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Speaker Johnson's close ties to Christian right — both mainstream and fringe

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has close ties to the evangelical movement, including some fringe elements.
AP
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has close ties to the evangelical movement, including some fringe elements.

Mike Johnson's surprise rise to the speakership after weeks of bitter party infighting was cause for celebration for Pastor Dutch Sheets.

"God has given us a miracle in the election of Congressman Michael Johnson to this position. He's a godly man, raised up for such a time as this," Sheets said in his Oct. 27 "Give Him 15" daily prayer broadcast. "I do not know him, but have several friends who do, who attest to his qualifications, integrity and heart for the Lord."

There's nothing unusual in American politics about religious leaders praying for politicians or holding a fundamental view that God's divine hand is at play in the creation and existence of America.

But Sheets is not a traditional Christian pastor.

"Dutch Sheets did more, in my estimation, than any Christian leader to organize Christians for January 6th," said Matthew D. Taylor, a senior scholar at The Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies. Taylor has a forthcoming book on the role Christian extremism played in efforts to fraudulently overturn the 2020 election and fuel the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Johnson may not know Sheets personally, but they have deep ties to a network of religious leaders who have advocated to end or weaken the separation of church and state, and for Christianity to play a more dominant role governing society. Taken to its extreme — as it was by some adherents on Jan. 6 — it embraces anti-democratic means to achieve their end. Johnson's rapid elevation to the height of power in Washington gives allies of this movement — who also boast close ties with presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump — direct lines to leaders of the Republican Party.

The speaker's office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Sheets is a leading figure among a faction of once-fringe Christian evangelical and Pentecostal leaders affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR, an ideology that has existed for decades on the fringes of the religious right. Adherents of this ideology have risen in prominence and power since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, in which he became an unlikely hero of the Christian right and cultivated relationships with leaders in the NAR movement.

NAR apostles and prophets, as NAR leaders often refer to themselves, ultimately want to end or weaken the separation of church and state. Many embrace a concept known as "the Seven Mountains mandate" which says Christians have a duty to God to take control of the seven pillars of society: business, education, entertainment, family, government, media and religion.

The speaker has affiliated himself with some of Sheets' ideological allies in the NAR movement, including Pastor Jim Garlow. He hosts regular World Prayer Network livestreams in which Johnson has been a frequent guest. In an Aug. 9 broadcast, Garlow said Johnson "ranks up there in the top 1 percentile" in Congress and has "worked with us very closely."

Johnson, in turn, praised Garlow. "I'm so grateful for the ministry and your faithfulness. It's a great encouragement to me and others who are serving in these sometimes rocky corners of the Lord's vineyard."

Garlow was part of a group of religious leaders who hosted dozens of online global prayer sessions for "U.S. election integrity" which promoted false claims of election fraud and hosted prominent figures in the effort to overturn the election including Trump's former lawyer Sidney Powell, who pleaded guilty last month in a Georgia court to six counts of conspiracy to commit election interference.

For his part, Johnson's effort to help overturn the election is well documented. A constitutional lawyer by trade, Johnson wrote the supporting brief on behalf of House Republicans asking the Supreme Court to block the Electoral College certification in certain key states Joe Biden won. The court rejected the case. Johnson also voted against certifying the 2020 election in the House.

Johnson's faith could help him govern in today's GOP

The Christian Right has not had as close an ally and evangelist in House leadership since former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a controversial and pugilistic figure who campaigned against a "war on Christianity" and embraced religious activists throughout his political tenure that ended in 2006.

Johnson brings a wholly different persona to the leadership table. "He's a hard person to dislike. I mean, if you don't like Speaker Johnson, you don't like puppy dogs. He's just a charming, affable and kind person. And that's that's a hard target in politics," said Mike Franc, a veteran conservative GOP operative and former House Republican leadership aide.

While Johnson's religious ties will likely bring scrutiny from political opponents and the broader public, it can also be an asset in leadership where many rank-and-file Republicans share Johnson's faith and worldview.

"When there's a strong bond based on religiosity, it creates a level of trust and a kind of trust that extends way beyond issues that fall within, say, the social conservative silo," Franc said. "If his colleagues actually trust his judgment because they share bonds that might be based on religiosity, so much the better for him in his ability to lead and to be able to, more importantly, maybe even ask his colleagues in the Republican conference to take a tough vote here and there."

Timothy Head is the executive director for Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, a long-established Christian outfit that works to organize and motivate evangelical and faith-based conservative voters. Head told NPR that while Johnson was not a household name, his elevation to speaker would likely soon make him one — particularly in evangelical circles.

"I think that he will excite evangelical voters. Once people learn his full biography and frankly, his personal story," said Head.

Johnson's faith dictates his political views — with limits

Johnson's Southern Baptist faith and activism are central to his political life and rise. Prior to his 2016 election to Congress, Johnson spent much of his earlier professional life as a constitutional lawyer who worked for conservative Christian causes, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes gay rights.

Johnson speaks openly and comfortably about his faith. "I am a Bible-believing Christian," he told Sean Hannity in his first interview as speaker. "Someone asked me today in the media, they said, 'It's curious. People are curious. What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?' I said, 'Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.' That's my worldview. That's what I'm believe."

In the same interview, Johnson tamped down speculation that he would use the speakership to advance socially conservative causes he's worked for in the past. He said he sees the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage as settled law. "I respect that, and we move forward," he said. He also suggested abortion legislation, such as a national 15-week ban, would not be a priority in this Congress, where "the frontline matters" involve the economy, foreign policy and border security. "The rest of these things, they're just using for political attacks," he said.

Where Johnson has been less clear is in his willingness to talk about his role in helping Trump overturn the 2020 election, or clarifying if he views Biden as the legitimately elected president of the United States. A reporter who tried to ask him a question about it the night he secured the speaker's nomination was booed down by Republican lawmakers.

Johnson did give an extended interview on the topic in December 2020 to The New Yorker. "I don't see a grand conspiracy," he said then. "Whether it was stolen or not, the fact that such a huge swath of the country believes that it was is something that should keep all of us up at night."

Johnson's role in the 2020 election fight was not an issue for Republicans who opposed efforts to overturn the election. "I think it's a mistake, but I think people make mistakes and can still be really good speakers," Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., told CNN.

The Religious Right and the future of the GOP

There's no way to understand the Republican Party and the forces involved in the 2024 election without understanding the fracturing within the evangelical movement that is unfolding in real time, says Marvin Olasky.

He would know. A leading evangelical thinker, writer and journalist, Olasky was a longtime editor of the Christian news publication World. He's been called the godfather of "compassionate conservatism," the ethos for social programs and governance that defined the George W. Bush-era GOP politics.

Olasky described it to NPR this way: Within the evangelical faith right now there is a wing that wants to live in a "Holy Land theme park" which is governed by strict biblical law, and those who want to live in a "Liberty theme park" which embraces pluralism, other faiths and the tenets of democracy.

"I like this country and I like the democratic process. And then there are other folks. And again, this is a civil war almost within Christianity who say, no, we want to achieve these ends and we'll do it by any means necessary," he said. "I have to say that compassionate conservatism is out of business these days, and in a sense, cruel conservatism is ascendant."

Johnson's elevation means the "any means necessary" wing now has a direct line to the speaker and — as Pastor Garlow noted in a recent Facebook post — "and is 2nd in line for the Presidency. Praise God!!!!"

There's plenty of room in democracy and in pluralism for people with extreme views, as long as they're willing to play by the rules, as long as they're willing to say: you win some and you lose some in elections, but the rules are what they are.

This point is key for Taylor.

"There's plenty of room in democracy and in pluralism for people with extreme views, as long as they're willing to play by the rules, as long as they're willing to say: You win some and you lose some in elections, but the rules are what they are," he said, noting that this view is not shared with NAR adherents, and those that played a role in trying to undermine the 2020 election. "What fueled January 6th was a willingness to throw out the rules, a willingness to get rid of the rules of pluralistic democracy, to overturn an election that every court that looked at it said was perfectly valid."

Johnson to play a leading role in the 2024 election

Should he make it that long as speaker, Johnson now has a powerful bully pulpit for the 2024 election in which Trump is likely to be the nominee. Trump still rejects the outcome of the 2020 election and is under federal and state criminal indictments for his efforts to overturn it.

While Johnson's close ties to leaders in the NAR movement are easily documented (as Taylor does in this recent column for The Bulwark), he does not share their rhetoric. "I have no agenda other than what's best for the American people and to defend the rule of law, and that's what we're doing," he told Hannity.

Taylor says that a critical point is that this fringe evangelical wing has become so influential, it can't be ignored. "I don't see Mike Johnson as some sort of like, 'oh, man, he is really a crazy person from the margins and an outlier in this world,' " Taylor said. "I think he's just a signal of what it looks like to be a right-wing Christian politician these days is these are the people that you hang out with. These are the people that support you."

Taylor noted that Johnson has also embraced certain symbolism of the far-right movement that has been popularized by pastors like Sheets. One of those is the "An Appeal to Heaven" flag, which is a white flag with a green pine tree in the center that dates back to the Revolutionary War. It has become a symbol for Christian Nationalists and was carried by people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"I don't know how much Mike Johnson buys into any of that, but he's definitely sending overt signals to these extremist networks of Christians that he is in solidarity with them," he said.

The flag still hangs outside of his congressional office in the Cannon building.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.

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