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The Spectre of a Great Catastrophe
“It will have become clear to you now,” Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig in mid-February 1933, “that we are heading for a great catastrophe.” Two weeks previously, on January 30, Germany’s eighty-five-year-old president, Paul von Hindenburg, had appointed as chancellor a man who for more than a decade had spoken and written frankly about his resolve to extirpate democracy and Jews from the country. Roth, who left Berlin the same morning Adolf Hitler came to power and never returned to Germany, was desperate to make his complacent friend recognize the perils before them. (Pankaj Mishra, When the Barbarians Take Over)
On October 25, 2023, a man was elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a position two doors down from the presidency, who for more than two decades has spoken and written frankly calling for “biblically sanctioned government,” a religious test for politicians, and overturning the 1954 Johnson Amendment which “prevents churches from engaging in any political campaign activity if they want to keep their tax-exempt status”; rejecting the separation of Church and state; and favoring criminalization of gay sex (Wehner, The Polite Zealotry). He organized the effort by House Republicans to overturn the 2020 election, submitted an amicus brief, signed by 125 House members, to the Supreme Court supporting a Texas lawsuit that aimed to invalidate results in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia, peddled conspiracy theories about rigged voting machine software “from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela,” and on January 6, 2021, objected to certifying the vote in the 2020 election.
In his first public interview after being elected speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, told Fox News' Sean Hannity: "I am a Bible-believing Christian. Someone asked me today in the media, they said, '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."
Michael Sean Winters, writing at The National Catholic Reporter, went on to observe that “The Bible forms the worldview of all Christians, but it does so differently for some than others” and noted that Johnson “did not say the Bible forms his worldview. He said it is his worldview.” He assumes that the meaning of the Bible is uncontested and his interpretation is the only one (Speaker Mike Johnson’s biblical worldview).
Johnson has said that he and his wife, Kelly, have been working in ministry side by side and together for their whole marriage. Following his assumption of the speakership, the two lost little time sanitizing the record. Kelly Johnson is owner and CEO of Onward Christian Counseling Services, which promotes Bible-based pastoral counseling. She took down the organization’s website the day after HuffPost reported that documents on the site put “being gay, bisexual or transgender in the same category as someone who has sex with animals or family members, calling all of these examples of ‘sexual immorality’” (Bandery, Mike Johnson’s Wife Takes Down). Quelle coincidence!
The website had a link to the operating agreement that lays out the company’s corporate bylaws, which state that “Onward Christian Counseling Services is grounded in the belief that sex is offensive to God if it is not between a man and a woman married to each other.”
We believe and the Bible teaches that any form of sexual immorality, such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography or any attempt to change one’s sex, or disagreement with one’s biological sex, is sinful and offensive to God. (quoted by Bandery, Mike Johnson’s Wife Runs).
Why the Johnsons felt the need to take down the website is puzzling. The public record is replete with documentation of their views. In a 2019 video of a seminar created by the Johnsons presented at the Baptist church they belong to in Bossier City, Louisiana, Kelly Johnson declared from the pulpit
that “biblical Christianity”—that is, a literal reading of the Bible as fundamentalists interpret it—is the only “valid worldview,” and nothing else makes sense. (This worldview includes creationism—believing that the Earth was created by God in six days 6,000 years ago—and the denial of evolution.) Mike Johnson called for “biblically sanctioned government.” In this venue and many others, including a podcast they have hosted together, the pair have contended that there is only one truth: “Jesus’ truth.” (Corn, SCOOP: Mike Johnson Urged)
Two more examples come from Winters:
In 2016, he gave a truly frightening talk in which he seems to blame the teaching of evolution for the birth of moral relativism, which, in turn, he says is the reason there have been school shootings. The connections between those three multifaceted realities—evolution, moral relativism and school shootings—are a bit more complicated than Johnson allows.
Equally troubling is Johnson's comment about the “natural law philosophy” he says the founders espoused. There were a lot of influences on the founders, and natural law theories were part of the equation. But invoking natural law begins a discussion, it doesn't end it, as Johnson seems to think. As with his understanding of the Bible, he ignores the possibility of a variety of understandings in favor of his own.
Peter Wehner’s conclusion that Mike Johnson is not cynical, unlike some other members of his party, is not reassuring. (Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and senior fellow at the Trinity Forum.)
From what I can tell, Mike Johnson—unlike, say, Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, or J. D. Vance and Lindsey Graham—is not cynical; he seems to be a true believer, and a zealot. A polite and mild-mannered zealot, to be sure, especially by MAGA standards, but a zealot nonetheless. And what makes this doubly painful for many of us is that he uses his Christian faith to sacralize his fanaticism and assault on truth. I can’t help thinking this isn’t quite what Jesus had in mind. (Wehner, The Polite Zealotry)
Mike Johnson has credited Christian nationalist pseudo-historian David Barton as a profound influence on him, his work, and his life (Wehner). Barton, a major figure on the religious right, is another piece of work. A self-taught historian and activist, he considers Donald Trump to be one of the five greatest presidents in American history. His credentials include a B.A. in religious education from Oral Roberts University and, he claims, a doctorate earned at Life Christian University on the basis of his published works.
Nota bene: Life Christian University is accredited through Accrediting Commission International, “an internationally known, non-profit, church educational organization.” Life Christian does not seek governmental school accreditation on the principle that secular institutions should not be allowed “to dictate the qualifications for instructors or the programs for a Spirit-filled ministerial degree.”
Barton holds that America was founded by evangelical Christians as a specifically Christian nation and founders intended it to be run on Christian principles. This soon begins to sound a lot like a Christian nationalist version of an Islamic state under sharia law. It is based on an exceedingly narrow interpretation of Christianity that ignores the many varieties of Christian faith and rejects all but his, and Johnson’s, own.
In his 2000 book Original Intent: The Courts, The Constitution, and Religion, Barton argued that secular, liberal historians were involved in a conspiracy to cover up the ‘truth’ about America’s Christian origins for their own nefarious goals.” Another book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, is “a hagiographic work which argued that Jefferson was not a deist but an evangelical Christian who vigorously opposed slavery and racism” (Burton, Understanding the fake historian). Despite making the New York Times bestseller list, The Jefferson Lies was pulled by publisher Thomas Nelson, which promotes itself as “a world leading publisher and provider of Christian content.” Nelson said it was ceasing publication because it found that "basic truths just were not there" (Hu, Publisher Pulls Controversial Thomas Jefferson Book).
Nota bene encore:
Any narrative of America’s foundation will, of course, be mediated by the specific biases and concerns of the teller. (Historian [John] Fea does a great job pointing out that the secular counterpart to the Barton narrative, that all founding fathers were non-Christian, deist secularists, is also wrong). (Burton)
Debunking Barton has not been left to socialist, Marxist, liberal historians at Harvard and Yale. Christian scholars have also taken him to task. An NPR report by Barbara Bradley Hagerty (The Most Influential) cited several. “John Fea, chairman of the history department at evangelical Messiah College…says that Barton is peddling a distorted history that appeals to conservative believers.” Warren Throckmorton, a retired psychology, not history, we note, professor at Grove City College, co-authored Getting Jefferson Right, a book detailing Barton’s distortions. “As to Jefferson's faith,” Hagerty reports, “Throckmorton says there is no dispute among historians: Jefferson questioned the most basic tenets of Christianity.”
The matter of the founders’ religious beliefs, which included varieties of Christianity and flavors of deism, has become another front in the culture wars. It merits further examination that lies beyond the scope of this essay. The relevant point here is that the views of Barton and Johnson are well outside any mainstream but the narrow one where they swim.
Given the fractious state of the House Republican conference, there is no certainty that Mike Johnson will still be speaker a year from now or in January 2025 when the time to certify the 2024 election comes around. That may not matter if Republicans retain a majority in the House and, worse, take back the Senate. Some Republicans who voted to certify the 2020 election were ousted by primary challengers last year. Others have announced their retirement at the end of this term. More than a few Republicans in Congress, state legislatures, and governors’ offices refuse to recognize the legitimacy of any presidential election their party’s candidate does not win. We should not be sanguine about what this portends for rule of law and constitutional governance.
An eternity lies between November 2023 and January 2025. Whatever landscape comes to pass in the dizzying whirl of events may be all but unrecognizable from today’s vantage. I had second, and third, thoughts about using the paragraph from Pankaj Mishra’s article, with its allusion to Hitler, to open a discussion about Mike Johnson’s views and the implications of his rise to power. In the end I keep it because Joseph Roth’s intimation offers a framework for assessing the present crisis. The spectre of a great catastrophe hovers over us.
Keep the faith. Stand with Ukraine. yr obdt svt
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References and Related Reading
Jennifer Bendery, Mike Johnson's Wife Runs Counseling Service That Compares Being Gay To Bestiality, Incest, HuffPost, October 27, 2023
Jennifer Bendery, Mike Johnson’s Wife Takes Down Website That Compared Being Gay To Bestiality, Incest, HuffPost, October 30, 2023
Tara Isabella Burton, Understanding the fake historian behind America’s religious right, Vox, January 25, 2018
Isaac Chotiner, Why Representative Mike Johnson Thinks That the Election Isn't Over, The New Yorker, December 15, 2020
David Corn, SCOOP: Mike Johnson Urged a Religious Test for Politicians, Our Land, October 31, 2023
Seth Dunn, Three Things You Need to Know About David Barton, Pulpit & Pen, January 31, 2019
Sareen Habesian, What to know about new House Speaker Mike Johnson, Axios, October 25, 2023
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, The Most Influential Evangelist You've Never Heard Of, NPR, August 8, 2012
Ellie Quinlan Houghtaling, MAGA Mike Johnson Once Warned About Dangers of Living Under Democracy, The New Republic, October 30, 2023
Elise Hu, Publisher Pulls Controversial Thomas Jefferson Book, Citing Loss Of Confidence, NPR, August 9, 2012
Bryan Metzger, No stock trading, a hefty home mortgage, and more than $120,000 from Liberty University: Here's what we know about newly elected Speaker Mike Johnson's personal finances, Business Insider, October 26, 2023
Pankaj Mishra, When the Barbarians Take Over, The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2023, issue)
Molly Ryan, Who is Mike Johnson? An ardent conservative who embraces far-right policies, NPR, October 26, 2023
Amy Sherman, Mike Johnson sought to overturn 2020 election. As House speaker, he’ll oversee 2024 certification, Poynter, October 27, 2023
Roger Sollenberger, Does New Speaker of the House Mike Johnson Have a Bank Account?, The Daily Beast, November 1, 2023
Matthew D. Taylor, Mike Johnson, Polite Extremist, The Bulwark, October 29, 2023
Peter Wehner, The Polite Zealotry of Mike Johnson, The Atlantic, October 31, 2023
Who is Mike Johnson, the new Republican US House Speaker?, Reuters, October 26, 2023
Michael Sean Winters, Speaker Mike Johnson's biblical worldview is a bit crimped, National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2023