November 10, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Does Speaker Johnson really believe there’s no separation between church and state?
A better question: What will “dominionists” like him do with power?
There’s been a lot of discussion lately of the conservative religious beliefs of the new House speaker, Mike Johnson. And that’s because the new speaker hasn’t been coy about saying what other Republicans, for instance, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, are usually coy about saying. In the past, though less in the present, Johnson has been explicit about his belief that there’s no separation between church and state in the Constitution and that the nation’s founders held a “biblical view of government.”
“The extent to which they believe it themselves doesn’t matter that much – these are folks who practice a post-truth politics, who are willing to let the ends justify the means and to establish the ‘truth’ through power. As I like to say, evangelicals have been doing ‘alternative facts’ since before it was cool, so this is nothing new to Johnson and his ilk.”
Typical of these discussions, however, is that they usually produce more heat than light. So I got in touch with Chrissy Stroop. She’s a columnist for openDemocracy, a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and co-editor of Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, an anthology. She explained why, in conservative evangelical circles, abortion is never about abortion. It’s about social control. And she explained that a “biblical view” in rooted in a vision of civil society that makes no room for people who are already on the margins of it.
JS: As an expert on the history of conservative religious politics, what do we need to know about the new House speaker, Mike Johnson.
CS: After years of Mike Pence, who unfortunately once governed my home state of Indiana, it should be obvious that “soft-spoken” conservative Christian politicians are not less of a threat to democracy and human rights just because they exhibit an “aw, shucks” demeanor. This being America, sadly that fact is not obvious to a lot of people.
I didn’t know Johnson’s name before the spotlight was put on him in the speaker election circus. He kept a low profile, but was very influential in dominionist circles and organizations behind the scenes, and so we can expect him to act accordingly as speaker. It’s recently come out that he’s closely connected with leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation movement, a rabidly theocratic charismatic Christian bunch whose fingerprints are all over the Trump years and the J6 insurrection, in which Johnson is also heavily implicated.
Here’s a probably unpopular opinion. I’m not sure that we’re that much worse off with Mike Johnson as House speaker as opposed to Kevin McCarthy. At present, there are no good Republicans. Do we really think that McCarthy wouldn’t have brought a draconian abortion ban to a floor vote? To be clear, I do think Johnson in this position is potentially a little more dangerous than McCarthy, but not by much.
JS: To what extent do Johnson and others mean it when they say that there’s no separation of church and state in the Constitution?
CS: This is a good question. I think perhaps they convince themselves that their take on the establishment clause is valid, but clearly they’re aware that the founding fathers were on the whole far from fond of what was referred to as “enthusiasm” in the eighteenth century – what we now call religious fundamentalism or extremism. In any case, the extent to which they believe it themselves doesn’t matter that much – these are folks who practice a post-truth politics, who are willing to let the ends justify the means and to establish the “truth” through power. As I like to say, evangelicals have been doing “alternative facts” since before it was cool, so this is nothing new to Johnson and his ilk.
JS: They have a knack for taking social problems and blaming them on efforts to make society a more equitable, just and peaceful place to be, don’t they? Johnson blamed the Maine massacre on liberal politics.
CS: Yep. This, too, is an old trope in evangelical circles. An outfit called Liberty Gospel Tracts, for example, sells a little pamphlet called “Killer Kids” that was left on my car windshield some years back while I was waiting in line at an ice cream stand in Tampa, Florida. The tract tells us that school shootings are the result of “taking God out of schools” and teaching kids, through evolution, that they are basically animals.
This is the kind of pernicious nonsense that evangelicals have come up with to justify their attempt to overturn all the progress America made in the 1960s. Bradley Onishi is someone whose work I recommend on that particular topic, this hatred of “the 1960s” that drives the kind of rightwing Christians who were the backbone of the J6 insurrection.
Mike Johnson’s rhetoric in this regard can also be traced back further. For example, Billy Graham, in the height of his Cold War fervor, used to preach that social problems are a result of sin and must have a spiritual, rather than political, solution. He even railed against the UN for not opening their meetings with prayer. The school prayer and school Bible reading Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s were always targets of evangelical ire in the milieu I grew up in, even though overturning Roe was the “holy grail” of political aims.
JS: Why does antiabortion politics include more than abortion? Is it even about abortion? There seems to be a short step from banning abortion to banning contraception to banning sexual and gender identities.
CS: You’re right on the money. It was never only about abortion; it was always about social control over women’s and queer people’s bodies. “Unborn babies” make the perfect victims to “rescue” to make yourself feel morally righteous. After all, they can’t speak for themselves.
It is also very salient that the Christian right rallied to the anti-choice cause only after a deliberate effort was made to unite them around it by influential figures including Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, Sr., both of whom were looking for “respectable” ways to continue pushing white supremacy without having to say that’s what they were doing. Get people angry about abortion, and they’ll also vote for the whole classic American white supremacist patriarchal package.
JS: For us dummies, what does a “biblical view of government” mean?
CS: A “biblical view” of government is definitely dominionist rhetoric. Those who want to see a “biblical worldview” or “Christian worldview” as a template for politics are rightwing extremists influenced by Christian Reconstructionism as developed by R.J. Rushdoony and Gary North, even though most won’t identify specifically with that term.
As Julie Ingersoll masterfully shows in her book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, major Reconstructionist concepts and political values entered the evangelical mainstream via homeschooling and Christian school curricula.
The long and the short of it is that a government operating on “biblical principles” would have extremely low taxes (if any federal taxes at all) and wouldn’t regulate businesses, it would spend its budget essentially only on the military, and so in that sense be “small” – but at the same time it would be one in which “sodomy” and abortion are criminal acts for which draconian punishments including the death penalty would be prescribed. Even if some who use the “biblical worldview” rhetoric wouldn’t push things that far, they would absolutely seek to criminalize abortion, homosexuality and being transgender.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.