Christian Nationalism in the Speaker’s Chair - Word&Way

Christian Nationalism in the Speaker’s Chair

As Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, on Wednesday (Oct. 25) nominated Rep. Mike Johnson from Louisiana to serve as the U.S. House speaker, she leaned heavily on religious appeals

“Above the speaker’s chair in the House chamber, is our nation’s motto: ‘In God We Trust,’” she declared, sparking a standing ovation from Republicans. “The times in which we are living demand boldness, unity, and transformational leadership that begins with trust in God and each other. Trust is when the magic happens. In the story of King David, we are reminded that man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Stefanik praised Johnson as “a man of deep faith.” And she quoted Galatians 6:9 about reaping if they don’t give up, adding that they haven’t given up and would now elect a speaker (though the verse about reaping what you sow might better explain how they got into this mess in the first place).

As Stefanik predicted, the Republican lawmakers quickly anointed Johnson — who according to Stefanik’s analogy must not look much like a speaker — after three previous GOP speaker nominees failed over the past three weeks since Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz orchestrated an ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And Stefanik’s religious rhetoric quickly proved fitting for a politician who’s built a career on promoting Christian Nationalism.

Johnson in his acceptance remarks also pointed to the words “In God We Trust” in the room and talked about how that marked the U.S. religiously. His first post on social media after his election was a picture of an American flag and “In God We Trust” in the House chamber. He also argued during his acceptance speech that God had put him in this position.

“I don’t believe there are any coincidences in a matter like this,” he said as he stood at the speaker’s podium. “I believe that scripture, the Bible is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority. 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 in this time.”

Such rhetoric matches Johnson’s career. As someone suddenly thrust into national leadership and the least experienced speaker in 140 years, Johnson isn’t a well-known figure. So this issue of A Public Witness introduces you to the 56th speaker of the House — the founding dean of a failed Baptist law school, an attorney for three firms devoted to advancing Christian Nationalism, a crusader for prayer in public schools, an evangelist proclaiming the U.S. is “a Christian nation,” and proponent for partisanship in churches.

A new sign is installed above the entrance to the office of House Speaker Mike Johnson on Oct. 25, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Mariam Zuhaib/Associated Press).

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Denominational Controversies

When Rep. Kevin McCarthy assumed the speaker’s chair in January after 15 rounds of voting, it brought a Southern Baptist into that role after three Catholics had held the position since 2007. While some things are changing this week, Johnson’s rise keeps the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in the spot that’s just two heartbeats away from the presidency. In fact, Johnson not only attends a Southern Baptist church but he’s been connected to Baptist denominational life — and its controversies — for decades.

Before launching his electoral career, Johnson served as a trustee for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (the SBC’s public policy arm) from 2004-2012. In 2012, the trustees publicly reprimanded ERLC President Richard Land for racist and plagiarized remarks shortly before he announced his retirement.

In 2010, Johnson was announced as the founding dean of a new law school at Louisiana College (now Louisiana Christian University), a Southern Baptist school in Pineville. He had previously served as chair of the school’s board of trustees. The Pressler School of Law was named for attorney and Republican activist Paul Pressler, who along with Paige Patterson led the movement that shifted the SBC rightward in the 1980s and 1990s. Pressler currently faces legal woes after being accused by men of rape and unwanted sexual advances.

Johnson didn’t last long as the dean of the Pressler School of Law. He resigned two years later with the law school still not launched. The college spent more than $5 million — including paying Johnson — to create its law school and raised millions more for that purpose. But then in June 2012, the college’s accreditation agency denied its application to offer a juris doctor degree — a decision that came at a time when the college overall also found itself receiving warnings from the accrediting body for other concerns. That decision hurt faculty recruitment and fundraising, and Johnson resigned two months later.

“I reluctantly resigned because I and the existing members of our distinguished founding faculty were left with no choice but to engage in our other professional endeavors,” Johnson said shortly afterward.

The college initially insisted it would continue its plans to open the law school, but it never did. The college’s president was ousted in 2014, which sparked years of litigation between the two parties.

While dean of the unopened law school, Johnson helped represent the college — along with the Alliance Defending Freedom — as it sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The suit went the school’s way in 2014 after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.

One factor that could connect Johnson even more to current conflicts in Southern Baptist life involves his church membership. As recently as 2019, he listed his membership as being with First Baptist Church in Bossier City. And when he spoke at the church the next year, the pastor implied he was still part of the congregation. However, by 2022, Johnson noted his membership as being with Cypress Baptist Church in nearby Benton. His Facebook feed shows his family engaged in activities at both churches over the past few years.

Brad Jurkovich, the senior pastor at First Baptist in Bossier City, is the key organizer behind the Conservative Baptist Network, which launched in 2020 to push the SBC further rightward and become more engaged in backing GOP politics. Although its SBC presidential candidates have failed for three straight years, they have found support from Trumpian media outlets and Trumpian figures like Charlie Kirk, Eric Metaxas, and Jenna Ellis. CBN is also connected to disgraced former SBC leader Paige Patterson.

But at the same time CBN has roiled denominational life, some former members of Jurkovich’s church sued him in 2022, claiming he had misused church funds to help CBN. It is unclear if Johnson’s change in membership came because of that controversy or for other reasons. The Johnsons are not among the 15 former members who filed the suit.

However, Johnson has expressed support for CBN. He recorded a personal greeting for CBN’s “Pastor, Prophet, Patriot” event a week before the 2020 election. The event featured remarks by Jurkovich and CBN steering council member Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (a conservative political group that claims it’s a church for tax purposes).

“I am so grateful for CBN and what you all are doing,” Johnson said in the video. “We’re in a critical time for the country. It’s never been more important to gather and do exactly what it is that you’re doing because we know the results are so important and elections have consequences. … You have all of our support. You have our prayers. We’re grateful that you’re there for such a time as this. And we’re with you all the way.”

Legal Crusader

As journalists and others are learning more about Johnson’s far-right political history since he was quickly thrust into the spotlight, one part of the story that needs highlighting is his legal activism to promote Christian Nationalism. Johnson has worked for decades in the conservative Christian legal movement for organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Liberty Institute, and Freedom Guard. And he frames this work as his calling.

“We were established as one nation under God. We are perilously close to forgetting that principle now — and we desperately need to return to this fundamental understanding,” Johnson said in a 2016 interview. “Some people are called to pastoral ministry and others to music ministry, etc. I was called to legal ministry and I’ve been out on the front lines of the ‘culture war’ defending religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and biblical values, including the defense of traditional marriage, and other ideals like these when they’ve been under assault.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, founded by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and Campus Crusade for Christ’s Bill Bright, is known for its efforts to expand conservative Christian practices in public schools and governmental organizations, criminalize abortion, and strip rights from LGBTQ+ individuals. While serving as their senior counsel and national media spokesman, Johnson worked to criminalize same-sex relationships and same-sex adoption. ADF is also known for helping write the Mississippi law that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and for arguing cases like the baker in Colorado who refused to serve same-sex couples and the church in Missouri that wanted state funds. ADF’s longtime leader also tried to help Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Johnson also briefly served as senior counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a firm more recently known for representing high school football coach Joseph Kennedy in a successful lawsuit against his school district for telling him to stop leading public prayers on the school’s football field with students immediately after games.

Johnson also founded the legal organization Freedom Guard. In this capacity, he represented Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis against opposition to using state sales tax money to develop Ark Encounter, an amusement park in Williamstown, Kentucky, that uses a giant replica of Noah’s Ark to promote the fundamentalist idea that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs lived alongside humans. More recently, Johnson has written for AiG, spoken at an AiG event, and is scheduled with his wife to speak at an AiG event in April.

Johnson and Freedom Guard also defended a sports chaplaincy program at Louisiana State University against claims that public universities should not be bankrolling Christian ministers. Additionally, at times he represented the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and National Day of Prayer Task Force.

In 2015, Johnson won a seat in the Louisiana state legislature after running unopposed. Once he took office, he offered the services of his law firm to represent a public school accused by the ACLU of engaging in a pattern of religious proselytization by putting up “prayer boxes” with Christian symbols throughout the school and including religious messages in newsletters on the school website.

When that same school was the subject of a lawsuit brought by parents in 2018, Johnson was a featured guest at the Freedom Student Summit, an event hosted by conservative pastors to protest the legal action. After compelling evidence of coerced prayer and Bible readings led by school employees, the school choir singing Christian worship songs, and a long list of other issues, the case was settled in 2019 with the school agreeing to a monitoring committee to ensure compliance with the Establishment Clause.

After becoming a member of the U.S. House in 2017, Johnson took aim at the IRS’s political campaign activity ban (better known as “the Johnson Amendment after the unrelated Lyndon B. Johnson). The rarely-enforced rule bars tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from partisan politicking. It’s long been a target of the Alliance Defending Freedom but remains on the books despite efforts by Johnson and Trump. In 2021, Johnson introduced the “Free Speech Fairness Act” in an attempt to allow churches to endorse candidates using tax-deductible dollars.

For these and other actions, Johnson has been awarded a score of 100% by the Family Research Council.

Tony Perkins (left) of the Family Research Council honors Rep. Mike Johnson for his voting record on March 1, 2023. (Public Domain)

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Preaching What He Practices

As a state lawmaker and U.S. congressman, Johnson has frequently spoken in church services to do the very thing he wanted to promote by getting rid of the IRS’s political campaign activity ban. For instance, a couple of days before the 2020 election, Johnson joined U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a fellow Louisiana Republican, at First Baptist Church in Bossier City for a session moderated by Pastor Brad Jurkovich. Clearly backing Trump’s reelection, Jurkovich kept stressing the importance of the upcoming election that he called “the most consequential election that America’s had in certainly my lifetime.” Cassidy and Johnson echoed the call to vote in ways to advance their Christian beliefs.

“God’s not done with America yet,” Johnson said as he encouraged people to vote. “We’re the last, best hope on the earth — as Reagan said — because we are one nation under him, and so long as we are we’re going to be fine.”

During that event, Johnson mentioned that he and his wife frequently speak at churches to talk about “God and government,” a presentation he had already given at First Baptist. These presentations are organized under the auspices of a nonprofit his wife started and runs. Onward Christian Education Services, whose donations pay a salary for Kelly Johnson, is sometimes listed as hosting the “Answers for Our Times” events (that are also advertised by Kelly’s business Onward Christian Counseling Services, LLC). The promotions for the “Answers for Our Times” events include an endorsement from Tony Perkins, who has also spoken at one of the events.

Johnson and his wife also launched a podcast together in 2022 that they called Truth be Told — a name they kept even after using the show to push conspiracies and false claims about the 2020 election, violence in cities, and “woke” government. They’ve also welcomed guests like Charlie Kirk and Ken Ham. And Johnson as a congressman has been teaching online classes at Liberty University, a fundamentalist Baptist school in Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell.

As Johnson speaks in churches, he regularly pushes partisan politics and preaches that the U.S. was intended to be a Christian nation. For instance, he told First Baptist Church in Haughton in 2019 that he believes Thomas Jefferson “was divinely inspired to write” the Declaration of Independence. He added 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.”

Similarly, he argued during a 2021 sermon at Calvary Baptist in Shreveport, “The founders understood and applied God’s word and his created order in setting up our nation.” Among the quotes he used as evidence was one falsely attributed to President John Quincy Adams to argue the founders intended the U.S. to have a Christian government. He also used that inaccurate quote during a 2015 sermon at First Baptist in Haughton. In that 2015 sermon, he attacked President Barack Obama for not believing the U.S. is a Christian nation.

“I disagree. I think we’re a Christian nation. We certainly began that way,” Johnson added.

And so he urged the congregants to “put on the full armor of God” as they engage in the public sphere, adding that they were “at the tip of the spear, at the tip of the frontline” in that place “for such a time as this.”

“This is war imagery, my friends, because we are in a war. It’s a spiritual battle,” he added before praying they would be “holy, committed, good soldiers of the gospel.”

Screengrab as Rep. Mike Johnson speaks at First Baptist Church in Haughton, Louisiana, on Feb. 17, 2019.

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The Danger Remains

A Bible verse Johnson likes to quote in many of his sermons is Psalm 11:3 — “If the foundations be destroyed, what will the righteous do?” He uses that to argue that the U.S. must not turn from its Christian foundation. But it’s also an ironic verse to quote for a congressman who spearheaded an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election and destroy our constitutional democracy. He even invoked his Christian faith as he tried to keep Trump in power.

Even after the courts rejected his ideas about the election and even after a pro-Trump mob violently attacked the Capitol, Johnson remains unrepentant. On Jan. 6, 2021, a member of the Christian Nationalism-fueled insurrection infamously sat in the speaker’s chair. Now, a Trumpian figure pushing Christian Nationalism will sit there legally. And as he gave his acceptance address as speaker, he used several examples and lines he has frequently included in his sermons about this being a Christian nation.

Johnson’s rise to House speaker — with the unanimous support of his caucus — embodies exactly what Christian ethicist (and Word&Way board member) David Gushee warned about in his new book Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies. Johnson has for decades pushed the kind of “authoritarian reactionary Christianity” that Gushee critiqued.

“Seeing no repentance from radicalized authoritarian reactionaries, many of them Christians, it is hard to be terribly hopeful of a change of heart,” Gushee wrote. “Criminal justice officials will pursue their investigations, and Donald Trump and his closest associates may be forced from public life. But the deeper sources of the fever that has gripped our politics will remain.”

The danger doesn’t just remain in our politics. Like in a horror flick, the call is coming from inside the House.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Jeremy Fuzy

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