The Christian Nationalism of Speaker Mike Johnson

6 minute read
Whitehead (@ndrewwhitehead) is an Associate Professor of Sociology at IUPUI and author of the forthcoming book, American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church. He is co-author (with Samuel Perry) of the award-winning book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.
Perry (@profsamperry) is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is among the nation’s leading experts on conservative Christianity in American politics, race, sexuality, and families. His most recent books include the award-winning Taking America Back for God (with Andrew Whitehead) and The Flag and the Cross (with Philip Gorski).

In his first day as the new Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Mike Johnson (R-LA) wasted no time in using sweeping religious rhetoric to magnify this political moment. While addressing his colleagues he shared how, “I don’t believe there are any coincidences. 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 us to be brought here to this specific moment and time.”

While what Speaker Johnson believes God ordained him to do will become clear in the coming weeks and months, his prior work, words, and writing give several clues. Although he has never called himself a Christian Nationalist nor publicly embraced the term as other House Reps have done, each example points to the strong embrace of the ethos of Christian nationalism—a cultural framework that advocates for a particular expression of Christianity to be fused with American civic life, with the government vigorously promoting and preserving this version of Christianity as the principal and undisputed cultural framework.

Speaker Johnson has explicitly embraced the idea that the U.S. was founded upon particular Christian principles, in 2016 claiming, “You know, we don’t live in a democracy . . . It’s a constitutional republic. And the founders set that up because they followed the biblical admonition on what a civil society is supposed to look like.”

In the same interview, he reiterated his belief that the separation of church and state is not a constitutional principle. “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.” And in 2022, he stated “The founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.” Johnson, and those he has famously represented, insist the United States is a nation with “Judeo-Christian roots” at which “secular forces are chipping away.”

Having studied Christian nationalism for over a decade, we find it is consistently made up of several different elements. When we say Speaker Johnson is a Christian nationalist, we mean he provides a near-perfect example for each element.

Traditionalist Social Arrangements

First, Christian nationalism strongly favors traditionalist social relationships and hierarchies. This ideal society revolves around patriarchy, heterosexual marriage, and pronatalism. Consequently, certain citizens and family arrangements should have easy access to various civil rights and liberties, while others should be denied access.

As an attorney working for the Alliance Defense Fund, now known as Alliance Defending Freedom (founded by leaders with similar Christian nationalist commitments, like James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Bill Bright), Speaker Johnson opposed the decriminalization of homosexual activity through Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 and in 2004 proposed banning same-sex marriage.

He argued how both will “de-emphasize the importance of traditional marriage to society, weaken it, and place our entire democratic system in jeopardy by eroding its foundation,” and that “experts project that homosexual marriage is the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.”

Mike Johnson has sponsored multiple bills aimed at a nationwide ban on abortion, which he once publicly blamed for school shootings. He also once structured opposition to Roe v. Wade in terms of how it—in his view—limited the number of able-bodied workers in the economy, which fundamentally weakens the government’s ability to fund various social programs.

Like a car engineered to run on gasoline, Johnson sees our nation—and any nation for that matter—only running properly on the social arrangements elevated in the conservative Anglo Protestant tradition. Johnson’s politics are those that formally privilege gender traditionalism and heterosexuality as the national ideal.

Authoritarian Social Control

Second, Christian nationalism adheres to a desire for strong leaders who through the threat of violence, or actual violence, defend the preferred social arrangements and hierarchies. This includes setting aside the results of free and fair elections to ensure a chosen leader remains in power. Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are more likely to support anti-democratic tactics and approve of political violence if an election does not return favorable results.

Mike Johnson was a central figure in trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election, joining 146 other Republicans in Congress. Repeating debunked claims about “rigged” Dominion voting machines, Johnson went so far as to author an amicus brief for a case where Texas moved to have swing-state results thrown out. His consistent efforts to deny and overturn the 2020 election earned him the nickname “MAGA Mike” from fellow lawmakers.

Speaker Johnson exemplifies this aspect of Christian nationalism disregarding the values of democracy to instead embrace any means through which political power remains in the “right” hands. And this comfort with setting aside democratic ideals aligns with another element of Christian nationalism.

Ethno-Racial Boundaries

Third, Christian nationalism is characterized by strong ethno-racial boundaries around national identity, civic participation, and social belonging. In fact, scholars often call the ideology white Christian nationalism for this very reason. The ideal American is generally understood to be a natural-born Anglo Protestant. It is this group who created the U.S., and it is this group who should remain central to its cultural identity and political leadership.

Speaker Johnson has supported legislation that would sooth the conscience and protect the authority of such Americans, such as laws that limit teaching on race-related topics within public schools, like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. Johnson has also advanced legislation that would increase the burden on undocumented immigrants seeking asylum.

Within the Christian nationalist vision, our research shows, ethnic diversity is not our national strength, but a hindrance. And so there must be barriers around who gets to enjoy those benefits and participate in the civil sphere. Americans who embrace Christian nationalism can simultaneously claim Christian ideals of caring for those less fortunate while objecting to the nation serving various populations in need of refuge.

Populism and Conspiratorial thinking

A final element of Christian nationalism is a populist impulse that creates space for Americans to embrace feelings of victimization—that certain “elites” are trying to persecute them—which lends itself to adopting more conspiratorial thinking that includes belief in anti-vaccine myths, QAnon, and antisemitic tropes.

In addition to repeatedly elevating Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, Johnson has also often repeated the “Great Replacement Theory,” that Democrats are bringing in immigrants to replace natural born citizens and secure Democratic votes. This is the core of rightwing populist thinking, defending “real Americans” from elites and outsiders corrupting our culture and politics. It is also the core of Christian nationalism.

It is critical to recognize the influence of Christian nationalism on Mike Johnson’s vision for the U.S.. “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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