In the spring of 2022, Rep. Mike Johnson started a podcast with his wife, Kelly Johnson, who calls herself a “pastoral counselor.”
The title of the first episode was “Can America Be Saved?”
That question is familiar to many American evangelicals. It shows how Johnson, the new speaker of the House, is a product of conservative evangelicalism and Deep South Republican political culture.
A firefighter’s son and a culture warrior
Johnson, 51, grew up the son of a firefighter in Shreveport, La. Since 2017, he has represented a congressional district of 761,000 people that includes his hometown and much of the state’s western area. He has been the 5th-ranking member of House Republican leadership.
Johnson has written that his father was “critically burned and permanently disabled in the line of duty.”
Johnson got a law degree at Louisiana State University and spent nearly two decades working mostly for conservative legal groups who focused on issues of importance to religious conservatives.
Johnson worked for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF was founded in 1994 by some of the leading figures of the Religious Right, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ.
ADF touts itself as working to defend the rights of conservative Christians to express their views on matters of sexuality and religion, which has gained it a reputation for advocating for discrimination against sexual minorities. It also has worked to limit or even ban abortion and access to contraception.
Johnson argued in favor of a ban on same-sex marriage before the Louisiana Supreme Court and has continued to advocate for those views as a legislator.
In his inaugural podcast with his wife, Johnson referred to himself and those like him as “righteous,” as he quoted from Psalm 11: “If the foundations be destroyed, what will the righteous do?”
“That is not a rhetorical question anymore,” Johnson said. “It's something we have to ask ourselves and we have to answer.”
What Johnson’s critics say
Johnson has become the nation’s 56th House speaker in large part because he happened to be the last one standing when his fellow House Republicans reached a point of exhaustion after three weeks of infighting about who to choose.
He faces skepticism due to his inexperience and his role in spreading lies about the 2020 election and his role in the attempt to throw out the votes of millions of Americans to keep former President Donald Trump in power.
“Apparently experience isn’t necessary for the speaker job,” Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, told reporters. “We’re down to folks who haven’t had leadership or chairmanship role, which means their administration of the House will be a new experience for them.”
Johnson also played a significant role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. He crafted a narrow and legalistic rationale for objecting to the results that many other House Republicans cited as support for their vote to overturn the results.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat, said in a speech before the vote Wednesday that any Republican who sought to overturn legitimate election results in 2020 “forfeited their ability to lead this chamber.”
When Johnson was asked Tuesday night about his role in the aftermath of the 2020 election, he shook his head and lowered it, declining to answer. The reporter’s question was drowned out by loud boos from a large group of House Republicans standing around Johnson, one of whom yelled at the journalist to “shut up.”
What Speaker Johnson means for you
Johnson has already outlined his plans for the entirety of the next year, which helped him win over votes on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. The Louisiana Republican has said he will work with the Senate to pass a short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown before funding runs out in mid-November.
Ironically, that is the same approach that was taken by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, which drew the ire of hardline Republicans. McCarthy was ousted on Oct. 3 for working with Democrats to pass a short-term funding bill after House Republicans could not agree on a solution.
Johnson was able to ascend to the speakership because “he has the fewest enemies,” said Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, on CNN.
The reality was always that whoever was named the next speaker would have to negotiate with a Democratic Senate and a White House occupied by a Democratic president.
“The speaker doesn’t bring a magic wand to enact radically different legislation,” wrote Brian Riedl, a conservative budget expert who has worked on Capitol Hill.
It is that hard truth that always made McCarthy’s job untenable, because of the willingness of his critics in the House Republican conference to toss him out of the job for failing to hew a hard line. Johnson has a honeymoon period now, but if he hopes to be a successful speaker, his collision with the demands of hardliners in his own party will soon be on the horizon.