “articulated his belief that the U.S. was founded to be a ‘Christian nation.’ After criticizing President Barack Obama for not believing the U.S. is a Christian nation, Johnson added, ‘I disagree. I think we’re a Christian nation. We certainly began that way.’”

Kaylor added that “Johnson used a quote falsely attributed to President John Quincy Adams and another falsely attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville to argue the founders intended the U.S. to have a Christian government.”

During the second sermon, Kaylor wrote, “Johnson returned to the pulpit at First Baptist Haughton in February 2019 to similarly make the case that the U.S.’s founders had been inspired by God and created the nation based on ‘this revolutionary idea that we owe our allegiance to the King of kings.’” (This sermon, while scrubbed from the church’s website, was still on its Facebook page as of early December.)

Similarly, the website for a Christian counseling service run by Johnson’s wife that was studded with anti-LGBTQ+ content has been pulled down but remains available on sites that archive the internet, and 69 episodes of a podcast Johnson and his wife produced have been removed from his personal website but are still available on streaming services.

Johnson is also trying to employ selective amnesia over his lengthy track record of making statements attacking LGBTQ+ people. As the website LGBTQ Nation reported, he once predicted that marriage equality would lead to “chaos and sexual anarchy” and “place our entire democratic system in jeopardy by eroding its foundation.” 

Johnson also asserted that allowing two individuals of the same gender to marry would spur pedophiles to seek legal protection and would encourage people to marry animals. He has stated, “Homosexual relationships are inherently unnatural … ultimately harmful and costly for everyone” and has accused LGBTQ+ people of having “abnormal lifestyles.”

Asked about these views by Sean Hannity of Fox News, Johnson replied, “I don’t even remember some of [those statements].”

Johnson is also trying to dodge his 2022 endorsement of a book titled The Revivalist Manifesto that promotes discredited conspiracy theories about Democrats leading pedophilia rings and that uses crude slurs against LGBTQ+ people. CNN reported that Johnson claims he didn’t read those portions of the book yet Johnson wrote a foreword for the tome, calling it “valuable and timely.” Johnson also promoted the book on social media and interviewed the author, Scott McKay, on his podcast.  

As Americans United has noted, Johnson’s explanations leave a lot to be desired. The statements are in print, on tape and on the web. In some cases, they appear in newspaper columns under Johnson’s byline. AU pointed out that if Johnson would like to apologize for these hateful comments or repudiate them, AU and many other organizations would welcome that.

Instead, Johnson’s strategy is pretending that they never happened. But they did and Americans United intends to keep on reminding Americans of that.

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