Mike Johnson isn’t Just Your Average Christian Right Avatar — He’s Influenced by Fringe Movements Unfamiliar to Most Political Analysts

Republican Mike Johnson speaks in Las Vegas on November 1, 2023. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Who is Mike Johnson, the man with horn-rimmed glasses who managed to become Speaker of the House—something Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan and Tom Emmer all failed to do? And what does he have that the other three didn’t? Johnson comes off as polite, speaking into microphones rather than shouting into them, and he’s considered affable and friendly. He was also widely unknown even in Washington political circles until recently (when asked about Johnson, Republican Senator Susan Collins said she didn’t know who he was and would have to Google him first). There are however a small handful of political commentators who don’t have to Google Johnson to know who he is and what he stands for: Those who’ve been writing about White Christian nationalism in the U.S. for years. 

As many commentators have noted since his election as speaker, Mike Johnson has been an integral part of a movement that’s been sawing away at the democratic foundations of the country for decades: The Christian Right. But Johnson, like much of the Christian Right itself, is also profoundly influenced by fringe Christian thinkers and movements that few reporters and analysts of U.S. politics are familiar with. 

Since the Speaker’s office became a possibility, Johnson has kept mum about the most controversial issues. Fortunately, he’s left a decades-long trail that leaves no doubt as to who the third most powerful man in the U.S. is. 

In his inaugural speech as Speaker, Johnson was crystal clear about what drives him, claiming that only divine providence could have enabled him to assume the second place in line to the presidency: 

“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.”

Johnson is a White Christian nationalist (and a true believer at that), part of a growing number who see right-wing reactionary Christianity, White supremacy, and authoritarian politics as an integral part of “real” American identity. Those who do not fall under it must submit, or be forced, if need be, through violence

Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 2016, after serving two years in the Louisiana state legislature. Before his time in Congress Johnson worked for 10 years as a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Right powerhouse and SPLC-designated “hate group.” The ADF advocates for the disenfranchisement of and discrimination against LGBTQ people and seeks to criminalize abortion—it was the driving force behind the fall of Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to abortion, last summer. 

Constitutional attorney (and fellow RD correspondent) Andrew Seidel warns that Johnson and his allies in the Christian Right, specifically the ADF, seek to rewrite American law: 

“The goal is to move away from the words carved into the Supreme Court building, ‘equal justice under law’ and towards legal supremacy for the ‘right’ kind of conservative Christian. The goal of Johnson’s Christian Nationalism is to rewrite or redefine the Constitution so that it creates two classes of people: the right kind of conservative Christian, and everyone else. Conservative, White, heteronormative, Christian men will become the favored in-group that the law protects, but does not bind. Everyone else will be the disfavored out-group, the others, which the law binds, but does not protect.”

In Seidel’s view, Johnson’s election as House speaker: 

“sends an alarming signal to the country. Amy Coney Barrett taught ADF fellowships and was promoted to the Supreme Court. Josh Hawley did the same and is now a US Senator. Now Mike Johnson, who worked for this same group, is in the presidential line of succession. It’s terrifying.”

Indeed, Johnson has a long, well-documented history of bigoted views toward LGBTQ people. In 2005, he claimed that same-sex domestic partnership ordinances were fraudulent—that they weren’t couples, but “same-sex, live-in lovers” and framed it as an attempt to impose homosexuality on Christians. Two years earlier, Johnson wrote an editorial calling for the criminalization of gay sex. Accordingly, he called the Supreme Court’s landmark 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which declared the criminalization of gay sex unconstitutional, “a devastating blow to fundamental American values and millenia of moral teaching.” In another article, he asserted that “same-sex deviate sexual intercourse” was “dangerous” to society as a whole and that “homosexual marriage is the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.

In another 2004 commentary Johnson offered the “slippery slope” argument so common at the time: 

If we change marriage for this tiny, modern minority, we will have to do it for every deviant group. Polygamists, polyamorists, pedophiles, and others will be next in line to claim equal protection. They already are. There will be no legal basis to deny a bisexual the right to marry a partner of each sex, or a person to marry his pet.” 

Marriage equality, Johnson claimed in yet another op-ed, would “place our entire democratic system in jeopardy by eroding [the] foundation [of heterosexual marriage].”

Johnson’s resume, which he’s tried to scrub in recent days in light of increased media scrutiny, includes two years as the Dean of a “small Baptist law school that didn’t exist,” according to the Associated Press. The Judge Paul Pressler School was intended to, like Johnson, embrace a “biblical worldview.” Its namesake, Paul Pressler, has been accused by multiple men of sexual assault, including rape. A former Texas Court of Appeals Judge, Pressler also helped spearhead the right-wing takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s and 1980s. The School never opened its doors. 

Creating special rights for anti-LGBTQ Christians

One of the experts who did not have to Google Johnson was journalist and former RD staff writer Sarah Posner, who first interviewed Johnson in 2007 about his work with the ADF. Posner told RD: 

“I interviewed [Johnson] about [the ADF’s] ambitions to reverse decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence upholding the separation of church and state. I was amazed at the time at how single-mindedly they pursued this goal, and how confident he was that it would eventually be achieved.” 

Journalist Irin Carmon interviewed Johnson in August 2015 about the role of faith in his life and work. As an attorney for the ADF Johnson had defended restrictions on abortion clinics in Louisiana (aimed at forcing their closure). Of her encounter with Johnson, Carmon writes

“I remember his voice was soft and pleasant when he said, ‘When you break up the nuclear family, when you tell a generation of people that life has no value, no meaning, that it’s expendable, then you do wind up with school shooters.” 

Yes, Johnson called for abortion bans as a measure against school shootings. (Other things he’s blamed for school shootings over the years include the theory of evolution and, most recently, “the human heart.”)

Carmon writes that Johnson also harbored the common belief in in Christian Right circles that abortion opponents would simply out-breed those fighting for reproductive rights, telling her: 

“We’re going to win this in the public-opinion arena by sheer attrition, because those who believe in abortion abort their babies and those who believe in life have theirs. And those become voters.”

In 2012, he sued the Obama administration on behalf of the ADF because religious employers were required to cover the cost of contraceptives for their employees as part of their health insurance. Johnson proclaimed: “The Obama administration has intentionally turned a non-existent problem—access to contraceptives—into a constitutional crisis.” Eight years later in 2020 Johnson and his allies on the Christian Right finally succeeded due to the right-wing reactionary Supreme Court majority—a majority that wasn’t merely supported by the Christian Right, but one that had been directly recruited from it. That majority ruled that religious employers had a constitutional right to refuse to cover safe, legal, physician-approved health care (i.e. contraceptives) as part of their health insurance policy. 

A rabid opponent of abortion, Johnson referred to abortion as a “holocaust” in a 2005 article for the Shreveport Times

“The prevailing legal philosophy is no different than Hitler’s. Because the life of an unborn child […] may be difficult or inconvenient or even costly to society now means it can be terminated. […] During business hours today, 4,500 innocent American children will be killed. It is a holocaust that has been repeated every day for 32 years, since 1973’s Roe v. Wade.” 

More recent statements during a House Judiciary Committee meeting suggest that Johnson still views women and pregnant people, not only as incubators in God’s name, but as producers of future revenue sources: 

Roe v. Wade gave constitutional cover to the elective killing of unborn children in America. […] We’re all struggling here to cover the bases of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and all the rest. If we had all those able-bodied workers in the economy, we wouldn’t be going upside down and toppling over like this.”

Johnson currently supports a nationwide abortion ban, opposes gender affirming health care for children and has tried to pass a statewide “Don’t Say Gay” law modeled after Ron DeSantis’ draconian example in Florida. 

In 2015, now a Louisiana congressman, Johnson once again showed up on the radar of Sarah Posner, who told RD: 

“He was there pressing for the same things he had pressed for at ADF—creating special rights for anti-LGBTQ Christians over LGBTQ people. He was so extreme that even the Louisiana legislature did not pass his proposed bill.” 

He showed up again in 2016 as Johnson, seeking a spot on the national stage, ran unopposed for the U.S. House of Representatives. His resume, Posner says, is typical of representatives of the Christian Right: 

“They may start out in the practice of law or work for an organization like ADF or maybe an anti-abortion organization. After proving their commitment to implementing the ‘Christian worldview,’ they become involved in government and then rise even higher. Johnson is an example of this kind of career, a person who is ‘one of us’ for the Christian Right, which controls the GOP, and then supports the person, even if he is very inexperienced.”

Back in 2018, Posner had already identified Johnson as a “rising star” on the Right in an investigation into the ADF, the driving force behind “Masterpiece Cake Shop.” 

Johnson has made no secret of his motivation as a crusader in the name of God throughout his political career. When he ran for Congress in 2016, he told a local 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’ defending religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and biblical values, including the defense of traditional marriage, and other ideals like these when they’ve been under assault.”

Men were created to have dominion over the earth

Like so many on the Christian Right, Mike Johnson believes that the U.S. is not a democracy. He puts it bluntly

“We don’t live in a democracy, because democracy means that two wolves and a lamb decide what’s for dinner. It’s not just majority rule, it’s a constitutional republic. And the Founders set it up that way because they followed biblical admonition on what a civil society should look like.” 

“Not a democracy, but a republic,” is an old refrain of the political Right going back to the 1960s, when the John Birch Society made it popular. When asked about his driving ideology, Johnson cites a biblical worldview which, according to religion scholar Christian Right expert Julie Ingersoll, is a revealing answer: 

“This term by itself can mean a number of things. For example most Christians would say they look to the wisdom of the Bible to understand their identity and purpose in relationship to God. But combined with Johnson’s statement that if anyone wants to know what he thinks about any issue they should look at the Bible suggests to me he means that in a much more literal sense. I see him as one who believes that the Bible speaks to every area of life and culture who embraces a way of reading the Old and New Testaments together to derive positions on the entire range of issues a modern government confronts. This is called theonomy.”

To Posner, whose assessment is similar, it’s vital that political commentators decode the ambiguous rhetoric that Johnson’s fringe views are usually hidden behind: 

“There are labels to describe this, such as Christian nationalism or dominionism, the idea that Christians have a God-ordained mandate to take dominion over the earth and earthly institutions like government, media, entertainment—also known as Seven Mountains theology. But typically when they talk about their own belief system, they use the phrase ‘biblical worldview’ or ‘Christian worldview.’ And it’s important to remember that when they say that, it’s not just that they think the government should be run from a ‘Christian’ perspective. They also believe that that ‘worldview’ is in a kind of cosmic conflict with the other worldviews, that God intended America to be Christian, and they must carry out God’s will.”

Which, of course means that all other views are seen not just as competitors, but as enemies. The question of the theological tradition Johnson belongs to, is clear, agrees Ingersoll:

“He embraces dominion theology, that is the theological view drawn from the book of Genesis, that teaches that men (some include women but others see women as merely helpers to men in their exercise of dominion) were created to have dominion over the earth. In this tradition that purpose was thwarted by the Fall but restored with Jesus’ Resurrection; Christians today are to exercise dominion over all the earth and bring every part of life and culture “under the Lordship of Christ.”

Johnson has previously described prominent dominionist David Barton as a key influence on his world view. As Matthew D. Taylor reported for “The Bulwark,” he also maintains close ties to other leaders in the scene with ties to the New Apostolic Reformation, like Jim Garlow and Mario Bramnick, who repeatedly met with Trump while he was president. On one of Barlow’s prayer calls in 2022, Johnson echoed a view held by followers of the NAR, claiming: 

“This transcends politics . . . this is a spiritual battle that we’re in now for the survival of our country.

Johnson also has close ties to the “Christian Center Shreveport,” a New Apostolic Reformation church in his district, which is led by apostle Timothy Carscadden—himself a disciple of apostle William “Dutch” Sheets, a highly influential figure in NAR circles and beyond who has since welcomed Johnson’s election as Speaker. 

On the question of whether or not Johnson is a Christian Reconstructionist—R. J. Rushdoony’s theology, according to which “biblical law” should be implemented in society—she differentiates:

“I tend to avoid the question of whether someone is a Christian Reconstructionist. It’s not like there is a club you can join. I think the more productive question is where can we see the influence of Christian Reconstructionism? Johnson’s approach to issues, and the language he uses, as well as the form of Christianity from which he comes, are all steeped in the influence of this movement.”

Posner also stresses the importance of the influence of dominionism and Christian Reconstructionism, over the question whether or not someone identifies with these labels: 

The other important thing to remember is that Christian Reconstruction and dominionism (and remember Christian Reconstructionism teaches dominionism) are so ingrained in the Christian Right—in the books they read, the sermons they hear, the lessons they receive at school or in homeschooling, and in the language of their politicians—that few of them actually think about where it came from. It just is what they believe, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who says they are a Reconstructionist (in part because it has such a bad rap) or a dominionist (ditto) but many of these basic beliefs emerge from the teachings of Rushdoony and others, adapted and incorporated by countless others since.”

One of the examples, according to Ingersoll, that illustrates how starkly Johnson has been influenced by Christian Reconstructionism, are his views on the specific type of heterosexual marriage he thinks should be championed. 

Johnson, a Southern Baptist, is a proponent of so-called “covenant” marriage—a form of marriage allowed in only a few states that makes divorce extremely difficult to obtain. Louisiana—the state he now represents in Congress—was the first state to pass a “covenant marriage” law in 1997. Since then, only two other states, Arizona and Arkansas, have passed it.

Johnson himself has entered into such a “covenant” marriage—and wants others to do the same. He believes, in short, that it’s too easy to get divorced. Twenty years ago, he said, “In my generation, we’ve only ever known the no-fault system, and any deviation from it seems like a radical step.” By “system,” he means “no-fault divorce,” the ability of one spouse to end the marriage without having to prove domestic violence or adultery, for example—a milestone in the women’s rights movement from the 1960s and 1970s. This type of marriage, says Ingersoll, illustrates the influence of Christian Reconstructionist theology on Johnson’s world view: 

“This is an example of the language he uses that I referred to above, that points to a particular thread of Christianity from which he comes. The Reformed tradition and its offspring the Christian Reconstructionist Movement sees Covenantalism as central to God’s relationship to His people and social ordering among people. For a couple of decades now, churches in these circles have added their own sorts of requirements to the legal requirements for marriage and called these Covenant Marriages. The most important components are that the covenant puts the marriage under the authority of church leaders and makes divorce much more difficult. 

So, in many examples of covenant marriage only church courts can grant divorces. In most states in the U.S. this is a practice that exists only within church congregations and apart from the state. But in a few U.S. states where the power of this kind of Christian[ity] has been enough to enact such laws (Johnson’s state of Louisiana being one) a similar process has been written into secular law. Thus far this happens in only a few states and is optional but it’s the kind of thing I’d expect to see expand as these groups gain more power in more states.”

Biblical law over democracy

Mike Johnson, now third in line to the presidency, is not committed to democracy, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez warns in Politico

“He’s not advocating for majority rule; he seems to be saying he’ll advocate for minority rule if that’s what it takes to make sure we stay on the Christian foundation that [he believes] the Founders established.” 

For Johnson, she explains, human dignity does not extend to gay or transgender people: 

“His understanding of human dignity is rooted in his understanding of biblical law.[…] So all the core principles—liberty, limited government, human dignity—are interpreted through a conservative Christian lens and his understanding of what the Bible says should happen and how people should behave.”

Further evidence that Johnson is deeply anti-democratic is his effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Johnson, according to the New York Times, “played a leading role in recruiting House Republicans to sign a brief in support of a lawsuit aimed at overturning the election results” in four contested swing states won by Biden—a swing that would have given the presidency to Trump. He and his co-conspirators managed to convince 60 percent of the Republicans in the House. And while the Supreme Court rejected the outrageous claim, this didn’t stop Johnson from continuing to spread lies about the election being stolen. 

When pressed about his pivotal role in the attempts to overturn a democratic election, Republicans were not pleased. “You helped lead the effort to overturn the election results,” ABC reporter Rachel Scott said at a press conference, directed at Johnson. Elected Republican representatives gathered behind him began jeering, with North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx shouting “Shut up!” Johnson smiled in response, serenely shaking his head, and called for the next question. 

The case of Mike Johnson shows that a theocratic worldview isn’t merely the province of the strident evangelist—it can just as easily hide behind a smile and a polite demeanor. Apparently, even the most spirited Googling hasn’t clued some media into the revolutionary movements that influenced the man who stands second in line to the presidency. And this routine continues to work for Johnson—with the Washington Post recently publishing—to put it diplomatically, a puff piece; or, more frankly, a free campaign ad—claiming that “faith and family” lead the way for him. No further mention of the fact that his faith makes him strive for the implementation of theocracy. That a fringe figure like Johnson is the “compromise candidate” behind whom House Republicans have unanimously rallied bodes ill—for marginalized people in the US, and for American democracy as a whole.