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How Democrats of faith see devout Speaker Mike Johnson

‘I’m not using a religious billy club on others,’ one ordained lawmaker says

Religious Democrats see differences both theological and constitutional as they size up Speaker Mike Johnson, seen here at a Tuesday news conference about antisemitism on college campuses.
Religious Democrats see differences both theological and constitutional as they size up Speaker Mike Johnson, seen here at a Tuesday news conference about antisemitism on college campuses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When he was mayor of Kansas City, Mo., Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II faced a choice. As pastor of one of the city’s largest congregations, he had helped lead opposition to the legalization of riverboat gambling. It passed anyway, and some expected Cleaver would use his new office to protect the downtown waterfront from the kind of sinful business that any good Christian would find repugnant.

They were wrong. Cleaver refused to get involved. “I was not elected as the Methodist mayor. I was elected as the mayor of our largest city, and I’m not going to try to convert people to Methodism,” the Democrat explained.

Before Mike Johnson was speaker of the House, he faced a similar moral dilemma. In his hometown of Shreveport, La., a strip club was set to open, the kind of sinful business that any good Christian would find repugnant. A coalition of neighbors thought Johnson, then a young attorney just a few years out of law school, might help them fight it.

They were right. Johnson stayed up all night preparing to present arguments for why the City Council should revoke the club’s permit, according to The Washington Post. And when those fell short, he continued to press the issue.

Confronted with forks on the path of righteousness, these two deeply devout Christians went opposite ways. And today they follow those paths in Congress.

Cleaver and other religious Democrats on Capitol Hill say they are no less immersed in scripture than Johnson, who when asked to describe his worldview, replied, “Go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.”

Rather, they say fundamental differences — both theological and constitutional — lead them to political positions far removed from the new Republican speaker’s.  

Judge not

Rep. Hillary Scholten has picked up and read her Bible countless times. Before she was elected to Congress, she served as a deacon at her local Christian Reformed church.

During a floor speech this year in support of abortion rights, Scholten quoted Jeremiah 1:5, “I knew you before I formed you, and I placed you in your mother’s womb,” emphasizing that it says “mother’s womb,” and not “the government’s womb or the speaker’s womb.”

It’s a passage most people cite to make the opposite case, to argue that life begins at conception, so abortion is murder. It’s that kind of hermeneutical disagreement, Scholten said, that makes her unwilling to codify her religious views into law.

“Many Christians can read the same passage and have different viewpoints on how this should be implemented in terms of public policy,” the Michigan Democrat told Roll Call. “That’s why we don’t have laws according to the Christian Bible.”

A longtime advocate for a strict separation of church and state, Cleaver said he refrains from quoting scripture to sway someone to adopt his own viewpoints. “But internally, I would say, ‘Defend the meek and the fatherless and the poor and the oppressed,’ which comes from the 82nd Psalm,” he said. “I’m not using a religious billy club on others. … I impose my faith on me.”

Rep. Greg Landsman wears his Jewish faith on his sleeve — or, more accurately, under it: He has a tattoo that quotes Micah 6:8 in Hebrew on his shoulder. “I am a person of tremendous faith. I can’t remember a day where I didn’t believe in God in my core; God was always there,” the Ohio Democrat said.  

While Cleaver and Scholten declined to question Johnson’s understanding of the Bible, Landsman, who has a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, had no such qualms. “I’ve studied the Bible and know it well, and based on what he has done and said, I am not convinced he’s done the same,” he said. “I use my faith to connect to people and find common humanity and do good work. Based on what I have seen so far, that is not how he uses his faith. He uses his faith to separate folks, and to decide that some folks are good, and some folks are bad.”

While he hasn’t embraced the title himself, Johnson has been described as a Christian nationalist, someone who believes America is a Christian nation at its core and its laws should reflect that. He has argued that the United States was explicitly founded on Judeo-Christian principles and that individual’s rights are granted by God, not the Constitution, citing the preamble of the Declaration of Independence — what he calls the nation’s “birth certificate” — that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

That idea couldn’t be further from the truth, Cleaver said. “For people who say ‘This is a Christian nation,’ I would argue on the facts, not my personal beliefs. And the facts are that the government of the United States, the founders of the United States, actually never embraced Christian religion as our national faith,” he said, adding that the Constitution explicitly prohibits religious tests to hold office.

Johnson has also argued repeatedly that Christianity is besieged in modern-day America, a notion Cleaver scoffed at — “Oh, I didn’t know it was under attack,” he said — but Scholten shares some sympathy with.

“I think we are experiencing an environment right now where all religions feel under attack, and individuals do not have the freedom to talk openly about their religion, to express their religion. We’ve seen dangerous rises in Islamophobia and antisemitism recently. We do see declining participation in Christian churches right now,” Scholten said.

But, she noted, that fear to discuss faith openly is partly a reaction to rising religious zealotry. “It’s not too far-fetched to say that we have created a culture where one particular view of religion has to be right and the other has to be wrong,” she said.

Scholten also agrees with Johnson that “far too many Americans” believe incorrectly that the First Amendment prevents discussing faith in the public sphere: “That is not what the First Amendment says.”

“But what the First Amendment does call on us to do as legislators is to ensure the United States is not favoring one religion over another,” she added. “We get into dangerous territory not when we talk about who we are as people of faith, but when we [say] we’re going to legislate our faith on everyone else.”

Those sentiments suggest the fundamental divide between Johnson and religious Democrats is constitutional, not theological, said Michele Margolis, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the interplay between religion and politics.

“The key differences are maybe not their own religious views and what their ideal world would look like, but their recognition of what America is,” Margolis said. “Is America a Christian nation? … Or is America a melting pot democracy where, even if there is a majority [religion], that doesn’t mean [it] should be creeping into policy?”

Bad company corrupts

There’s no question that America has grown less religious, and less Christian, in recent decades. Membership in a house of worship among U.S. adults hovered around 70 percent until 2000 before falling below 50 percent in 2020, according to Gallup polls, while the percentage of Americans with no express religious preference has jumped from 8 percent to 21 percent. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now say a belief in God isn’t necessary to be moral.

America remains a uniquely religious nation, Margolis noted, far more so than other advanced industrial nations, a fact some sociologists have attributed to the free and competitive market of faiths protected by the First Amendment.  

“But this feeling of relative decline is real,” Margolis said. “So even if, in absolute terms, they’re still a politically and socially powerful group, if that level has dropped over time, people feel that immensely.”

Some, like Johnson, have blamed American’s declining religiosity on the corruption of public morality — pointing to licentious pop culture and permissive sexual mores — and called for a governmental response in the form of conservative policies, like banning gay marriage.

But partisanship is also a factor driving Americans to leave or change their churches, said Margolis. “People are making religious choices — in part, not exclusively — to be aligned with their political identity,” Margolis said. “Whether they’re Republican, whether they’re Democrat … they feel like they don’t have a home in a religious community on account of the kind of political-religious ties that seem to be present.”

In researching her book, “From Politics to the Pews,” Margolis said she visited religious communities across the South. She spoke to one pastor in Alabama who said he avoided making any explicit mention of politics. But one Sunday, he was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus taught his disciples the Beatitudes (e.g., “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”).

“And he then got complaints from people saying, ‘I don’t want to hear this liberal propaganda,’” Margolis said. “There’s so much choice in the religious marketplace that no one needs to stay in a religious community that they feel uncomfortable. They can create an echo chamber; they can create a silo. None of us like having the feeling of cognitive dissonance.”

Similar anecdotes aren’t hard to find. In a recent essay, The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta described being confronted in church — the same church his father had led as its pastor for decades, where he had literally grown up — for reporting unfavorably on Donald Trump. It was at his father’s funeral. “One man questioned whether I was truly a Christian,” he wrote. “Another asked if I was still on ‘the right side.’ All while Dad was in a box a hundred feet away.”

Jimmy Carter was the first Southern Baptist elected to the White House, riding a wave of evangelical support in 1976, but he left the denomination in 2000 in protest over its “rigid” views on gender inequality

Both Johnson and his predecessor as speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, describe themselves as Southern Baptists. While we tend to think of religion as an immovable rock, unwavering and unchanging over the years, congregations have always been shaped by the winds of social change, said Margolis.

The Southern Baptist Convention provides one example. The group splintered off from the Triennial Convention in 1845, after church leaders ruled that enslavers could no longer serve as missionaries. The Southern Baptist Convention later apologized for its role in perpetuating slavery and Jim Crow and acknowledged its opposition to the civil rights movement, when some individual congregations voted to ban Black parishioners.

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling on its members to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion when there was… carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The church continued to support limited access to abortion throughout the 1970s, before things began to shift.

Born in 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, Johnson has described abortion as a “holocaust.”

Southern Baptists like Johnson were once, like Cleaver, quite wary of mixing government and religion. Evangelicals went from mostly avoiding electoral politics to forming deep connections to the conservative movement in the second half of the 20th century. Historians like Randall Balmer and Rick Perlstein have argued that opposition to efforts to integrate the South gave rise to the religious right, partly as the federal government questioned the tax-exempt status of church-affiliated private schools that excluded Black students.

More recently, questions about sanctifying gay marriages or consecrating gay ministers have driven splits in the Anglican and Methodist churches.

It’s a recognition of how religious practices can ebb and flow over time, and how the holy can disagree on the Bible’s meaning, that drives his theological humility, Cleaver said.

“God does answer prayers, but I’m always cautious because … sometimes, he sounds just like me,” Cleaver said. “That’s the danger of Christianity in our country right now.”

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