Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) was elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in a party-line vote last month. But when he looks out from the Speaker’s chair, Johnson sees more than a divided legislative body – he sees a Republican Party laboring to restore the divine promise of our nation’s founding, and he sees Democrats driving the United States down a road to godless ruin.
We know this because Johnson and his wife, Kelly, a Christian counselor, have stated their case plainly in live seminars across many years. In these seminars, Mike Johnson portrays the Declaration of Independence and a small sampling of writings from the founding era in the same way that “originalists” portray the U.S. Constitution. In Johnson’s view, these documents are not culturally conditioned products of a specific time and place in human history. They are oracles containing timeless and immutable truths delivered by divine decree.
By taking Mike Johnson seriously – which is to say, by taking him at his own word – we can understand the distinctive, interpretive lens through which the new Speaker of the House views the world.
In March of 2022, Mike and Kelly Johnson shared the guts of their popular seminar in the inaugural episode of their podcast, “Truth Be Told.” The podcast is rooted in their conviction, as Mike explains it, that “the Word of God is of course the ultimate source of all truth.” This brand of fundamentalism is not as simple as “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Rather, Johnson and Christians like him believe the Bible, shaped by God, provides a coherent “worldview” affording the faithful special insight into “the times in which we live.”
In this light, Mike and Kelly Johnson see the current moment as one of grave peril and threat. After Mike declares “our nation is on the brink,” Kelly recites a litany of hardships – “the war in Ukraine, the skyrocketing prices of gas and groceries, rising crime rates, and the open border crisis, for goodness sake.” Kelly explains that in her counseling work she has never seen such high rates of anxiety and depression. Mike jumps on the train of thought and then sums things up: “...and the suicide rate, as well. It’s just tragic. These are tragic days.”
But if the Johnsons are beleaguered and embattled, they are not without hope. Mike explains:
“No matter the circumstances, our trust is always in the power and sovereignty of Almighty God. … And we want to be very clear: Mike and Kelly are bullish on America. We believe, as Ronald Reagan used to say, America is the last best hope of man on earth.”
The American exceptionalism championed by Ronald Reagan and Mike Johnson has deep roots and broad appeal. The Puritans who colonized New England beginning in the seventeenth century understood themselves to have been sent on an “errand” by God, not to establish a religious sect, but to build out a new program for society. This conviction has been passed down successfully across four centuries, but more recently has taken on a distinctively partisan hue. As of 2021, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), “Republicans (68%) are twice as likely as Democrats (33%) to agree that God has granted America a special role in human history.”
A related and distinctive brand of American nostalgia follows the same pattern – from deep roots to an expansive reach to a polarizing present. As the early colonial enterprise in New England encountered unforeseen challenges, successive generations of Puritan preachers began to drench sermonic “jeremiads” in longing for the restoration of what they deemed the golden age of their forebears. These Puritans had not yet embraced for themselves the identity of "Americans,” but if they had they would have said what was needed was to make America great again. Throughout our nation’s history, clever politicians have tapped this current in American culture, a powerful mix of backward-looking nostalgia, present-focused angst, and forward-looking aspiration. Donald Trump is merely the latest to sing this familiar tune.
Mike and Kelly Johnson encapsulate this tradition in the title of their podcast’s first episode, “Can America Be Saved?” Mike Johnson’s answer to this question is “yes,” he insists, but only if we recognize the real root of our problems: “we have forgotten who we are.”
As she does throughout the podcast, Kelly sets Mike up with shamelessly leading questions:
“What is America? And why have we been so extraordinary and so different? Why is America exceptional? Why are we the freest, most powerful, most successful, most benevolent nation in the history of the world, and why does every other nation on the planet look to us for leadership, and even expect it of us?”
Johnson’s rendering of the American story begins with his conviction that the Declaration of Independence contains an American “creed,” which functions “like a religious statement of faith.” The kernel of the creed, Johnson tells his listeners, is found in the famous first sentence of the Declaration’s second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Mike Johnson tells his podcast listeners that in his live seminars he explains this creed by writing three words on a white board – “God” at the top, “King'' in the middle, and “People'' at the bottom. Drawing arrows pointing from top to down, he elaborates:
"Prior to the American Revolution, … other nations in the world generally supported what they called the Divine Right of Kings. … It was based upon the premise that earthly kings derived their authority directly from God, and because of that the King was unaccountable to anybody on the earth … he was the one who gave the people their rights, their property, who basically controlled everything they did."
The United States was “founded on a very different idea,” Johnson continues, while erasing the word “King” from the middle of the whiteboard:
"Our founders erased the idea of an earthly King … they said that all men were created equal … So now the arrows go straight down from God to the people."
Tellingly, Johnson does not replace the word “King” on his whiteboard with any other source of authority. By their conspicuous absence, the American founders are treated as pure instruments of divine purpose. Not only are the human flaws and failings of individual founders omitted from the story. Also omitted are their collective practices of racialized violence like chattel slavery and the predatory occupation of native lands. That Mike Johnson tells the story of the American founding without referencing the dynamics of race and violence is a classic tell of “white Christian nationalism,” which Philip Gorski has described as “a deep story” asserting that “America has been entrusted with a sacred mission: to spread religion, freedom and civilization – by force, if necessary.”
Through this distorted historical lens, Mike Johnson diagnoses what ails America today, erasing the word “God” from the whiteboard:
"Increasingly today, man is no longer valued as an individual, an individual creation of God … instead, we are just a social animal. And so we just need to be developed and controlled on a social or societal level. And, Kelly, that is what socialism is. … It’s really just a necessary step to full communism, where the government owns and controls everything. It’s a dangerous and hopeless road. And I’m telling you right now that all patriots, all God-loving Americans, need to be fighting with everything we have to avoid that. This is an ungodly – it is actually an anti-God – philosophy … it begins with the idea that there is no God.”
Some might find it surprising that the end of the Cold War did not vanquish the fear of communism among conservative Americans like Mike Johnson. But this fear merely echoes a primal American conception of governmental authority and individual liberty as a zero-sum game. The more power the government has, the less liberty enjoyed by individuals – for adherents of this kind of conspiratorial thinking, it is as simple as that. As Bernard Bailyn observed in his landmark 1969 Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, "the fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world … lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement."
Quoting from the Declaration of Independence, Johnson sums up what’s wrong “in a nutshell.” We are “unwinding our own creed,” he explains, and turning not to God but to the government to secure our rights:
We are now relying on created things, instead of the Creator Himself, that is acknowledged in the birth certificate of this great country. We have replaced Father God with Mother Earth and Uncle Sam.”
For this reason, Mike Johnson conceives of the American experiment in republican government as requiring the continuous cultivation of religion and morality. Citing a myriad of founders – George Washington said “religion and morality are indispensable supports,” John Adams said “our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people,” and so on – Johnson presents his remedy for what ails us:
“If you are going to erase the earthly King, the middleman, and it is just going to be God and the people, and the people are going to govern themselves, you better maintain virtue. The seedbed of virtue is religion and morality.”
Taking Mike Johnson seriously requires that we take him on his own terms. These are religious terms.
But while good religion may be a seedbed of virtue, bad religion is a seedbed of vice. The religious inheritance of which Mike Johnson is so proud has inspired generations of Americans to embrace noble values like “law and order” and “patriotism,” for example. But this same religiosity has tempted these same people to embrace racialized violence, the perverse side of law and order, and nationalist extremism, the shadow side of patriotism. And so on and so on.
Willfully ignorant of such nuance, Johnson grounds his political provincialism in religious chauvinism. Rallying cries like “America First!” and constant crowing that ours is “the greatest nation on earth” would be rejected out of hand by the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament gospels. This Jesus counseled his disciples to assume a spiritual posture of humility, to beware of practicing their piety in public, and to remember that in the eyes of God, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” He also reserved his harshest criticism for those who paraded their religion in public, who presumed themselves always and everywhere to have unique claims on moral superiority, and who operated on the assumption that they, and they alone, had been chosen as instruments of divine agency.
Herein lies the true danger of Mike Johnson’s religious brand of American exceptionalism. Too many white American Christians have conflated the workings of divine agency in human history with national history of the United States. The greatest threat to American democracy – and to authentic expressions of the Christian faith in America – comes not from Americans who have made government their God, but from Christians who have made America their God. This whitewashed version of American nationalism is most accurately understood in religious terms, as a distinctly American brand of Christian heresy.