The most dangerous movement in American politics today is not Trumpism. It is Christofascism. With the election of Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the organized effort to impose the extreme religious views of a minority of Americans on the entire country, at the expense of many of our most basic freedoms, took a disturbing step forward.
Despite Speaker Johnson’s claims of being a constitutional “originalist,” via his elevation by a unanimous vote of his Republican colleagues he has moved America closer to having precisely the kind of government America’s founders most feared.
Thomas Jefferson said he viewed with “solemn reverence that act of the whole of the American people” which established “a wall of separation between church and state.” George Washington approved a treaty that explicitly stated, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” The very First Amendment in America’s Bill of Rights states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The principal author of the Constitution, James Madison, in his treatise, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” described 15 reasons why the U.S. government must avoid backing any religion.
There is a reason the word “God” does not appear a single time in the Constitution. The founders were breaking with an England and Europe that were still in the thrall of the idea that rulers derived their powers from heaven above, “the divine right of kings.” But in the Constitution it explicitly states their view that the powers of government are derived “from the consent of the governed.”
Jefferson—like Washington, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe—was a practitioner of deism, a view founded in the idea that the Supreme Being created the universe and then essentially took a step back, leaving natural laws to operate on their own. They believed religion should be a matter that was entirely between individuals and their God, and that it should play no role in governance.
Indeed, Jefferson’s views were even starker. He wrote in a letter to John Adams, “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of the virgin” would be seen as just another fable and described the religious views that descended from that fable as an “artificial scaffolding.”
Thomas Paine considered much of the Bible to be more “consistent” with what might be called “the word of the demon” rather than that of God. Madison said that “religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together” and saw the separation of the two as essential to avoiding “the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries”—a sentiment that clearly resonates with our own times. Washington celebrated that the U.S. had at last created a form of government “that gives to bigotry no sanction.” Benjamin Franklin wrote at length about the pernicious nature of religious tests in government documents.
Yet here we are.
The Speaker of the House has radically different views. He represents a movement that is actively seeking to institutionalize the religious beliefs of evangelical Christians into law.
In fact, even as we see with chilling clarity how those with a similar motive have sought to infuse the law with their religious beliefs on the Supreme Court and in state capitals across the country, Johnson may be the most extreme example of a dangerously empowered religious fanatic in our recent history—and yes, I remember that Mike Pence was, not so long ago, the Vice President of the United States.
The term Christofascism may seem inflammatory. It is not. It is intended to provide the most accurate possible definition of what Johnson and those in his movement wish to achieve. Like other fascists they seek to impose by whatever means necessary their views on the whole of society even if that means undoing established laws and eliminating accepted freedoms. Christofascists do so in the name of advancing their Christian ideology, asserting that all in society must be guided by their views and values whether they adhere to them or not.
Although Johnson was little known outside Republican congressional circles (and not that well known within them), he made it clear from his first moments as speaker who he was and what kind of speaker he would be. In his opening remarks, he even suggested it was divine intervention that made him the second in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency. He said, “I don’t believe there are any coincidences in a matter like this. I believe that scripture, the Bible, is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority.”
He has developed close relationships including with Christian Dominionist groups like the “7 Mountains” New Apostolic Reformation effort appearing on broadcasts cited as one of their “favorites.”
As Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) commented in the wake of the speech, the religious content of Johnson’s remarks “demonstrates that there are no public policy values that unify the Republican caucus anymore. They don’t have a secular program. And so they have fallen back on theocracy as the final binding mechanism of their cause.”
While Johnson has been careful to avoid expressing views on policy matters since it became apparent he would become speaker, his past record makes crystal clear where he stands.
With his wife, Kelly, who is a “licensed pastoral counselor and teacher,” he has hosted a podcast that provides “thoughtful analysis of hot topics and current events from a Christian perspective.” In interviews he has spoken of the fact that “We don’t live in a democracy” we live in a “Biblical republic.” He asserts this was because the founders sought to follow a “biblical admonition”—which must be a reference to a different group of people than those I cited at the outset. In the same set of remarks he described democracy derisively as “two wolves and a lamb deciding what is for dinner.”
As early as 2003, he was publicly taking stands that revealed both his views and their roots. In one op-ed he attacked the Supreme Court decision to strike down sodomy laws, arguing that “prescriptions against sodomy have deep roots in religion, politics and law.” He described homosexuals as people who are “capable of changing their abnormal lifestyles.”
A year later, he wrote that same sex marriage will lead to “chaos and sexual anarchy that will doom even the strongest republic.”
He has subsequently sponsored a national “don’t say gay” bill and supports further legislation designed to take away the right of people to choose a life with the one they love.
He has written, “If we change marriage for this tiny…minority, we will have to do it for every deviant group.”
He advocates for a national ban on abortion. During a hearing in which he was condemning Roe v. Wade, he argued that if women were obligated to give birth to more “able-bodied workers,” Republicans might not have to cut Social Security and Medicare— which he has also described as the GOP’s number one priority.
He has championed the idea that, per Louisiana law, “perform an abortion and get imprisoned at hard labor.”
But he has done more than just talk. He was a lawyer for a Christian advocacy group that worked to overturn Roe v. Wade (and the 2020 presidential election…more on that in a moment).
His views on issue after issue are similarly extreme.
In his first act as speaker, he called for a resolution in support of Israel. But his ties with Israel are hardly based purely on an assessment of American national security interests. As the Israeli news site Haaretz revealed shortly after Johnson’s election, his connections to the country are primarily religious links to the Israeli far-right.
He described his own visit to the Temple Mount as “the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy.” Haaretz called his speakership win “the most significant victory to date for evangelical Christians’ pro-Israel movement.” (I would note that the affinity of evangelicals for Israel has nothing to do with support for the Jews but rather is tied to their belief that the existence of a Jewish state is required in advance of the End Times and “the rapture,” an event which calls Christian believers to heaven and turns out less well for everyone else, including the Jews.)
Johnson has written that he does not believe that global warming is a serious problem or one that is caused by human activity.
Above and beyond all of this, and in direct support of the idea that this is a man who is contemptuous of democracy, the rule of law, and the rights of American voters—Johnson has been called “the most important architect of Electoral College objections” to the 2020 election outcome, one that the courts have repeatedly proved was just and untainted by any hint of fraud. He promoted some of the most egregious Trumpian lies about the election, including not only that of widespread fraud, but that the likes of long-deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez were behind that fraud.
He promoted a now discredited legal theory that would have granted state legislatures the final say in the outcome of the election and led an effort among members of Congress in support of that last ditch, hare-brained effort to block the will of the people, and to install the candidate he enthusiastically supported, Donald Trump.
While closely linked to Trump—an exultant Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) called him “MAGA Mike” following his election—Johnson represents something very different and, hard to believe though that may be, much more troubling.
Trump believes in nothing but Trump. The former president leads a faction in the GOP that is either essentially obstructionist—like Jim Jordan or Matt Gaetz—or cynically in search of power at any cost—like Kevin McCarthy or Elise Stefanik—or profoundly ignorant—like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert or Paul Gosar or Anna Paulina Luna or…well, frankly, too many to list.
But Johnson, although he is seen as part of this group, represents something different. He deeply (and apparently, sincerely) believes in the dominionist idea that the laws of the nation should conform to Christian theology and be rooted in the ideas of the Bible.
As benign as that may sound to those who find solace or inspiration in their Christian beliefs, the desire to institutionalize those beliefs and to impose them upon even those who do not share them is pernicious. It is the way of the Taliban and the mullahs in Iran, of Israel’s hard right and theocratic dictators throughout time. It negates the idea that the citizens of a nation should be the final authority in determining the course and laws of a society. In the name of a “higher authority,” it strips away rights and puts at risk all those who disagree.
Men like Johnson and other members of that movement, a group that includes members of the U.S. Supreme Court and important leaders in the GOP like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, represent one of the threats those who founded this country most feared. They were imperfect men. But they had learned the lessons of centuries of suffering and horror that were imposed upon the world by theocrats who claimed to be the representatives of the Almighty on earth.
Unfortunately for all of us, their wisdom and their warnings are seemingly being forgotten and all who hold beliefs inconsistent with those of a chosen evangelical Christian few are now increasingly at risk, as is the very idea of America as a free and democratic society.