Discover more from Du Mez CONNECTIONS
The Christian Nationalist Ideas that Drive Mike Johnson
My latest, in Politico
I’ve been trying to keep my head down lately, sending reporters to other scholars who can cover things and keeping my focus on the next book. (I owe my editor some chapters and they are not polishing themselves.) When Katelyn Follett reached out yesterday, though, I thought I’d make an exception. She offered a Q&A, which is easy enough. We did the same a couple years ago, when I ducked into an empty office at the University of Chicago to take her call. She is a fabulous editor who can take ramblings and find the most coherent thoughts, so I trusted putting this in her hands. What I had forgotten was that putting a piece up at Politico means a slew of additional interviews. I valiantly tried writing between calls and emails, but an invite to appear live on national news scuttled that. (In the end, the ground invasion postponed that appearance, so I’m catching my breath, trying to get back to writing for a couple more hours, and planning on a quiet night of takeout and watching Netflix with my ten-year-old while praying for those in harm’s way.)
Du Mez CONNECTIONS is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Here’s the interview I gave, and trust me, “edited for clarity and length” is an understatement. Mike Johnson is incredibly well-connected in the conservative evangelical world: David Barton, Robert Jeffress, Ken Hamm, ADF, SBC/CBN/ERLC, LU, LCC, (IYKYK), so there was a lot to cover. (The whole “covenant marriage” thing didn’t even make the cut.)
The perennial challenge with covering Christian nationalism is distinguishing more moderate commitments of “ordinary evangelicals” from more extremist operatives, when they can be distinguished. Johnson blurs those boundaries more than anyone I’ve observed. Johnson is the real deal when it comes to practicing evangelicalism and by all accounts he’s a really nice guy. This makes him a brilliant choice for MAGA folks, and a deeply concerning one for those concerned about the resliliency of our democracy.
The response to this Q&A has been overwhelmingly positive, to an unusual extent, according to Follett. Personally, I’ve heard from evangelicals across the country today saying “you got this exactly right—this is how this works.” The most alarming thing for them, and for me, is seeing the potential here for normalizing extremist and anti-democratic positions. Unlike Trump, Johnson walks the walk and talks the talk.
Here’s the conversation:
On Wednesday, when newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson gave his first speech in that role, he quoted British statesman and philosopher GK Chesterton, who once said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded upon a creed,” and that it is “listed with almost theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”
“That is the creed that has animated our nation since its founding and has made us the great nation that we are,” Johnson said.
That line caught the attention of Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian who specializes in evangelical Christianity and politics. The idea that America is founded on a creed is a common one among evangelicals, and it was a sign to her that Johnson adheres to a worldview that can be described as Christian nationalist.
Johnson, a Shreveport, Louisiana, native, entered politics after spending more than two decades defending conservative Christian causes as a litigator at the conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, and throughout his career, he has argued in courts and drafted legislation to outlaw same-sex marriage and restrict abortion.
That was one reason I reached out Du Mez, who combed through his long record of statements about his beliefs and influences to help me understand how his faith drives his politics. “As he understands it, this country was founded as a Christian nation,” Du Mez told me. “So really, Christian supremacy and a particular type of conservative Christianity is at the heart of Johnson’s understanding of the Constitution and an understanding of our government.”
I talked with Du Mez about Johnson’s roots in the Christian right, the figures in that world who have shaped his understanding of American politics, and the anti-democratic turn she has watched the Christian right take in the past several years — particularly the striking way it coincided with attempts by former President Donald Trump, and Johnson himself, to overturn the 2020 election.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Katelyn Fossett: I want to talk to you a little about Mike Johnson’s worldview and the belief system that has shaped him.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez: He is incredibly standard in terms of being a right-wing, white evangelical Christian nationalist.
Fossett: Tell me a little more about what makes someone a Christian nationalist. Does he use that phrase to describe himself?
Du Mez: I don’t know that he uses that. But I feel comfortable applying that; it’s not in a pejorative way. It’s simply descriptive. As he understands it, this country was founded as a Christian nation. And he stands in a long tradition of conservative white evangelicals, particularly inside the Southern Baptist Convention, who have a distinct understanding of what that means. And this is where evangelical author and activist David Barton comes in.
Johnson has said that Barton’s ideas and teachings have been extremely influential on him, and that is essentially rooting him in this longer tradition of Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism essentially posits the idea that America is founded on God’s laws, and that the Constitution is a reflection of God’s laws. Therefore, any interpretation of the Constitution must align with Christian nationalists’ understanding of God’s laws. Freedom for them means freedom to obey God’s law, not freedom to do what you want. So really, Christian supremacy and a particular type of conservative Christianity is at the heart of Johnson’s understanding of the Constitution and an understanding of our government.
You’ll see this in some of his speeches. In his speech on Wednesday, he incorporated a G.K. Chesterton quote about the U.S. being based on a creed. And he said the American creed is “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
But he goes much deeper than that, and really roots that in what he would call a biblical worldview: The core principles of our nation reflect these biblical truths and biblical principles. He has gone on record saying things like, for him, this biblical worldview means that all authority comes from God and that there are distinct realms of God-ordained authority, and that is the family, the church and the government.
Now, all this authority, of course, is under this broader understanding of God-given authority. So it’s not the right of any parents to decide what’s best for their kids; it’s the right of parents to decide what’s best for their kids in alignment with his understanding of biblical law. Same thing with the church’s role: It is to spread Christianity but also to care for the poor. That’s not the government’s job.
And then the government’s job is to support this understanding of authority and to align the country with God’s laws.
Fossett: Tell me more about David Barton.
Du Mez: Barton is a very popular author in conservative evangelical spaces, and he is the founder of an organization called Wallbuilders. It is an organization that for decades has been promoting the idea that the separation of church and state is a myth. He is a self-trained historian. Some would call him a pseudo-historian. He’s not a historian — I can say that, as a historian. He’s an apologist. He uses historical evidence, cherry-picked and sometimes entirely fabricated, to make a case that the separation of church and state is a myth, and it was only meant to protect the church from the intrusion of the state but that the church is supposed to influence the government. He’s the author of a number of very popular books.
Back in the early 1990s, Jerry Falwell, Sr., started promoting his teachings. I noticed that Johnson said he was — I think about 25 years ago —introduced to David Barton’s work, and it has really influenced the way he understands America. And that would be around that same time.
It’s really hard to overstate the influence that Barton has had in conservative evangelical spaces. For them, he has really defined America as a Christian nation. What that means is that he kind of takes conservative, white evangelical ideals from our current moment, and says that those were all baked into the Constitution, and that God has elected America to be a special nation, and that the nation will be blessed if we respond in obedience and maintain that, and not if we go astray. It really fuels evangelical politics and the idea that evangelicalism has a special role to play to get the country back on track.
I should also add that Barton’s Christian publisher back in 2012 actually pulled one of his books on Thomas Jefferson, because it was just riddled with misinformation. But that did not really affect his popularity. And again, these are not historical facts that we’re dealing with. It really is propaganda, but it’s incredibly effective propaganda. If you listen to Christian radio, you will hear them echoed. It’s just this pervasive understanding of our nation’s history that is based on fabrication.
Fossett: I’ve heard this idea from reporters and analysts that Mike Johnson is sort of a throwback to an earlier era, mostly the George W. Bush era, when there was this split, and alliance, between the business establishment and the social conservatives, which included evangelicals. I’m wondering if Johnson is in fact an evangelical like those earlier ones, or if he represents something new in evangelical politics.
Du Mez: First, I would say that any kind of split between the business conservatives and the social conservatives is not so clear-cut. It’s important to realize that one of Johnson’s core principles of American conservatism — as he reiterated them in his speech on Wednesday — is free enterprise. For conservative evangelicals, they don’t really see much of a tension between these, whereas the pro-business, old-school conservatives certainly would.
So he’s very much rooted in this longer history of the Christian right, and his years working with the Alliance Defending Freedom, an American Christian legal advocacy group, certainly has placed him at the center of things. That’s an incredibly important organization and really a hub of the Christian right for decades now; it would have put him in close contact with the movers and the shakers of the Christian right for a long time. So he’s rooted there. And he also has this nice-guy persona. That may seem like a bit of a throwback in the era of Trump.
But he is very much of this political moment in terms of his level of commitment to democracy. He spearheaded the congressional efforts to overturn the election. He is on the record as an election denier. Some have suggested that’s why he got the votes to be elected speaker. He’s a Trump supporter and Trump supporter in this regard, specifically: election denial.
I’ve noticed also in listening to his speeches that he is explicit about describing this country as a republic and not as a democracy. Inside these conservative Christian nationalist spaces, that is par for the course: that this is a republic, and it is a republic, again, founded in this biblical worldview, and that it’s not a democratic free-for-all. And so again, this is Christian supremacy.
If you align with this value system, then yes, you have the authority to shape our laws. If you do not, you have no business shaping our laws. He once said: “We don’t live in a democracy, because democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner.” Meaning, the country is not just majority rule; it’s a constitutional republic. And the founders set that up because they followed the biblical admonition on what a civil society is supposed to look like.
I think that’s really important here: His commitment is not to democracy. He’s not committed to majority rule; he seems to be saying he’s committed to minority rule, if that’s what it takes to ensure that we stay on the Christian foundation that the founders have set up.
Now, he would say that there’s really no tension here — that, again, if the Constitution represents this kind of biblical worldview that he suggests the founders embraced, then there’s going to really be no conflict. But he’s on record repeatedly talking about our nation being a republic, and in one case explicitly saying this isn’t a democracy, and that also is a very common theme in Christian nationalist circles and in conservative evangelical circles generally.
Fossett: I want to make sure I understand; how do these Christian nationalists see the distinction between a democracy and a republic?
Du Mez: When you press them on it, you’ll get different answers. What they’re doing is suggesting that the authority of the people in a popular democracy is constrained by whether or not people’s views align with … they would say the Constitution, but what they mean is a particular interpretation of the Constitution — one that understands the Constitution as being written to defend a particular Christian understanding of this country.
If you want to see what this means … well, one of his core principles is human dignity. Well, does that does that extend to the dignity of gay citizens or trans citizens? No, absolutely not. His understanding of human dignity is rooted in his understanding of biblical law. One of his core principles is the rule of law. But clearly, he’s comfortable with election denialism. So all of these core principles — freedom, limited government, human dignity — are interpreted through a conservative Christian lens and his understanding of what the Bible says ought to happen and how people ought to behave.
One thing I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is whether we’ve seen an anti-democratic turn among the Christian right or if it was always at the core of the movement. And certainly if you listen to the kind of rhetoric of what we call Christian nationalism today, it’s been around a long time; they always understood America to be a Christian republic.
But I think what has escalated things in the last decade or so is a growing alarm among conservative white Christians that they no longer have numbers on their side. So looking at the demographic change in this country, the quote-unquote “end of white Christian America” and there’s where you can see a growing willingness to blatantly abandon any commitment to democracy.
It’s really during the Obama presidency that you see the escalation of not just rhetoric, but a kind of desperation, urgency, ruthlessness in pursuing this agenda. Religious freedom was at the center of that. And it was, again, not a religious freedom for all Americans; it was religious freedom to ensure that conservative Christians could live according to their values. Because they could see this kind of sea change on LGBTQ rights, they could see the demographic changes, and inside their spaces, they have really played up this language of fear that liberals are out to get you, and you cannot raise your children anymore.
This kind of radicalizing rhetoric has very much taken root through conservative media echo chambers. So I really see Johnson as very much a part of this moment. But he is also somebody who is offering to rise above it and to stand in and to restore the nation to its Christian principles. When he uses the rhetoric of being anointed by God, for this moment, that’s really the context.
Fossett: If the long trend was away from democracy, it’s kind of an unusual convergence of interests that Trump — even though he is not a figure from the Christian right — is the one who actually ended up calling an election into question. He seems to represent an opportunity for the part of the movement that would like to water down democracy, even if he isn’t the preferred candidate of Christian conservatives in a lot of other ways.
Du Mez: Right. For Christian nationalists, this is God’s country, and all authority comes through God. And the only legitimate use of that authority is to further God’s plan for this country. So what that means is any of their political enemies are illegitimate in a sense, and those enemies’ power is illegitimate, and they need to be stripped of that power. And it’s really been kind of shocking for me to have observed these spaces in the last handful of years, where conservative evangelicals are much more comfortable in just making that plain and no longer feeling a need to pay lip service to democracy or voting rights or those sorts of things.
The disturbing thing to me is that I’m a Christian myself, and I understand how this language of God’s authority really does resonate with conservative Christians across the board.
When push comes to shove, is your allegiance to God or to democracy? I see people talking about democracy as an idol. Democracy is not biblical, you’re not going to find democracy in the Bible. At the end of the day, if you are a Christian, do you want to honor God first? Or some secular system? And the answer is kind of clear.
Du Mez CONNECTIONS is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.