December 2023 Church & State Magazine - December 2023

Going to extremes: New House Speaker Mike Johnson has a long history of promoting Christian Nationalism

  Rob Boston

After a rump of ultraconservatives deposed Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Oct. 3, Republicans spent weeks stymied by their inability to elect a replacement. When the dust settled, they landed on a candidate who was likely unknown to most Americans: U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.).

But while Johnson was hardly a household name prior to Oct. 25, he was no stranger to Americans United: Formerly a highly placed attorney for two Christian Nationalist legal groups, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and First Liberty Institute, Johnson is stridently anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-reproductive freedom; he also peddles misinformation about separation of church and state.

Reporters scrambling to get a handle on the nation’s new speaker, who is second in line to the presidency, focused on his role as a 2020 election denier. But as AU was quick to point out, that’s just the beginning: Johnson holds many alarming views.

Immediately after Johnson was elected, Americans United’s staff swung into action and began exposing his record. 

Here are some things we shined a light on:

Johnson parrots Christian Nationalist views on separation of church and state: In a Facebook post, Johnson wrongly claimed that Thomas Jefferson didn’t really support church-state separation. “Jefferson clearly did not mean that metaphorical ‘wall’ was to keep religion from influencing issues of civil government,” Johnson wrote. “To the contrary, it was meant to keep the federal government from impeding the religious practice of citizens. The Founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.”

During a 2022 podcast, Johnson asserted that America is the only country in the world founded upon a “religious statement of faith”  a claim that’s demonstrably false.

In a 2016 interview, Johnson proclaimed, “Over the last 60 or 70 years our generation has been convinced that there is a separation of church and state … most people think that is part of the Constitution, but it’s not.” 

Speaking at a Baptist church in Louisiana in 2019, Johnson claimed that Jefferson “was divinely inspired to write” the Declaration of Independence and that the founders broke away from England because they read the Bible and wanted to create a nation based on “this revolutionary idea that we owe our allegiance to the King of kings.” As alleged proof of that claim, he pointed to the fourth verse of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” which references “God our king.” He didn’t point out that the song was written in 1831, half a century after the founding. 

Johnson regularly posts Bible verses and other religious content on his official Facebook page. He has praised the notorious “Christian nation” fake “historian” David Barton, calling him “a profound influence on me and my work and my life and everything I do.”

Johnson has promoted evangelical Christianity in public schools: In 2002, Johnson advocated for a Bible course created by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools that was offered in eight Louisiana parishes. The course, which was widely panned by legitimate scholars of the Bible, was heavily skewed toward Protestant evangelical Christianity, treated “the Bible as an accurate record of history,” and was a “thinly veiled” attempt to push Christianity in public schools. 

Johnson told the media that the “Supreme Court did not say you have to discuss everybody’s view on the Bible.” Requiring that public schools treat all religious traditions equally, Johnson said, is “the height of political correctness.”

Johnson is a creationist who blames the teaching of evolution for the country’s ills: Johnson is closely aligned with creationist Ken Ham and backed Ham’s raid on taxpayer funds to build his evangelistic Ark Park in Kentucky.

In 2016, Johnson delivered the guest sermon at a Shreveport church. He remarked, “I mean, we know that we’re living in a completely amoral society. People say, ‘How can a young person go into their schoolhouse and open fire on their classmates?’ Because we’ve taught a whole generation, a couple of generations now, of Americans that there is no right and wrong, that it’s about survival of the fittest and you evolve from the primordial slime. Why is that life of any sacred value because there’s nobody sacred to whom it’s owed?”

Johnson has attacked Americans United: In 2009, Johnson and I appeared on Fox News Channel to debate the case of a public high school football coach in New Jersey who was praying with students. During the segment, Johnson accused AU of being on a “search-and-destroy mission for all things religious, and what they’re trying to do is foster this sort of atmosphere of hostility toward religion that the Constitution does not require and that the founders never intended.”

Johnson believes courthouses should be able to display religious symbols: In 2008, Johnson defended the display of a portrait of Jesus in a Slidell, La., courthouse, arguing that its purpose was to “use art to emphasize the importance of following the law in order to have a peaceful society.” He said that the Jesus painting “clearly delivers an inclusive message of equal justice under law. The ideas expressed in this painting aren’t specific to any one faith, and they certainly don’t establish a single state religion.”

Johnson says houses of worship should be able to intervene in partisan elections: At the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in 2017, Johnson backed weakening or repealing a provision in federal law that bars tax-exempt, nonprofit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.

“We need to unshackle the voice of the church again,” said Johnson, who claimed the law silences and censors houses of worship. He said changing the law “could be a game-changer.”

Johnson was a lead co-sponsor, with U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), of the Free Speech and Fairness Act in 2017 to repeal the law. When ADF openly called on preachers to defy the law in 2008, Johnson told a conservative website that the goal really is to “take the muzzle off” Christian churches. “We’re reminding them that they have the right to openly discuss the positions of political candidates, and we’re going to be there for them if there’s a challenge,” he said. “There’s a very aggressive campaign to unlawfully silence the church.”

Johnson has a long record of attacking LGBTQ+ rights: Johnson defended Louisiana’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples, the Louisiana Marriage Protection Amendment, in court. In 2015, as state legislator in Louisiana, Johnson introduced a bill that would have created a broad religious exemption to license discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation/gender identity.

In 2003, he wrote an op-ed criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated state laws making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in consensual sexual activity. He called the decision a blow to “fundamental American values and a millennia [sic] of moral teaching” and said, “[P]roscriptions against sodomy have deep roots in religion, politics, and law.”

Mike Johnson: A history of promoting Christian Nationalism (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In a 2004 op-ed, Johnson called for amending Louisiana’s Constitution to ban marriage equality. He asserted that “the extremists who seek to redefine marriage also want to deny you the right to object to immoral behavior. Our precious religious freedom hangs in the balance.” He continued: “God loves every sinner, but we model true compassion when we remain ‘pro-traditional marriage’ and conscientiously opposed to all deviations from it. This follows common sense and five millennia of moral teaching.” He called homosexuality an “inherently unnatural” and “dangerous lifestyle” that would lead to legalized pedophilia and possibly even destroy “the entire democratic system.”

From 2006-2010, Johnson partnered with Exodus International, a now-defunct group that promoted “conversion therapy,” a discredited practice that tells gay men and lesbians that they can change their sexual orientation by embracing fundamentalist Christianity.

CNN reported that Johnson appeared in a video for the group, asserting, “An open, honest discussion allows truth to rise to the surface.”

Johnson has long worked to make abortion illegal and curtail access to birth control: While at ADF, Johnson wrote a letter calling for the closure of an abortion clinic. In 2012, Johnson represented Louisiana College in its challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement. “This mandate,” he said, “offers no choice; Americans either comply and abandon their convictions or resist and be punished.”

Johnson was co-counsel representing the state of Louisiana to defend a law that would have prevented doctors from providing abortion services in the state unless they secured admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they provide abortion care. This law was designed to close clinics and undermine access to abortion. As a member of the U.S. House, he has cosponsored several bills that would ban abortion nationwide.

There’s more: During his time with ADF, Johnson promoted the fallacious “war on Christmas” narrative. In the midst of the COVD-19 pandemic, he joined House members demanding broad religious exemptions from vaccine requirements for people working in certain professions. He backed former President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, calling it a “matter of common sense.” 

Johnson wasted no time setting a new tone for the House. Shortly after being handed the speaker’s gavel, Johnson gave a speech on the House floor and implied that his ascension had been divinely guided. 

“The Bible is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority.” Johnson said. “He raised up each of you, all of us. And I believe that God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment and this specific time.”

His first broadcast interview after being elected speaker was with Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel. 

“I am a Bible-believing Christian,” Johnson told Hannity. “Someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘It’s curious, people are curious. What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.’ That’s my worldview.”

To no one’s surprise, Christian Nationalist groups were ecstatic over Johnson’s elevation. The American Family Association (AFA), in an online message to supporters, observed, “The House of Representatives has elected a solid Christian man as the Speaker of the House in Mike Johnson. Many Americans prayed for a godly leader, and God has answered those prayers. Speaker Johnson is a man of deep faith and often shares it publicly. If you ask him, he’ll tell you his faith is his guide for every decision he makes. Throughout his political career, he has led by example. He seeks wise counsel, prays for wisdom and follows the tenants [sic] of Christianity in every aspect of his life.”

The AFA went on to assert, “The liberal media and the Left have wasted no time attacking Speaker Johnson. Not for his voting record, but for his Christian faith. Not for his political ideals, but for his Christian worldview. Not because he’s a Republican, but because he’s a Christian.”

In fact, advocates of separation of church and state, including Americans United, have indeed limited their criticism of Johnson to his extreme policy views. On the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), AU President and CEO Rachel Laser warned, “Religious extremists continue to have dangerous, outsized power in our government. Rep. Mike Johnson is one of them. Reminder: WE THE PEOPLE are the majority.”

AU Vice President for Strategic Communications Andrew Seidel warned that Johnson “pushed all kinds of hateful anti-LGBTQ bigotry while at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Nationalist legal outfit that wants to drag this country back to the 5th century.”

Two leading academics who study Christian Nationalism also weighed in. Andrew Whitehead, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Samuel L. Perry, professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, took to the pages of Time magazine to succinctly outline Johnson’s embrace of the concept.

“It is critical to recognize the influence of Christian nationalism on Mike Johnson’s vision for the U.S.,” they wrote. “‘Christian nationalism’ isn’t a political slur. It’s a term that accurately describes an ideology that is antithetical to a stable, multiracial, and liberal democracy an ideology clearly guiding the now-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives.” 

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