For Mike Johnson, religion is at the forefront of politics and policy

Moments before he was set to face a vote on becoming House speaker this week, Rep. Mike Johnson posted a photo on social media of a sign carved into the marble atop the House floor: “In God We Trust.”

His colleagues celebrated his candidacy by making the rounds a picture of him on bended knee praying for divine guidance with other lawmakers in the House.

And in his first speech from the floor as speaker, Mr. Johnson cast his ascent to the second-in-line presidency in religious terms, saying: “I believe that God has ordained and allowed each of us to be brought here for this particular moment.”

Mr. Johnson, a mild-mannered conservative Republican from Louisiana whose elevation to the presidency on Wednesday followed weeks of chaos, is known for putting his evangelical Christianity at the center of his political life and positions. Now, as the most powerful Republican in Washington, he is in a position to insert it directly into the national political discourse, where he has for years claimed it belongs.

Mr. Johnson, 51, the son of a firefighter and the first in his family to attend college, has deep roots in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. For years, Mr. Johnson and his wife, Kelly, a licensed pastoral counselor, belonged to First Bossier, whose pastor, Brad Jurkovich, is a spokesman for the Conservative Baptist Network, an organization that works to shift the denomination to the right.

Mr. Johnson has also played a leading role in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and has expressed skepticism about some definitions of the separation of church and state, placing himself in a newer cohort of conservative Christianity closer to former President Donald J. Trump that some describe as as Christian nationalism.

“Speaker Johnson really provides an almost perfect example of all the different elements of Christian nationalism,” said Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. He said these included insisting on traditionalist family structures, “accommodating authoritarian social control and abolishing democratic values”.

Mr. Johnson declined an interview request and did not respond to a request for comment on whether he considers himself a Christian nationalist. But the little-known House Speaker has made it clear that his faith is the most important thing to know about him, saying in previous interviews that he believes “the founders wanted to protect the church from state encroachment, not the other way around.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Johnson, a lawyer and member of the Louisiana Legislature before being elected to Congress, has been driven by the belief that Christianity is under attack and that the Christian faith should be elevated in public discourse, according to a review of his appearances on talk shows and podcasts, as well as legislative speeches and writings over the past two decades.

He calls the Declaration of Independence a “faith” and describes it as a “religious statement of faith.” He believes that his generation is mistakenly convinced that the separation of church and state is outlined in the Constitution.

In his first interview as speaker, Mr. Johnson described himself to Fox News anchor Sean Hannity as a “Bible-believing Christian” and said that to understand his politics, one only had to “pick up the Bible off your shelf and read it.” That’s my view of the world.”

This includes opposition not only to abortion, which he called “the holocaust”, and same-sex marriage, but for homosexuality itself, which he wrote is “naturally unnatural” and “a dangerous lifestyle.” He is the sponsor account that would have banned the use of federal funds to provide education to children under 10 that included LGBTQ themes — a proposal that critics called a national version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

In a 2006 column for Townhall, a conservative website, Mr Johnson criticized “serious advocates of atheism and sexual perversion”.

“This grand alliance of anti-God zealots has proven terrifyingly effective in remaking America in their own brutal, dehumanizing image,” he wrote.

He added: “In the space of a few decades, they have succeeded in entrenching abortion and homosexual behavior, objectifying children as sex objects, criminalizing Christianity in popular culture, and promoting guilt and self-doubt as central qualities of our national character. .”

In Washington, the primary role of religion in Mr. Johnson’s political life is often the first thing colleagues learn about when they meet him.

“It doesn’t take long,” said Representative Byron Donalds, Republican of Florida, who said Mr. Johnson often began meetings by leading a prayer. “You’ll pretty much know that in the first five minutes. He is a truly humble man.”

Yet he is not shy about presenting his political career as a divinely guided battle to put religion at the center of American politics and legislation. From gun violence to abortion to immigration, Johnson’s political views have been shaped by his belief that too many Americans “deny the existence of God himself.”

In an address to the assembly in Louisiana in 2016, Mr. Johnson related school shootings no-fault divorce laws (he is married to his wife, which makes divorce difficult), “radical feminism” and legal abortion. “We have taught an entire generation — now several generations — of Americans that there is no right and wrong,” he said at the time.

In an episode of his podcast “Truth Be Spoken,” Mr. Johnson explained how his religion drives his hard-line immigration stance, arguing that while the Bible teaches Christians to practice “personal mercy,” that command was “never aimed at the government.”

“The left is taking it and using it out of context,” Mr Johnson said. Welcoming a stranger, he added, is a warning to “individual believers,” while the government’s duty is to enforce laws — in this case, strong border control policies to stem the flow of migrants into the United States.

In lectures to student groups across the country, Mr. Johnson lamented, “There are no more transcendent principles. There is no eternal judge. There are no absolute standards of right and wrong. All of this is the exact opposite of the way we were founded as a country.”

It’s a view fervently embraced by much of the hard-right Republican base, which respects Mr. Trump and identifies with his frequent claims that he is persecuted, insulted and looked down upon by liberal elites.

In his podcast, which he co-hosts with his wife, Mr. Johnson often complains about what he sees as the repression of religious views in America.

“What we found is often that the Christian viewpoint is not given equal treatment, equal platform and equal opportunity,” he said in one episode, according to transcripts of the shows compiled by the Brookings Institution. “Very often religious views, especially Christian ones, are censored and silenced.”

In the same episode, Mr. Johnson said removing religion from public schools had a “tragic effect,” adding: “People separate what’s religious, quote unquote, from quote unquote real life, right? And that dichotomy was never intended by the founding fathers.”

He said he would sometimes be asked by “hostile” interviewers why in his work as a religious liberty litigator he represented only Christians and not, say, Muslims or Jews.

“I would say because the fact is very simple: there is no overt attempt to silence and censor the views of other religions,” he said. “Only and always the Christian point of view becomes censored.” He added: “The fact is that the left is always trying to silence the voices of Christians.”

His colleagues on Capitol Hill describe Mr. Johnson as not very talkative or flamboyant, someone who lacks a flashy social media presence and can get lost in a sea of ​​attention-seekers. But his softer style may mask the fact that he proselytizes extremely hard-line views and has been hitting the right-wing talk show circuit for decades.

In the 2000s, Mr. Johnson, then a lawyer and spokesman for the anti-abortion and gay rights group Alliance Defense Fund, was also a prolific writer, publishing Townhall columns and writing opinion pieces for his local Shreveport newspaper.

In his writings, he harshly criticized opponents on the left and those who did not share his beliefs. Almost always, the views he espoused were intertwined with his Christian beliefs.

In 2007, Mr. Johnson wrote a column arguing that there were ulterior motives behind advocates of the “Day of Silence,” an annual event in which supporters pledge silence to draw attention to the bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students.

“The event is being sold to sympathetic school teachers and administrators as a gentle call for sexual tolerance and understanding,” he wrote. “But the real plan is to gild and glamorize homosexual behavior while gagging anyone who opposes it.”

“Experts estimate that gay marriage is a dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic,” he wrote. in a 2004 article.

On Thursday, Mr. Hannity asked him to explain some of his earlier views on same-sex marriage, which widely supported across the country, including many Republicans.

“Some of them I don’t even remember,” Mr. Johnson said of his previous comments. “I sincerely love all people, regardless of their lifestyle. This is not about the people themselves.”

Mr. Johnson’s political career has been a rare slide that has put him in the most powerful position in Congress without ever running in a competitive race. When he took office in the Louisiana House of Representatives in 2015, he ran unopposed for a vacant seat. In his first race for Congress in 2016, he easily defeated his Democratic opponent, Marshall Jones, and ran unopposed for his seat last year.

He also recorded over a thousand radio and television interviews—much from his time at the Alliance Defense Fund, now called the Alliance Defending Freedom—leaving a long trail of words that help paint a picture of an archconservative who promotes a literal reading of the Bible.

In 2015, Mr. Johnson provided legal services to Answers in Genesis, a fundamentalist Christian group founded by Ken Ham that rejects scientific findings about evolution and the early history of the cosmos. The organization quotes the “Word of God” in saying that the universe is 6,000 years old and suggests that “we’ve simply been indoctrinated to believe it looks old.” The universe is actually about 13.8 billion years old, astronomers agree.

He retained Mr. Johnson after Kentucky tourism officials refused to grant tax credits for the construction of the Noah’s Ark theme park, citing the organization’s plan to require employees to submit a statement of faith. Mr Johnson successfully sued in 2015, claiming the withholding of tax credits was discriminatory.

Mr Johnson praised the Ark Encounter, a theme park, which features dinosaurs in its life-size replica of the ark, in an interview with Mr Hamm in 2021 when he was a guest on the radio show of Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, whom he called his “original mentor “.

“The ark encounter is one way to bring people to this recognition of the truth that, you know, what we read in the Bible are real historical events, and there are implications for what you do with all these stories in the Bible out there,” said Mr. Johnson.

Mr Donalds, who ran unsuccessfully for speaker against Mr Johnson this week, said Mr Johnson’s decision to seek the position was an “obedience to the Lord”. He said that’s a good thing for House Republicans.

“You have a speaker who doesn’t seek the limelight just to be in the spotlight,” Mr. Donalds said. “He answers the call.”

Benjamin Mueller contributed to the reporting.

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