(RNS) — This past week the torch of evangelical political leadership passed from Pence to Johnson — from the Mike who was once first in line to the presidency to the Mike who is now second.
The former vice president, 64, abandoned his feeble run for the Republican presidential nomination after failing to enlist any appreciable support from the evangelical base that he secured for Donald Trump in 2016. His unpardonable sin was that he refused to accede to Trump’s demand that he decline to certify the electoral result on Jan. 6, 2021.
Otherwise, Pence had a pretty good record of acceding. As Mitt Romney told biographer McKay Coppins, “No one had been more loyal, more willing to smile when he saw absurdities, more willing to ascribe God’s will to things that were ungodly, than Mike Pence.”
For his part, Johnson, 51, ascended to the speakership from the far reaches of House leadership as one of Congress’ leading religious conservatives. A Southern Baptist, he went to work as a young attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund (now Alliance Defending Freedom), fighting that legal outfit’s rear-guard action against gay rights and same-sex marriage through the 2000s.
Elected to Congress in 2016, Johnson also teaches classes at Liberty University and (until last year) was co-host of Washington Watch, the radio talk show of Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. He is, in a word, an avatar of the evangelical political movement that got underway in the mid-1970s.
Since that movement hitched its wagon to Trump, Johnson has more than gone along for the ride. Not only did the congressman voice his support for Trump’s various crackpot conspiracy theories of a stolen election, he wrote the brief challenging the results that was signed by many of his congressional colleagues.
The closest discernible public criticism of Trump from Johnson came in December 2020, when he was asked by Robert Doar, president of the American Enterprise Institute, whether the president should concede that he lost the election so voters could have faith in the constitutional process.
“He has to do that, there’s no question about that,” Johnson replied. “But the only question is, what is the appropriate time? Is it right now? Or do you wait until the final case is resolved?”
In the two-and-a-half years since the Supreme Court dismissed the final cases, Johnson does not appear to have called on Trump to concede.
Mild-mannered, with nary a hair out of place, Johnson presents himself as a reasonable guy who understands that politics is the art of compromise — and indeed, there’s some evidence that he is not exactly the Christian nationalist culture warrior that some on the left have made him out to be.
Having raised a Black child as his son, he has drawn criticism from the right-wing fringe for acknowledging that racism exists in American society. While his support for funding Ukraine is wobbly, he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity (in his first TV interview after becoming speaker), “We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail.”
Insisting to Hannity that he’s a “rule of law guy,” he declared the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, which cleared the way for marriage for same-sex couples, to be settled law. Likewise, he ruffled pro-life dovecotes by foreswearing a national abortion ban on the grounds that the country is too divided on the issue.
“I am a Bible-believing Christian,” Johnson told Hannity. “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.”
The interview began with Johnson expressing concern about the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine — thereby provoking Hannity to give him an opening to talk about Democrats’ calls for gun laws.
“At the end of the day, the problem is the human heart, not guns, not the weapons,” Johnson replied. “At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves. And that’s the Second Amendment.” So much for turning the other cheek.
When it comes to immigration, Johnson has criticized “the left” for misreading the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger. What the Bible teaches, he said, is a practice of “personal charity” that is “never directed to the government.” Welcoming the stranger is an exhortation to “individual believers,” while the government’s duty is to enforce laws preventing the influx of migrants.
What Johnson would find if he picked a Bible off his shelf and turned to the 19th chapter of Leviticus is: “But the stranger who dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And, a few chapters later: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.”
These are among the injunctions that led the ancient Jewish writer Josephus to invent the word “theocracy” — rule by God — to describe the Israelite system of government. Whatever one thinks of the injunctions themselves, the claim that they are no more than exhortations to personal charity by individual believers is sheer nonsense.
A Bible-believing Christian ought to know better.