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For the record:
3:22 p.m. Dec. 5, 2023: An earlier version of this article said Robert P. Jones is the president and chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute. He is the founder, president and former chief executive of the institute.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, as Rep. Kevin McCarthy prepared to try for the 12th time to win enough votes to become speaker of the House, a little-known Louisiana congressman named Mike Johnson joined a small group of his Republican colleagues in the empty legislative chamber to kneel in prayer.
The lawmakers repented to God for their “individual transgressions, and those collectively as a legislative body, and as a people, as a nation. And we asked for his divine guidance,” Johnson recalled later. “Lord, the House is divided,” he prayed. “We ask you to unite this House.’”
Before dawn the next day, McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican, had been elected speaker.
But the unity Johnson’s group had prayed for did not last. By October, rebel Republicans had ousted McCarthy from GOP leadership and the House had selected a new leader: Johnson.
“I don't believe there are any coincidences in a matter like this,” Johnson said to his colleagues minutes after being elected. “The Bible is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority.”
To those unfamiliar with the varied expressions of American religiosity, the differences between how faith influences McCarthy and Johnson — two Southern Baptists — may be hard to parse.
The transition of the House speakership from McCarthy, a proud but subdued Christian, to Johnson, a fervently devout evangelical, nonetheless marks a significant shift. Though the Republican Party has long relied on the support of white evangelicals, Johnson’s sudden ascension from junior Louisiana representative to speaker of the House highlights religious conservatives’ dominance of the GOP coalition.
McCarthy and Johnson have each spoken publicly about becoming born-again Christians, and the role that Jesus plays in their lives. They’ve backed bills that would advance Christian conservatives’ policy preferences, including restricting abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Neither of their offices responded to interview requests for this article.
But while McCarthy is more of a political animal than a crusader for social conservatism, Johnson’s social conservatism has always been central to his career.
McCarthy sold sandwiches out of his uncle’s yogurt shop, worked as a seasonal firefighter in college and started a job as a congressional staffer the year he turned 22. His first boss on Capitol Hill, former Bakersfield Rep. Bill Thomas, was one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress, known more for his work on tax cuts and trade policy than social policy.
Johnson, by contrast, has been working to advance religious-right causes since he graduated from college. As a law school student at Louisiana State University, he became president of the Christian Legal Society and volunteered for the Louisiana Family Forum, which is part of the Family Research Council, a leading nationwide “pro-marriage and pro-life” group. As a lawyer in Louisiana, Johnson represented a group called Freedom Guard, which he described as “dedicated to the defense of religious liberty in America.” He wrote op-eds railing against same-sex marriage and defending laws that criminalized what he characterized as “same-sex deviate sexual intercourse.” For years, he worked at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization that has been at the forefront of fighting for restrictions on LGBTQ+ Americans.
“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,” Johnson told a Baptist news outlet in Louisiana in 2016.
In his maiden speech as speaker, Johnson said the word God seven times. McCarthy, when he secured the gavel in January, had mentioned God only twice: “God bless everybody in this chamber, and God bless America.”
Johnson’s allies among Christian Republicans have made no secret of the fact that they see him as one of their own — and that they did not feel the same way about McCarthy.
“No question about it — his convictions as a deeply committed Christian I think are encouraging to the grassroots and to a lot of members of the House,” Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a longtime leader among religious conservatives, told The Times of Johnson. “You could debate whether or not this should be the case, but I think they’re going to be willing to extend more grace to someone they believe to be a co-religionist or an ideological brother.”
Getting the benefit of the doubt from his fellow Christian conservatives could ultimately help Johnson hold the Republican caucus together, Reed argued. But Johnson’s emphasis on social conservatism could alienate swing voters who found McCarthy’s less public expressions of faith less threatening.
Johnson’s rise to the speakership is also a boon for former President Trump, a nondenominational Christian. Trump drew criticism from some social conservatives for his past support of abortion rights, his multiple marriages and his on-tape brag that he grabs women by their genitals, but ultimately received overwhelming support from white evangelicals in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Johnson endorsed the former president on Nov. 14 and visited Trump at a recent fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, according to news reports.
McCarthy's and Johnson’s critics have noticed the differences between the two men’s relationship with the evangelical right too.
“For McCarthy, evangelicals are useful for his political aims,” said Robert P. Jones, founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research and polling organization. “And for Johnson, I think the Republicans are useful for his more Christian-right aims.”
Johnson comes from the world of Christian-right activism, “constantly arguing for the Christian foundations of the country, and there is no separation of church and state, and American laws ought to align with God’s laws,” said Jones, who has characterized the new speaker as a “Christian nationalist.”
That term is a media-manufactured “slur and smear against conservative people of faith,” Reed countered. “They’re just looking for ways to marginalize us, to stigmatize us, and Mike Johnson is the latest victim.”
Instead, Reed said, Americans should see Johnson as “a person of enormous integrity, conviction, faith and conservative credentials that are unquestioned.” Johnson won’t compromise on his morals, Reed said. But “he has a rare and remarkable ability to combine his firm convictions with a grace and a charity towards everyone, including those with whom he disagrees.”
Professed Christianity is the norm, not the exception, in American political life. The three speakers who preceded McCarthy — Nancy Pelosi of California, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and John A. Boehner of Ohio — were all professed Catholics. President Biden, another Catholic, is perhaps the most expressly religious president in recent history, regularly attending Mass in Washington and while traveling.
Congress is historically more religious than the American electorate it represents. Eighty-eight percent of voting members sworn in to Congress this year are Christian, compared with the 63% of American adults who identify as Christian, according to “Faith on the Hill,” a January study by the Pew Research Center.
Compared with McCarthy, though, Johnson is an outlier, even in a deeply religious, deeply Christian Congress, argues Bradley Onishi, a religion professor at the University of San Francisco and former evangelical who’s become a fierce critic of the movement.
“Kevin McCarthy to me is that guy who goes to church every Sunday. … He’s a loudmouth, pretty arrogant, he’s shaking hands. And he’s doing all of that because he knows he needs to be there. And yes, does he quote-unquote ‘believe it’? Yes, sure, yes, he does. But he’s the kind of guy that wakes up in the morning and is like, ‘What is Kevin McCarthy getting today?’” Onishi said in a recent episode of “Straight White American Jesus,” his religion and politics podcast.
“Mike Johnson is the guy that he’s quiet, he’s sitting in the front row. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s like, 'How do I colonize Earth for Jesus?'”
Johnson would probably disagree with that characterization. He told CNBC last month that his critics misunderstand “separation of church and state,” a term that dates to the founding fathers.
“They did not want the government to encroach upon the church. Not that they didn't want principles of faith to have influence on our public life. It was exactly the opposite,” Johnson said. “We need more of that — not an establishment of any national religion, but we need everybody's vibrant expression of faith, because it's such an important part of who we are as a nation.”
McCarthy has long been quietly expressing his faith as a member of Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, which, like Johnson’s home church, Cypress Baptist in Benton, La., belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and its millions of members have widely varying views. Like those of many denominations, its membership rolls have shrunk in recent years as it has grappled with the role of women, LGBTQ+ issues and its stance on diversity. The SBC ousted Saddleback Church in Costa Mesa, once the second-largest megachurch in the denomination, this year over its decision to ordain female pastors.
The former speaker raised his children in Valley Baptist, hosted members from his home congregation in the nation’s capital and, a decade ago, invited longtime senior pastor Roger Spradlin to give the opening prayer in Congress. McCarthy has also hosted Valley Baptist's pastor emeritus, Phil Neighbors, in Washington. Neighbors declined to comment on McCarthy, saying in an email, “My relationship with Kevin McCarthy is pastoral and confidential.”
A self-described “Southern Baptist at heart and in practice,” Johnson served for eight years on the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy wing of the denomination, which is charged with solidifying Christian support for Republican stances on LGBTQ+ rights and abortion.
But up until a year and a half ago, Johnson was a member of First Bossier in Bossier City, La., an ultraconservative church in his hometown and a founding congregation of the Conservative Baptist Network. The network, which now boasts more than 10,000 churches, formed because of concerns that the SBC was becoming, as it said, too liberal and “twisting what God’s Word is saying about things like human sexuality, biblical racial reconciliation and socialistic justice.”
Brad Jurkovich, the pastor at First Bossier and spokesman for the conservative Baptist group, has known Johnson since he became pastor in 2013, and said his former congregant's belief in the Bible and that “God is real and the creator of life” has remained unwavering in the decade since. Although Johnson wasn’t always a regular at Sunday services because of his political schedule, Jurkovich said he frequently spoke at events.
“People need to know he is who he is,” Jurkovich said of Johnson. “His life has been his faith, and you’re not going to get a lot of curveballs with that. That’s who he’s been.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.