Mike Johnson, the new Speaker of the House, is a radical Christian nationalist who opposes democracy—and he still might not be extreme enough for his own caucus.
In 2023, Kevin McCarthy made ignominious history by becoming the first Speaker of the House in US history to be ejected by his own party.
It took multiple rounds of voting, with McCarthy groveling before his party’s most extreme members, before he got the job in the first place. But he lasted only a few months before enraging them by passing a bill to prevent a shutdown. For the grave sin of governing, he was kicked out of the speaker’s chair.
Several weeks of chaos and dysfunction ensued as various House Republicans stepped forward to run for speaker and others shot them down. Finally, the infighting exhausted them enough to coalesce around a new speaker, Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson. (I wonder if Johnson won because his generic name made him seem unobjectionable.)
But despite his bland, forgettable demeanor, Johnson is no moderate. As the modern Republican Party keeps finding new depths of political nihilism to sink to, he may be the worst yet to hold the post.
A young-earth creationist
Johnson got his start working for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing legal group. He spent years arguing that abortion should be outlawed and that states should have the right to criminalize consensual same-sex relationships.
He’s also a young-earth creationist who’s represented Answers in Genesis in court to argue for tax exemptions for their Noah’s Ark theme park.
He believes that teaching evolution causes school shootings:
During a 2016 sermon at the Christian Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, Johnson said that a “series of cultural shifts” in the United States — led by “elites” and “academics” in the 1930s who were engaging with the theories of Charles Darwin — erased the influence of Christian thinking and creationism from society.
“People say, ‘How can a young person go into their schoolhouse and open fire on their classmates?'” Johnson asked the audience. “Because we’ve taught a whole generation — a couple generations now — of Americans, that there’s no right or wrong, that it’s about survival of the fittest, and [that] you evolve from the primordial slime. Why is that life of any sacred value? Because there’s nobody sacred to whom it’s owed. None of this should surprise us.”“New House Speaker Blamed School Shootings on Teaching Evolution and Abortion.” Nikki McCann Ramirez, Rolling Stone, 26 October 2023.
This feels almost quaint. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a young-earth creationist in the wild. I had assumed most of them had long since moved on to QAnon.
Needless to say, the idea that belief in God prevents violence is a blackly comical absurdity. Not only is that not true, it’s the flat opposite of the truth. Human history is a bloodstained chronicle of devout believers slaughtering each other for believing in the wrong god—or believing in the right god, but worshipping it in the wrong way. Just imagine trying to tell people from the era of the Inquisition or the Crusades that religion is a force for peace that teaches us to treat all life as sacred.
The Bible records a campaign of genocide enthusiastically carried out by the Hebrew tribes against their pagan enemies. Medieval Europe is an endless battle of Catholic-versus-Protestant warfare, Christian-versus-Muslim warfare, and everyone killing and persecuting Jews. Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have clashed again and again. Western nations have subjugated, colonized, enslaved and killed indigenous “heathens” from all over the world in the name of spreading the gospel. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war is a battle between two religious sects that both believe they have a God-given right to possess the same land.
In addition to his anti-evolution views, Johnson ticks every other box on the list of Christian “antis”. Like all fundamentalists, his worldview is defined by what he’s against: He is anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights, anti-feminism, anti-climate-science. He’s even anti-divorce—believing, as many religious conservatives are starting to, that it gives women too much power. In a bid to shore up the crumbling walls of patriarchy, he wants to abolish no-fault divorce so they’ll be forced to stay in unhappy or abusive marriages.
A Christian nationalist
But, above all else, Johnson is a Christian nationalist. Like all Christian nationalists, he believes (falsely, based on right-wing pseudo-history) that America was founded as a Christian nation, and therefore a Christian view of law and morality should rule.
It hardly needs emphasizing that, when Johnson and his ilk speak of a “Christian” view, they don’t mean a generically Christian, ecumenical, big-tent view. They mean their own interpretation—a hardcore right-wing, patriarchal, anti-science, literalist reading of the Bible. They believe that this fundamentalist theology should reign supreme over every other interpretation of Christianity, not to mention all the other religions, philosophies, and worldviews in our multicultural melting pot.
The most disturbing aspect of Johnson’s view is that, because he believes America is a Christian nation, he holds that evangelical Christians like himself are entitled to rule regardless of elections. That’s why he’s against democracy.
That’s not a polemical attack. He says so himself!
“We don’t live in a democracy, because democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner.”“He Seems to Be Saying His Commitment Is to Minority Rule.” Katelyn Fossett, Politico, 27 October 2023.
Yes, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line to the presidency, is an avowed opponent of democracy.
These aren’t empty words. Johnson has acted in line with them. He was one of the Republicans who voted unsuccessfully to overturn the 2020 election. He wrote a brief in support of Texas’ toweringly arrogant lawsuit to throw out the results of elections in other states that voted differently. He spread bizarre conspiracy theories about Hugo Chavez writing voting machine software.
All of this isn’t an aberration. It flows from Johnson’s Christian nationalist theology. In this monarchical worldview, Christians like him get to be in charge, no matter what. If the voters say something different, too bad for them. He believes in throwing out the “wrong” votes and handpicking the person who “should” have won.
Johnson’s anti-democratic, election-denying views mirror the general trend toward authoritarianism among conservative Christians. They were only ever in favor of democracy as long as they thought they’d win every time. When that stopped being the case, they started wanting to change the rules to suit them. From Kristin Du Mez:
I think what has escalated things in the last decade or so is a growing alarm among conservative white Christians that they no longer have numbers on their side. So looking at the demographic change in this country, the quote-unquote “end of white Christian America” and there’s where you can see a growing willingness to blatantly abandon any commitment to democracy.
It’s really during the Obama presidency that you see the escalation of not just rhetoric, but a kind of desperation, urgency, ruthlessness in pursuing this agenda. Religious freedom was at the center of that. And it was, again, not a religious freedom for all Americans; it was religious freedom to ensure that conservative Christians could live according to their values. Because they could see this kind of sea change on LGBTQ rights, they could see the demographic changes, and inside their spaces, they have really played up this language of fear that liberals are out to get you, and you cannot raise your children anymore.“He Seems to Be Saying His Commitment Is to Minority Rule.” Katelyn Fossett, Politico, 27 October 2023.
For all the danger Johnson presents, the one thing he’s not is unusual. This election-denying, freedom-refuting ideology, once the fringe of the fringe, has swallowed the entire Republican party. Anyone the party might be expected to support would hold these same beliefs.
Johnson’s elevation isn’t an aberration, but a punctuation mark. It’s a sign that, for the foreseeable future, this is the course the Republican party has committed itself to. Elections in America are no longer a choice between two points on the same political spectrum. They’re a struggle for the continued existence of democracy over those who favor fascism and authoritarian rule.
Not extreme enough
As bad as that is, there are hints that even Johnson isn’t extreme enough for some members of his caucus.
For all his repugnant politics, he has an adopted Black son. Johnson has spoken frankly about the racism his son faces and said there’s a need for “systematic change”. He’s also said George Floyd was murdered by the police: “I don’t think anyone can view the video and objectively come to any other conclusion.”
For these remarks, perpetually-furious conservative pundits have already labeled Johnson a disgrace, a fraud and a secret Democrat. The right wing has done so much to nurture their own sense of grievance, there’s a chance that they’re truly ungovernable. No human being who could run for office and win could ever satisfy them.
If that’s true, then Johnson, for all his radicalism, might not end up enjoying a longer or easier tenure than his predecessor.