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The religious right takes control of the House

Mike Johnson has long history consistent with evangelical conservatism

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., concludes a news conference on the House steps of the Capitol on Oct. 25.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., concludes a news conference on the House steps of the Capitol on Oct. 25. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

After promoting congressional veterans or leaders like Kevin McCarthy of California, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Ohio’s Jim Jordan, and Minnesota’s Tom Emmer as candidates for speaker, House Republicans settled on Mike Johnson, a four-term representative from northwest Louisiana.

Johnson’s election as speaker was as much about the exhaustion felt by House Republicans as it was about the views of the Louisiana conservative. 

Still, the new speaker’s issue positions and values, which at one time would have put him at the fringe of his party, are now very much in line with most Republican House members.

All you need to know about Johnson is that he recently said “Someone asked me today in the media, ‘People are curious, what does Mike Johnson think about any issue?’ Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.”

Johnson also has suggested that his election as speaker was an act of divine providence.

When I came to Washington, D.C., in 1980 to write for The Political Report, a newsletter that reported on House and Senate races, I had my first experience with evangelicals.

The newsletter was published by Paul M. Weyrich, who spent much of his time back then trying to energize evangelicals politically. I knew Paul and his Free Congress Foundation were “conservative,” but I really didn’t know in 1980 what that meant.

Free Congress was housed in a former garage on Capitol Hill. While I made telephone calls to political operatives and journalists who would talk with me off the record about competitive House and Senate races, other staff members were pushing “social issues” and discussing creationism.

My family had attended The Jewish Center, a modern orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so it probably won’t surprise you that I had never encountered creationists, evangelicals or fundamentalists at my high school (Riverdale Country School), at college (Colby), in graduate school (the University of Connecticut) or in teaching for three years at Bucknell.

After two days at Free Congress, I wanted to quit. My wife told me to stick it out to see whether I might create my own niche in the foundation.

In fact, Weyrich allowed me complete freedom to write about campaigns and elections, and I worked with pollster Frank Newport (later with Gallup) on a monograph titled The Evangelical Voter, which was based on a survey of evangelicals conducted by Newport’s firm, Lance Tarrance and Associates, in 1983.

Weyrich was largely successful in bringing evangelicals into the political process. Republican legislators and activists also were successful in attracting those voters into the GOP.

But back then, the GOP was primarily the party of business and anti-communism. Cultural conservatives could sometimes win primaries, as Albert Lee Smith Jr. did in 1980 against Rep. John H. Buchanan Jr., R-Ala., But nobody was talking about evangelicals taking over the GOP. Smith served one term in the House and was defeated in the 1982 general election by Democrat Ben Erdreich.

Johnson’s election as speaker marks a fundamental change in the Republican Party and in the country. It reflects nothing less than the takeover of the GOP by Christian nationalists — the same kind of religious fundamentalism that we see elsewhere.

The religious extremism that I now see in the evangelical wing of the GOP is the same sort of stuff that I saw back in the early 1980s, when I was just learning about evangelicals’ views and political behavior.

But now, gone are former speakers John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan, and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — loyal Republicans and mainstream conservatives who understood the importance of compromise and avoided hot-button issues.

Nobody knows how Johnson will run the House, but the initial signs point to a political leader who believes that he has been selected by God and is doing God’s work. 

As The New York Times noted, “in his first speech from the chamber as speaker, Mr. Johnson cast his ascendance to the position second in line to the presidency in religious terms, saying, ‘I believe God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment.’”

That’s always dangerous, since it makes every decision into a battle of good versus evil, and every policy either consistent with God’s will or against his teachings. 

So far in his early speakership, Johnson apparently has not voiced interest in outlawing same-sex marriage or enacting a national ban on abortion — positions which he has taken previously.

And the new speaker may find that running the House — and working with the Senate and the White House — may require more negotiation and compromise and less adherence to religious scriptures.

For the moment, however, there are plenty of reasons for non-Christians to worry about what Johnson and his evangelical allies in the House will do now that the religious right has taken over the House.

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