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No Revelations

Mike Johnson Is the Christian Nationalist We Should Have Seen Coming

Those who track the Christian right told people to worry about this guy. Why didn’t we listen?

Mike Johnson speaks at a lectern.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson gives remarks ahead of a Capitol Menorah lighting ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building on December 12, in Washington.

One year from now, we may once again find ourselves facing myriad right-wing activists and entities seeking to overturn the results of a presidential election. At the center may be the current speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican previously known to few outside the Christian right. When the 2024 election takes place, Johnson will barely have reached his first anniversary as speaker.

Johnson spent the tense, chaotic period between the 2020 election and the inauguration persuading Republicans to sign onto an amicus brief he crafted for a Texas lawsuit asserting that state legislatures alone had the power to decide how to run elections. The lawsuit itself was drafted by Trump allies, including the head of a Christian nationalist legal group that employed Johnson before he entered higher office.

The lawsuit failed. The violent aftermath on January 6, 2021, would be caught on thousands of video feeds. Several weeks into being speaker, Johnson would pledge that when releasing 44,000 hours of footage of the attack on the Capitol, he would have the faces of the rioters blurred to protect them from prosecution by the Department of Justice. Mike Johnson is the most disturbing and influential Christian nationalist of 2023. 

Numerous reports over the last two months have examined the question, Where did Mike Johnson come from? But that’s not a difficult question to answer. He’s been frank about where he came from, telling the Louisiana Baptist Message when he was running for Congress for the first time back in 2016: “Some people are called to pastoral ministry … I was called to legal ministry and I’ve been out on the front lines of the ‘culture war’ defending religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and biblical values, including the defense of traditional marriage, and other ideals that have been under assault.”

The more salient question is, How did so many people (including myself, to be honest) not see Mike Johnson coming? The answer is that Johnson went this long passing as yet another Republican because many of us didn’t pay enough attention to the warnings from those who track the rise of Christian nationalism and who have been deeply troubled by it for a long time. Johnson has not moderated his Christian nationalism with his political ascent. “The Lord told me very clearly to prepare and be ready,” said Johnson this December, accepting an award at the National Association of Christian Lawmakers gala. Taking the speakership, he told the group, was merely one part of God’s plan for him.

Johnson is not the only member of Congress who seeks to rule the United States according to “biblical values,” but he is the one most clearly groomed for this role by the Christian right. He spent years moving in secretive circles. He found mentors and future supporters among those on the right who have been pushing the mainstream conservative movement, urging its members to unleash their most extreme tendencies. Johnson was made by those groups and networks; now they have a powerful ally third in the line of presidential succession. They made him powerful, and he owes them.

If you want an example of all this, look to Johnson’s membership in the Council for National Policy, an influential conservative group regarded as a kingmaker. Members of CNP are forbidden from telling anyone outside the group that they are a member. Their executive director recently told The Washington Post that the group doesn’t “do anything.” Its aim, as laid out in its vision statement, is to create a “united conservative movement” that can “[restore] religious and economic freedom, a strong national defense, and Judeo-Christian values under the Constitution.” Journalist Anne Nelson, author of the book on the Council for National Policy, Shadow Network, has described them as “the secret hub of the radical right.” She has also described Johnson as their “creation.”

Leaked CNP membership lists have included a who’s who of the far- and farther-right: anointer of conservative judges Leonard Leo; Clarence Thomas’s conspiracy theorist spouse, Ginni Thomas; and longtime Christian-right leadership figures like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Michael Farris of Alliance Defending Freedom (that’s the group that had employed Johnson, where he could put his “legal ministry” to work). Such members reportedly meet in secret three times each year, often in Ritz-Carlton hotels. They are joined by lesser-known members too, some who have been current or former leadership in the John Birch Society, the neo-Confederate group League of the South, and the violent anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. Josh Duggar, of the fundamentalist reality television–starring Duggar family, has been a member, while working for the Family Research Council. Mike Johnson was photographed with Duggar at a 2014 campaign event. In 2021, Duggar was convicted of possessing child sexual abuse material.

These proceedings are all closed-door. But video has been obtained by the investigative journalism site Documented, including of Mike Johnson speaking at a CNP meeting in New Orleans in October 2019. “Probably all of my biggest heroes are in this room tonight,” Johnson said, before listing them. “I literally was the bag boy for Matt Staver when I began.” Staver is the founder of Liberty Council, another Christian-right group devoted to “religious freedom” in the sense that Alliance Defending Freedom is: defending the freedom to ignore LGBTQ and women’s rights, if not eliminate them. “And Tony Perkins, I was his bag, I’m not kidding. I was a young lawyer, and I just wanted to learn, and so I followed those guys around.” Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council, where Duggar once worked. Johnson also remarked that earlier, he was telling Morton Blackwell, a founder of CNP, “I’m in Congress primarily because I called him for help and he got me here.” Johnson may have laid this chapter of his origin story out in private, but once this video leaked, it was widely reported. 

Johnson also shared a telling story about his more recent exploits. “Somehow, I found myself invited to a small dinner that Charles Koch was having,” he began. The other guests, as Johnson described them, were 25 of the top conservative donors in the U.S. (They may have held as much as $4 billion in assets, according to an estimate from the Center for Media and Democracy.) Unlike several other members of Congress who have attended CNP meetings, The Daily Beast reported, Johnson failed to report the trip in his personal financial disclosures. Johnson’s spokesperson said his campaign bought him his plane ticket. It remains unclear who paid for Johnson’s registration fee, hotel, or meals, though Johnson’s remarks point to at least 25 possibilities.

Were those donors pleased when, one year later, Johnson led Republican members of Congress to help Trump overturn the 2020 election? “Johnson is more dangerous because he wrapped up his attempt to subvert the election outcomes in lawyerly and technical language,” said law professor Rick Hasen this fall, shortly after Johnson became House speaker. A good example would be the language Johnson posted to Twitter on the morning of January 6, 2021: “We MUST fight for election integrity, the Constitution, and the preservation of our republic!” his tweet read. “It will be my honor to help lead that fight in the Congress today.”

Johnson had already crossed paths with some of those storming the Capitol that day. One of Johnson’s former clients, Jason Storms, assistant director of Operation Save America—the anti-abortion group targeting abortion providers formerly known as Operation Rescue—was one of many violent anti-abortion group leaders that day surrounding and swarming the Capitol. In 2009, Johnson represented him in a case involving Storms’s anti-abortion protests at clinics. “We were brothers on the path,” said Storms’s father, Grant, who Johnson had also represented, defending his protests of gay events and venues in 2003. “He always had our back.”

On January 6, Jason Storms climbed the scaffolding to shoot video of himself and the rioters, saying, “We’re not going anywhere.” He also recorded himself hollering, “Yeah, baby!” when someone near him bellowed out, “Hang them high!” This summer, at a conference of anti-abortion groups, Storms suggested that ending abortion in the U.S. might involve a “civil war.”

Held aloft by rioters outside the Capitol on January 6, among the bright “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags and the stark “Blue Lives Matter” flags, was a lesser-known flag with a smallish evergreen tree against a white background, the “Appeal to Heaven” flag. The flag has become synonymous with the New Apostolic Reformation, whose leaders were some of the first on the Christian right to embrace Trump, drawing him into their vision of an America ruled by Christianity. One of these white flags now hangs inside the Capitol, outside Johnson’s office.