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Mike Johnson’s Christian nationalist track record isn’t a mystery — it’s a tragedy

The new speaker cut his teeth trying to erode the separation of church and state and abortion and LGBTQ rights as a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund.

Rep. Mike Johnson, the newly elected speaker of the House, is the most unabashedly Christian nationalist speaker in history.

No group has been more supportive of Donald Trump — and more likely to believe that the 2020 election was stolen — than Christian nationalists, who believe God wants the U.S. to be a promised land for their religion. Their champion may no longer be president, but, in Johnson, they now have a true believer second in line to the presidency. An enthusiastic backer of bogus legal theories seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the 51-year-old Johnson was first elected to the House in 2016. Before then, he cut his teeth trying to erode the separation of church and state and abortion and LGBTQ rights as a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund – the Christian right legal powerhouse now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom.

It is not ‘bigotry’ to remind people of God’s claims on our lives and biological reality.”

Mike Johnson

I first encountered Johnson in 2007, when I was working on a story about the ADF’s ambitions to eviscerate the separation of church and state, and to elevate the rights of anti-LGBTQ Christians above those of LGBTQ people. At the time, marriage equality was not yet the law of the land, but ADF already was portraying LGBTQ rights as in direct conflict with those of conservative Christians. Johnson pushed this argument for years, along with ADF and other allies in the Republican Party and Christian right.

At the time, Johnson insisted to me that Christians were the ones facing discrimination. He claimed that “what we’re seeing in more and more cases is a discrimination against particular viewpoints, even outright hostility sometimes, against ... kids who hold a Christian kind of worldview who want to share Christian viewpoints or speech on campus, and they’re being discriminated against because some people see that as intolerant, or however they characterize it.”

Ten years after Johnson laid out that theory, I met him again at a Capitol Hill news conference where he and Republican colleagues were announcing their submission of an amicus brief on ADF’s side in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a baker claimed a civil rights investigation against him for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding violated his religious freedom.

In contrast to when I first interviewed Johnson, marriage equality was now the law of the land. The landmark civil rights decision further inflamed Christian conservatives to devise ever more creative legal theories to undergird complaints about religious mistreatment by the law. Although he was just a freshman member at the time, Johnson’s colleagues tapped his legal expertise for their brief. “We have to figure out how everyone can co-exist,” Johnson told me. “An essential component of that is allowing everyone to live out their deepest convictions.” The following year, the Supreme Court ruled in ADF’s favor.

The core of Johnson’s work in the years between his employment at ADF and his ascent to the Louisiana Legislature and then Congress, has been advocating against abortion, for expanded religious freedom for Christians, and against LGBTQ rights. In addition to working at ADF, he was counsel to Louisiana Right to Life, and he started his own legal firm, Freedom Guard, which claimed to “defend religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, marriage and the family.”

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.’”

Mike Johnson

Johnson also became the founding dean of a law school established in 2010 at Louisiana College, a Southern Baptist school, which Johnson said would “acknowledge the Judeo-Christian foundation of the legal system.” Although organizers spent $5 million developing the law school, it was never accredited and never opened its doors; Johnson resigned after just two years as dean.

As a state representative, in 2015, Johnson introduced the Marriage and Conscience Act which, if it had passed, would have barred the state from taking any “adverse action” against someone who refused services to someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity, or, in the words of the bill, “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction about the institution of marriage.” In testifying to a Louisiana House committee about his bill, Johnson maintained that the bill was necessary because “a person cannot be given the equivalent of the death penalty in the marketplace, in their profession or their business, just for standing by sincerely held religious belief about the definition of marriage that’s been in existence for more than five thousand years.” The bill was criticized as “poisonous,” “radioactive” and one that “legally protects discrimination” by corporate, business and tourism leaders. It failed to advance in the Legislature.

After the Supreme Court decided Obergefell, Johnson wrote for the magazine of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis that Christians would be increasingly “pressured to choose between their conscience and conformity.” He urged readers to read the Bible to discover “how God intends for us to live out our faith in a hostile world.” And “despite the radical secularists’ efforts to convince the public otherwise,” he argued, “it is not ‘bigotry’ to remind people of God’s claims on our lives and biological reality.” He also offered free legal services, through Freedom Guard, to any government officials, like justices of the peace, who feared they would “compromise their faith by issuing marriage licenses or solemnizing marriages under circumstances that conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

When Johnson first ran for Congress in 2016, he told a Baptist newspaper, “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.’” As a congressman, Johnson has introduced legislation mimicking Florida’s constitutionally challenged “Don’t Say Gay” law and has suggested parents do not have the right to seek gender-affirming care for their kids. “No parent has a constitutional right to injure their children,” he said at a subcommittee hearing earlier this year.

In her nominating speech for Johnson, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., invoked the biblical story of God commanding Samuel to anoint David king. Stefanik quoted from 1 Samuel 16:7, according to which God told Samuel that he looked not at appearances, but “at the heart.” Johnson, who Stefanik said “epitomizes what it means to be a servant leader,” was the choice, she implied, of Republicans who were following God’s direction in choosing him. Between the Bible talk and Johnson’s record, Republicans have made abundantly clear that they have emerged from the uncertainty and chaos of the last few weeks with one clear mission: to run a Christian nationalist House.