Mike Johnson’s reading of Scripture misses what it really means to be a Christian nation

The question is, what Scripture is the new House speaker reading?

Religion News Service
By Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
November 2, 2023

(RNS) — Mike Johnson’s ascendancy to speaker of the House came as a shock to many in Washington and the country last week. The Louisiana congressman has not been a household name, it’s true, and even in the halls of Congress he’s had positions of marginal influence. The collective surprise was understandable on that score. 

But even those who did recognize his name admitted being dumbfounded by his sudden rise. Insiders knew him primarily as a far-right Christian nationalist with positions that, as The New York Times reported, “are sharply at odds with those of most Americans.” 

The widespread befuddlement indicates just how severely even Washington insiders underestimate the power of Christian nationalism in the Republican Party. Even after his win, some now comfort themselves that Johnson’s nomination is an anomaly produced by Republican dysfunction. In reality, it’s a chilling reminder that Christian nationalists are only now cementing the all-out power grab they have been building toward for decades. 

The media rushed to catch up. MSNBC’s Sarah Posner soon called Johnson “the most unabashedly Christian nationalist speaker in history.” News articles and op-eds this week have detailed Johnson’s (and his wife’s) reactionary takes on sexuality and gender, abortion bans, even Medicaid and Social Security. Others have told of his key role in supporting the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the presidency in 2020 and raised concerns about the role Johnson may play in the presidential election next year.

What has been missing from many of these exposés, though, is a deeper wrestling with the unsound and even contradictory theological beliefs that Johnson has said drive his worldview. 

In his first speech as speaker, Johnson told his colleagues, “I believe that Scripture, the Bible, is very clear: that God is the one who raises up those in authority,” an echo of the New Testament’s Epistle to the Romans, in which Paul writes that “the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”

The verse has a long history of being used by some of the worst leaders to claim they are divinely ordained and to validate their violent rule: from the planter class in the American South defending slavery to apologists for Jim Crow, and abroad by fascists, including Hitler and the Nazi high command, and those who effected South African apartheid government, not to mention numerous dictators in Latin America. The historic company aside, any leader claiming divine authority for his rule should unsettle anyone concerned about democracy and justice.

But a deeper look at Paul’s epistle actually reveals a very different meaning of the passage. It comes directly after Paul’s instruction to believers to associate themselves with those who have been bruised and battered by empire. The apostle wants them to live in peace and harmony in the world, honor the poor and struggling above themselves and feed even their adversaries.

The letter goes on to command the cancellation of debt, other than debts of love. When Paul writes about divine authority, he is commenting not just on raw power, but on the responsibility governing authorities have to ensure the well-being of everyone in society, including the poor and marginalized.

Paul was writing in the era of the Pax Romana (“the Roman Peace”), a supposed golden age that was in fact built on an oppressive tax system that indebted the poor, a military that spread terror and violence, and a ruling authority that banned marriages across nationality and class and, yes, between two men. Would Johnson be a closer match with Paul and Jesus, or the imperial authorities who killed them? 

Reports about the classes Johnson has been teaching for his wife’s company, Onward Christian Education Services Inc., have exposed more toxic nationalist politics and heretical theology. “Johnson complained that there is now ‘total chaos on the street,’” a recent article in Mother Jones noted. “‘God’s not at the top anymore.’” The problem, Johnson said, is that Americans want “the government to take care of us now, we want the government to provide us everything.” 

This impulse, he said, “defies the created order of the Creator.’”

Johnson’s position here is a jarring violation of many of the central themes of the New Testament, especially the Last Judgment of the Gospel of Matthew’s Chapter 25 and Jesus’ inaugural sermon in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. In an episode of his podcast, “Truth Be Told,” The New York Times reported, Johnson has similarly attempted to square his views about government welfare by claiming that biblical commandments about “personal charity” were “never directed to the government.”

But in Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear that whole societies — etne in the Greek text — are subject to his instructions. They are not suggestions for how Jesus’ individual followers should conduct themselves, but codes for how to structure a nation to ensure inclusion and community prosperity and to mitigate suffering and violence. Elsewhere, the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah echo Deuteronomy and Leviticus in insisting that obedience to God means not leaving care for the vulnerable to the whims of the wealthy and powerful. 

In his inaugural sermon to his hometown of Nazareth in Luke 4, Jesus announces that God has set him apart to preach the “good news to the ptochos” — those who have been made poor by unjust practices and systems. It’s an explicit declaration that he has come to make a social and economic argument to contemporary leaders.

This is what it means to be a Christian country. When Johnson tries to twist Christian teachings into a theology of racial and religious nationalism, he is not only defying our founding constitutional creeds of establishing justice and promoting the general welfare (which he has sworn to uphold). He is also disobeying the greatest commandments of Jesus and his own faith.

(The Rev. Liz Theoharis is director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)