Evangelical conservatives cheer one of their own as Mike Johnson assumes Congress’ most powerful seat

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Evangelical Christian conservatives have long had allies in top Republican leadership in Congress. But never before have they had one so thoroughly embedded in their movement as new House Speaker Mike Johnson, a longtime culture warrior in the courthouse, in the classroom and in Congress.

Religious conservatives cheered Johnson’s election Wednesday, after which he brought his Bible to the rostrum before taking the oath of office. “The Bible is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority … each of you, all of us,” he said.

“Someone asked me today in the media, ‘People are curious, what does Mike Johnson think about any issue?’” Johnson said Thursday in a Fox News interview. “I said, ’Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.’”

But progressive faith leaders are sounding the alarm about Johnson’s opposition to LGBTQ rights and his rallying of Republicans around former President Donald Trump’s legal effort to overturn the 2020 election results. And, more broadly, they are concerned about Johnson’s “desire to impose his narrow religious vision upon the rest of us,” in the words of Paul Raushenbush, president of Interfaith Alliance, a broad coalition of progressive religious groups.

To be sure, Christian conservatives have held the House speakership with Republican majorities in the past, from Catholics such as Paul Ryan and John Boehner to Newt Gingrich, who was Southern Baptist when he was speaker in the 1990s and later converted to Catholicism.

In fact, the 2023 House speaker drama has been in some ways an intra-church affair starring Southern Baptists — including Johnson himself, short-term speaker Kevin McCarthy and the representative who led the revolt to oust McCarthy, Matt Gaetz.

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But Johnson is a bona fide culture warrior, with a resume reading like a roadmap of powerful institutions of the religious right.

He has served as professor at the government school of Liberty University in Virginia, a Christian school and conservative bastion.

From 2004 to 2012, Johnson served on board of the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose 13 million members comprise the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. During his tenure with the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, it rallied members to place strong emphasis on “values voting.” Such activism helped reinforce Republicans’ opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Brent Leatherwood, the commission’s current president, said he met with Johnson in the early days of his own tenure. “It was clear to me he carries an abiding devotion to our convention of churches, subscribes to the principles that are dear to so many Southern Baptists, and has a deep pride in our nation,” Leatherwood said.

Johnson served as an attorney with what’s now known as Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the foremost legal advocates of causes valued by many on the religious right.

With the ADF, Johnson championed a 2004 Louisiana ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage, writing in the Shreveport Times that “homosexual relationships are inherently unnatural” and that society should not approve “such a dangerous lifestyle.” In 2003, after the U.S. Supreme Court nullified state laws banning same-sex sexual relations — which the ADF had urged it to retain — Johnson lamented the decision, writing that by “closing these bedroom doors, they (the justices) have opened a Pandora’s box.”

Johnson’s own public interest law firm, called Freedom Guard, helped win a legal battle regaining tax incentives on behalf of a Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky, overcoming state concerns that the project’s mission had shifted from tourism to ministry.

Johnson recently led a congressional hearing on transgender issues, saying in a statement, ”Gender affirming care’ is anything but ‘affirming’ and ‘caring.’ It is adults deciding to permanently alter the bodies of children who do NOT have the capacity to make life altering decisions on their own.”

Religious conservatives embraced Johnson as one of their own as they cheered his election as speaker.

“His commitment to unity and passion for protecting freedom will benefit all Americans,” ADF president Kristen Waggoner said on X (formerly Twitter).

The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, welcomed Johnson’s speakership not only because of his conservative political record, but also because he is a “a self-consciously committed evangelical Christian.”

“He has somehow pulled off the task of being very convictional and I believe right on most of these issues, and at the same time considered to be respectful and gracious even well-liked by members of his own party, and presumably by members of the other party as well,” Mohler said on his podcast.

Johnson invoked images cherished by Christian conservatives as he ascended to the speakership, pledging “servant leadership,” leading fellow Republicans in a prayer, touting the national motto, “In God We Trust” and highlighting the Declaration of Independence’s statement that humans “are endowed by their Creator” with rights.

John Fea, who studies religious conservatives and is a professor of history at Messiah University in Pennsylvania, said Johnson is a Christian nationalist, part of a movement that fuses Christian and American values, symbols and identity and sees the United States as having a divine destiny similar to the biblical Israel. Johnson has paid tribute to the “profound influence” of Wallbuilders, an organization promoting the view that America was created as a Christian nation, on his own career.

“We should not be fooled by his aw-shucks style,” Fea added in Current, an online journal. “He is a culture warrior with deep connections to the Christian Right. One might call him a happy warrior.”

Progressive faith leaders expressed alarm at Johnson‘s election, and his remarks on Wednesday evoking the Bible as saying authorities are chosen by God.

“He must remember that he was elected by the people, not by God,” Raushenbush said.

Similar concerns were expressed by the Rev. Nathan Empsall, executive director of Faithful America, an online Christian community advocating for social justice.

Empsall, in a statement, depicted Johnson as “an insurrection-supporting politician who will do anything to grab power, no matter who it hurts, simply to enforce his brand of right-wing Christianity on the rest of us.”

After the 2020 election, Johnson organized more than 100 House Republicans to file a brief supporting Trump’s challenge to President Joe Biden’s election — a challenge that appalled many legal observers and that the Supreme Court rejected.

On Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress prepared to certify Biden’s win and just before Trump’s supporters overran the Capitol, Johnson tweeted: “We MUST fight for election integrity, the Constitution, and the preservation of our republic! It will be my honor to help lead that fight in the Congress today.”

He later tweeted a condemnation of the rioters who beat police and broke into the Capitol. He still voted with most House Republicans to overturn Biden’s victories in two states.

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said via email that Johnson “has an obligation to serve all Americans,” those of all faiths and none.

“Johnson’s brand of Christian nationalism is bad American history and a betrayal of the historic Baptist commitment to religious freedom,” Tyler added.

AP journalists David Crary and Holly Meyer contributed to this report.

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