The Influence of Christian nationalism in American politics

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 25: House Republicans applaud as U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) (C) is elected the new Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol on October 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. After a contentious nominating period that has seen four candidates over a three-week period, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) was voted in to succeed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who was ousted on October 4 in a move led by a small group of conservative members of his own party.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 25: House Republicans applaud as U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) (C) is elected the new Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol on October 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. After a contentious nominating period that has seen four candidates over a three-week period, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) was voted in to succeed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who was ousted on October 4 in a move led by a small group of conservative members of his own party. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Mike Johnson was once a little-known Republican from Louisiana. Now he's the newly elected Speaker of the House.

Who Mike Johnson and what does his win tell us about the GOP now?

Today, On Point: The Influence of Christian nationalism in American politics.


Mark Ballard, Washington correspondent for the Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. He’s been covering Mike Johnson for 15+ years.

Philip Gorski, professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University. Co-author of "The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy."

Anne Nelson, research scholar at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Author of "Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right."


Part I

It is my great privilege to introduce the 45th Speaker of the House, my dear friend (CHEERS), Mike Johnson, the Speaker. (APPLAUSE) 

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On October 25th, after what seemed like never-ending internecine chaos within the Republican caucus, Mike Johnson emerged as the 56th Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. At age 51, he is one of the youngest, and by some measures, least experienced House Speakers ever. But that does not mean that Johnson doesn't have a mission. In fact, he does. And he has the motivation to see that mission through. Here he is speaking in front of Congress prior to being sworn in as Speaker.

MIKE JOHNSON: 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 raised up each of you. All of us. And I believe that God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment in this time.

This is my belief. I believe that each one of us has a huge responsibility today. To use the gifts that God has given us to serve the extraordinary people of this great country, and they deserve it. And to ensure that our republic remains standing as the great beacon of light and hope and freedom in a world that desperately needs it.

CHAKRABARTI: Johnson was first elected to the House by Louisiana's 4th Congressional District, in 2016, just seven years ago. As such, his career prior to becoming a congressman wasn't well known outside of Louisiana. His Christian faith has been central to both his personal and professional life, as evidenced by his work for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group that supports things like criminalizing homosexuality.

Something Johnson directly advocated for when he wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in its historic case, Lawrence v. Texas, that eventually overturned state laws banning same sex intimacy. Johnson has frequently described his legal work as defending the Christian faith. Here he is in 2016 when he was interviewed by Alex T. Ray on his broadcast, Disciple's Voice of Hope.

JOHNSON: Because I remember I've been out in the courts for the last couple of decades, fighting to defend what's left of that. And I'm watching our freedom being eroded. I'm watching these foundations, religion, morality, the rule of law, virtue. I'm seeing those things being whittled away and it deeply concerns me.

So what are we supposed to do about that? We go into those arenas, and we shine a light. We were supposed to stand for truth and to advance those ideals and whatever the specific issues are. There is truth to be brought to bear of those things, and we need people who are strong enough in their faith to stand up and say, no, this is right.

CHAKRABARTI: That same year, 2016, Johnson told the Louisiana Baptist Message, quote, "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."

Then he went on to say, "I've been in and around the Louisiana legislature and other state legislatures and the Congress for many years. I've drafted legislation and defended it in the courts. I have been there to speak with legislatures and to testify." End quote. And as he told Alex T. Ray, Johnson believes his Christian legal advocacy has come at a price.

JOHNSON: You step up these days to bring your faith into the public square, to shine your light, to be the salt light, as our Savior told us we're supposed to do. Then you get marginalized, you get tarred and feathered in some arenas. If you bring it into a legislative arena, what are you talking, you can't bring faith to bear on this.

RAY: Wow.

JOHNSON: Now wait a minute, the founder said religion and morality, the indispensable supports of the whole republic. Now you're telling me I can't even bring it in as one argument in the public policy arena. That's crazy. It's anathema. It's opposite. It's the opposite of how we were founded as a country.

And I'm telling you, we're losing those foundations at our peril.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, as House Speaker, Mike Johnson is in the most powerful political position of his life so far. He will control what kind of legislation reaches the House floor, for example. And that fact has many who have followed his career and professional work wondering, is Mike Johnson, gavel in hand, exactly what those who seek not just to protect faith from government, but to shape government into a Christian institution, is he what they've been hoping for, for decades?

Let's start with someone today who's been reporting on Johnson for more than 15 years. Mark Ballard joins us. He's the Washington correspondent for the Times-Picayune and The Advocate, has papers in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport, Louisiana, and he joins us today from Washington.

Mark, welcome to On Point.

MARK BALLARD: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, tell us a little bit about Johnson's early life and where he grew up. What's significant about the place and the people he was surrounded by that will help us understand him better now?

BALLARD: He grew up in Shreveport, which is in the northwestern section of the state.

His father was when he was a teenager, was burned severely and he lived, but he was burned severely and Johnson has said that this kind of helped mold and form his faith, which is basically Southern Baptist. And he's following the tenants of the Southern Baptist convention in all of this that you've just played on the air.

That's not outrageous. That's not him coming up with it. It is straight in line with the Southern Baptist Convention.

CHAKRABARTI: Now tell me a little bit more about Shreveport, right? Because, and correct me if I'm wrong, but to my understanding of faith and the Southern Baptist Convention, that's extremely common.

It's like in the air in a place like Shreveport.

BALLARD: It is. It's standard conversation where you go. It is. Louisiana is separated really by the I-10. And south of the I-10 is a Roman Catholic predominance. North of the I 10 is Southern Baptist predominance. And so in a place like Shreveport, which sits in a corner next to Texas and right underneath Arkansas, is very much part of the Bible belt.

And those kinds of conversations happen all the time. They have lots of churches. It's his district is 62% white. Most of those people are of the conservative Protestant faiths and, they also, his district voted for Donald Trump twice. ... And so he's in a district that pretty much believes the way that he believes.

CHAKRABARTI: So we're going to talk about people and organizations he's been connected with more, a little bit later this hour, but I'd love to hear from you, Mark, about what kind of, he was in the state legislature for a while, wasn't he?

BALLARD: Yeah, he was, but he had a significant career as a lawyer really since law school and dealing with many James Dobson type of organizations. And doing the kind of work and briefings that that you've mentioned thus far. When he went into the legislature, it was primarily because the previous legislator became a judge. And he was elected, pretty much overwhelmingly in that, and then started pursuing almost from the get-go bills that were against same sex marriage, protecting pastors and anti-abortion type of legislation.

CHAKRABARTI: So he calls himself a full spectrum conservative. Did that way of looking at the world have an impact on things outside, let's say cultural issues as you just outlined?

BALLARD: In Louisiana, you have to understand that the cities are blue, but outside the cities is very red.

They are Donald Trump supporting in the 80-percentile range and so the conservative lifestyle is permissive. It's all over. It's wherever you see it. And so there is the feeling of faith being the cornerstone of the way people live there.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. Tell us then a little bit more about how you see what he tried to work for while a member of the Louisiana state legislature in comparison to what he's been doing for the past seven years, prior to becoming Speaker of the House, what he's been doing in Washington.

Because as I mentioned before, I think hardly anyone outside of Louisiana was paying much attention to Mike Johnson.

BALLARD: Yeah, and I think that he was in the legislature for only two years. And then when John Fleming, who was a representative, ran for the U. S. Senate, again, to the seat that John Kennedy now holds, Fleming basically tapped Mike Johnson and said, okay, I want you to be the new U.S. representative.

And so he was in the state legislature for only 2 years. And what was more known about Mike Johnson prior to that was his legal career, and he worked with Kyle Duncan, who's now on the 5th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They were friends at LSU Law school and remain so, to this day. And Duncan was at the forefront of this sort of religious freedom type of legislation.

And Mike Johnson, where I first ran into him, was he was defending Louisiana's same sex marriage ban, which was involved with helping to write, Steve Scalise, the majority leader of the house, actually sponsored the bill, but Johnson was very much involved with the bill and in defending the bill.

And then he also went after Louisiana abortion clinics, not so much in lawsuits, but within regulatory actions within the states. And he was also involved in a whole lot of anti-abortion type of litigation, such as requiring physicians that perform the procedure to have admitting privileges within a couple of miles of the clinic.

And so he was much better known for those legal fights that he had in Louisiana than what he did in the legislature, was very short. And then when he came to the U.S. Congress, he has pursued the same type of bills in Congress that he now says he's not going to. In fact, when you ask him or when asked about, I don't think he'll ever say the word that he is a Christian national, but he has been associated with Christian national causes and groups.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we're talking about newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson. Who he is, what he believes and how those beliefs might influence his speakership, specifically when it comes to his profound sense of faith as a Christian and whether or not it's bringing Christian nationalism to the house speakership.

I'm joined today now by Philip Gorski. He's a professor of sociology and religious studies at Yale University and co-author of "The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy." Professor Gorski, welcome.

PHILIP GORSKI: Thanks for having me on, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Also with us today is Anne Nelson.

She's a research scholar at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, and author of "Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right." Anne Nelson, welcome to you.

ANNE NELSON: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: First and foremost, I'd like to get a clear definition of what Christian nationalism is.

Because I frequently hear two almost opposing thoughts juxtaposed against each other. That is it a defense of Christianity against an overbearing government? Or is it the attempt to shape the government, the United States government, its laws and its policies as defined with Christian values.

And I think the distinction is important. Professor Gorski, help us understand that. Which one is it?

GORSKI: Sure. Let me first say what Christian nationalism isn't. It's not conservative evangelicalism. It's not right-wing populism, it's not white nationalism. It overlaps with all of those things, but it's not with any of them.

I would define white Christian nationalism as a tribal identity that says who is at the top of the social hierarchy, who the real Americans are. And centers that group of conservative white native-born Christians in the story of what, who made America and what America is, and it has both offensive and defensive postures.

I think the defensive posture is to some degree baked in, because of the centrality of persecution in the history of Christianity and in particular the history of the sectarian forms of Protestant Christianity that are at the center of the Christian nationalist movement in the United States. And that defensive posture, I think, has been redoubled by demographic change within the United States, which means that white Protestants are now less than half of the population, when they were 98%, 99% of the population at the time of the American Revolution.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So then, and Anne, I'm going to come to you with a similar question in just a second, but so that's the defensive posture, as you put it.

Then the sort of offensive posture would be what? Because many groups in this country, they see themselves as Central to the American story, they feel somewhat victimized at different points in time. That doesn't necessarily distinguish this group, I would say. My question is, do they seek to change how government functions in defense of their self-proclaimed centrality to the American story?

GORSKI: Absolutely. Some people online have taken to calling Mike Johnson, MAGA Mike. I would think a more appropriate description would be MACA Mike, in the sense of, since his view of how to make America great again is making America Christian again, and he's quite clear about what that means, he said that holding a particular set of conservative Christian views should be a litmus test for candidates in the Republican Party.

He has said that the separation of church and state is a one-way street. It's supposed to keep government out of the churches. But open the door for church involvement in government. And he has a very clear view about what Christian morality is, and he hopes to translate those moral views into national legislation.

The defensive posture is certainly in his case, combined with an offensive strategy.

CHAKRABARTI: And just because I think it's worth saying, given how diverse the spectrum of beliefs within Christianity itself is, I would say Mike Johnson has a very clear view of his perception of Christian morality as informed by his conservative Southern Baptist upbringing.

But Anne Nelson, I want you to listen to this for a quick second. Because not that long ago, in the New York Times, columnist Thomas Edsall wrote a piece that was entitled, The Embodiment of White Christian Nationalism in a Tailored Suit. In fact, Philip Gorski is quoted in that piece, which is how we discovered Professor Gorski.

But just yesterday on Fox News, House Speaker Mike Johnson appeared with moderator Shannon Bream, and she asked him about this. And she began by reading Edsall's definition of Christian nationalism from the magazine Christianity Today.

SHANNON BREAM: It's a belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.

Is that an accurate description of your view of how the government should function?

JOHNSON: No, I'm not even sure what the term means, and look, there are entire industries built on taking down, tearing down people like me. I understand that comes with the territory and we're not fazed by it. But listen, what I believe in are the founding principles of the country.

Individual freedom, limited government, the rule of law, peace through strength, fiscal responsibility, free markets, human dignity. Those are essential American principles. And so I've been labeled all kinds of stuff, but these people don't know me.

CHAKRABARTI: All right. That was House Speaker Mike Johnson on Fox News just yesterday.

Anne Nelson, you've done years of reporting and research into some of the groups that Mike Johnson has been connected with. So tell me a little bit about, let's start with the Council for National Policy. What is it? Who's in it? And how do their Actions or goals, as you see them, help inform whether or not Mike Johnson, our understanding of if Mike Johnson is a Christian nationalist?

NELSON: Some four decades ago, there were political strategists and major economic interests, many of them out of the fossil fuel industries, who really wanted to find a new avenue to power, when they realized that they were losing momentum politically. And in 1981, they came together and founded the Council for National Policy riding on the coattails of the Reagan election.

And it brought together money-making televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and people from the oil industries in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, where I'm from. And they developed a very sophisticated political strategy based on a very acute strategist like Ralph Reed, who said, look, there are these unengaged evangelical voters in critical states who don't go and vote.

And if we can mobilize them to vote for us based on hot button social issues like gender issues, like abortion and really surround them with our information through our radio stations, eventually our websites, et cetera we can tilt the American electorate in our favor. So they've spent some 40 years working on these plans, and as it turns out, the research group documented today revealed that Mike Johnson was a member of the Council for National Policy in their directory in 2011 and 2012.

The organizations you mentioned, Alliance Defending Freedom, another related group, First Liberty, which has done a bunch of lawsuits in Texas, are run by members of the Council for National Policy, who consult and work with major donors like the DeVos family, and they're allied with the Koch industries to come up with very sophisticated strategies to shape our national life.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you said he was on the directory of the CNP?

NELSON: Yes, that was just revealed today.

CHAKRABARTI: And what does that, what's the implication of that?

NELSON: Oh, it means that they hold secret meetings two or three times a year. They have their big donors present, they have their strategists present, such as Ralph Reed, Richard Viguerie, and so on.

They have their media people. They have the Salem Radio Network is one of their central partners. And they basically put out their objectives and then in these closed rooms, figure out how they're going to pursue them. Ginny Thomas, Mrs. Clarence Thomas is a leading member. People who were involved in the January 6th protest such as Jenny Beth Martin are leading members.

So to place Mike Johnson as a member of this organization is very significant.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Professor Gorski, I'm going to come back to you in just a second. But Anne, tell me a little bit more about other people associated with the CNP. Because it'll help us understand, again, this four-decade trajectory that you're talking about and why it seems to be, I don't want to say culminating, but coming to a head with Johnson in the speakership.

For example, you've reported about CNP President Tony Perkins. Can you remind us who he is and why he's significant?

NELSON: Absolutely. And he also comes out of the Louisiana legislature. And then James Dobson, who was mentioned earlier and was a founding member of the Council for National Policy, anointed him as the head of something called the Family Research Council, which has a major lobbying arm for right wing fundamentalists in Washington, also has a media empire.

And if you drive around the South and the Midwest, and you just turn on the car radio, you're going to run into these stations with this very one-sided programming that suggests that it's a sin to vote for a Democrat, basically.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Professor Gorski, what do you think about that?

GORSKI: Anne is really the great expert in following the money and the organization chart, and I think that really is crucial to understanding that this isn't just somebody with a set of conservative Christian beliefs, but this is somebody at the center of a larger political movement.

I would just make one more connection, which is to a man named David Barton who runs an organization in Aledo, Texas, just outside of Dallas, Fort Worth, called WallBuilders, and has been promoting a mythological version of American history now for decades and with considerable success. And Johnson has said on a number of occasions that he regards Barton as incredibly strong influence on him.

Basically, Barton's argument runs something like this, America was founded as a Christian nation. The founders were Orthodox Christians. This is a key point. The founding documents were based on biblical principles. And In order to carry out a sort of a divided mission, that it's a mission that has been trusted with the United States has been blessed with unique power and prosperity.

But all of those blessings and all of that prosperity are now in danger, as is the mission itself. And the only way to hold fast to them is by making America Christian again. So this is really a completely unadulterated Christian nationalism. And so I simply, I cannot take Johnson's rejection of the label seriously.

This is, really checks every single box on the Christian nationalism checklist.

CHAKRABARTI: Because it's hard to find a moment where he's seen the world in any other way than what he himself has described in that tape that we found. Where, we looked long and hard, to find a moment where Mike Johnson clearly said America is a secular nation. And so therefore all faiths should be protected. And there isn't room for a particular narrow religious view as informing government policy. We just couldn't find that. But in fact, there were lots of other things that surfaced.

For example, I had talked about earlier how Johnson in his previous legal work before becoming a legislator in Louisiana had advocated for a stricter definition of marriage is between a man and a woman in Louisiana and also how he did a lot of legal work trying to oppose the decriminalization, essentially, of homosexuality.

In the past, he's called homosexuality quote, "Inherently unnatural" and quote, "A dangerous lifestyle." When he was at the Alliance Defense Fund, he collaborated with a now defunct group called Exodus. And actually, before I continue on, Anne Nelson, do you know of Exodus?

NELSON: I know of it, yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I just want to know if you could add more information than I have about Exodus, but at least, at the very least I know that Exodus has frequently promoted gay conversion therapy.

Okay, so here is Johnson speaking in 2008 on the "Talking it Over" radio show.

JOHNSON: Our race, the size of our feet, the color of our eyes, these are things we're born with we cannot change. But what these adult advocacy groups like the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network are promoting is a type of behavior.

Homosexual behavior is something you do, it's not something that you are.

CHAKRABARTI: Anne Nelson, do you want to comment on that?

NELSON: Yeah, this is very much part of the Council for National Policy orthodoxy. And people should realize that Tony Perkins and the CNP members played a major role in bringing Donald Trump to office.

Organizing many fundamentalists and partner organizations such as the National Rifle Association and others to canvas for him and contributing to his war chest. So one of the rewards, besides their ability to give him a list for federal judge appointments, was to allow Tony Perkins to write various social areas of the Republican platform in 2016.

And lo and behold, conversion therapy for homosexuals appeared in the Republican platform, and Tony Perkins was given the credit. So Mike Johnson has actually, at the Council for International Policy in 2019, said he was the quote, "bag man" for Tony Perkins in the past, and credited him with shaping his career.

CHAKRABARTI: So let me ask you, Anne, help me understand something better. When you described how the Council for National Policy was first formed, you said it was the evangelical, conservative evangelical leaders with a large media reach, plus oil interests, right? So were the interests of the business side of the CNP in terms of what their values were?

Did they overlap strongly with the religious side of the CNP or did they see each other as just as good partners but if not, if they didn't have exactly the same goals?

NELSON: Oh, absolutely. And in fact, I describe Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana as American Petro states. And growing up there, you just see how the Southern Baptist hierarchy and other leading figures in the state are woven into the oil industry. So in the founding of the Council for National Policy, you have figures like Nelson Bunker Hunt and others, but you also have the Koch brothers coming into the CNP picture in 2010.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: There's something that comes up frequently in discussions about what is Christian nationalism and that is their view of whether a Christian nationalist view of whether the United States is a democracy or a republic. So this is from 2016 when Mike Johnson, now House Speaker, but then Representative Mike Johnson, appeared on the "Disciple's Voice of Hope" broadcast with Alex T. Ray.

And Johnson said that following the Revolutionary War, he says the country was not set up as a democracy.

JOHNSON: So we set up this system called a constitutional republic. We don't live in a democracy. Because a democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what's for dinner. Okay? It's not just majority rule.

It's a constitutional republic. And the founders set that up because they followed the biblical admonition on what a civil society is supposed to look like.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Gorski, now, the version of democracy, to my ear, that Mike Johnson is talking about there is almost ancient Greek era democracy. Where people, men gathered in the agora and decided what to do and how to rule, direct democracy in its most fundamental form.

That's not what we have in the United States. True. We have a United States Constitution. So when he calls the system a constitutional republic, that in fact is correct, right? Because the people vote for representatives and senators and indirectly for the president. So it's not direct democracy, but those elected officials are expected to abide by the series of laws set out in the constitution.

But the Constitution does not say anywhere in its writing, as far as I can see, that those series of laws are informed by Christian morality, Professor Gorski.

GORSKI: No, certainly not. I think Christian nationalism really is a series of half-truths. It is of course true that there was influence of Christianity on the Constitution, on the founders, on the framing of American institutions.

But of course, there were influences from, for example, ancient Greece, Rome and of course also English common law and English institutions, as well. What I find particularly concerning in Mike Johnson's explanation of what, how he understands a constitutional republic, or a republic, is that it does not imply majority rule. It is certainly true that there are a lot of counter majoritarian checks that were set up in the United States Constitution.

Indeed, I think that has become increasingly problem within the United States that needs to be addressed. But he's really doing in a way is providing a brief for minority rule by the virtuous. I think this is what he really understands by a constitutional republic. And of course, by the virtuous he means people like him, people who hold religious views like his. Because of course they are the only people who will be able to understand the biblical basis on which the Constitutional Republic putatively rests.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes, because he says that exclusively, like very clearly at the end of that cut we just played. The founders "set up that Constitutional Republic because they followed the biblical admonition on what a civil society is supposed to look like." But as you just mentioned, Professor Gorski, that sentence ignores all the other influences that went into the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

And I would also argue that let's say, the founders' version of Christianity would be almost unrecognizable to modern day Christian evangelical conservatives in this country.

GORSKI: Yes, that's absolutely right. I think the key point to make here really is that there was an incredible range of views amongst the founders, religious views, this is something that has been exhaustively studied, and it really ranges from folks who were probably almost closet atheists, like Ethan Allen, all the way to folks who were probably relatively Orthodox, Christians even by contemporary understanding.

But this in a way really undermines the fundamental premise of Johnson's argument, remember the statement that he made earlier that you played where he said if you want to understand my political views, all you have to do is open the Bible.

I've read the Bible front to back many times, and I didn't see anything in there about the IRS, which is the first piece of legislation which he introduced, coupling aid military aid for Israel with cuts to the IRS's enforcement wing. In fact, there are a whole host of issues about which it says very little.

And even the issues which are, I think, closest to his heart, for example marriage and homosexuality. To my knowledge, there are really only two biblical verses, one in Leviticus, one in Romans, that say anything about this. This set against the enormous number of things that are said about social justice, charity, hospitality, things that he seems to think follow directly from the Bible, but which he pays very little attention to.

CHAKRABARTI: Anne Nelson, I'm thinking back to how trying to shine the lights on the various connections here. And just to be clear, does Mike Johnson himself acknowledge the CNP as one of the forces behind the acceleration of his career?

NELSON: He did when he was speaking secretly to the CNP. And in fact, that was basically his entire speech, thanking not only these people, but these organizations that are fundamental.

So people should know about Morton Blackwell. He said Morton Blackwell was responsible for his going to Congress in the first place. Morton Blackwell founded the Leadership Institute, which claims to have trained over 230,000 conservative candidates and campaign workers. This is an engine that has been working for over 40 years and the Democrats don't have the equivalent of it.

Again, when Mike Johnson is speaking to the CNP, he gives them credit for the key points in his career.

CHAKRABARTI: So it's not just Mike Johnson. Because you're talking about the acceleration of the careers of many conservative Christian lawmakers, but also the GOP itself as a party, right?

Because from Thomas Edsall's piece, there's some really interesting factoids about how much the GOP has changed over this 40-year period that right now, the party, people in the party identify themselves at a 60% rate of being white and Christian. But the country as a whole is 42% white and Christian.

And then again, there's more. This is from other researchers that found, this is from Ryan Burge at Eastern Illinois University, who said that in the 1970s, the GOP was basically mainline Protestants, 46% of the party. And now, as of the 2010s, Evangelical were 38% of Republicans, Catholics, 25%, and those old school mainline Protestants, barely 17%.

So how do you read that transformation, Anne?

NELSON: You also have to look at the political drivers in this. So in the 1960s and seventies, the Southern Baptist Convention, like other denominations, was very gradually liberalizing. And you had something called the Conservative Resurgence, which came in, and two members of the Council for National Policy led it and they purged moderates, moderate theologians, moderate pastors, et cetera.

And drove it far to the right and weaponized it for political purposes. So then you had another juncture with the CNP's Paul Teller, a congressional aide, who led the purge of John Boehner from Congress because he was too moderate. He worked too much with the Democrats and Paul Teller was pushing Ted Cruz as a leader in Congress.

Now you have this moment where this purge of moderate Republicans has gone across the board. And all over the country, you have moderate Republicans who are being actively opposed sometimes involving what you might call dirty tricks by these extreme right-wing Republicans. And then they go to Congress, and they obstruct legislation that is trying to serve the good of the American people, in order to cause a measure of chaos.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let's talk about how Johnson's beliefs not just in his Christian faith, but also in the politics of Donald Trump, how he's actually acted on that. Because as folks might know, after the 2020 election, Mike Johnson frequently echoed some of the conspiracy theories that Donald Trump was advancing to explain his loss.

He voted against certifying Joe Biden's win as Congress reconvened after the attack on the Capitol on January 6th. He even filed a brief to the Supreme Court in a lawsuit that sought to overturn the 2020 election. The court threw out that case, but three points there of actual activity by Mike Johnson.

When he was in the press conference right after he was elected speaker, he was asked a question by ABC's Rachel Scott about those 2020 election overturning attempts. He did not answer Rachel Scott, just shook his head. But here, you can hear a little bit of what some other members of Congress standing nearby said.

RACHEL SCOTT: Mr. Johnson, you helped lead efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.


JOHNSON: Next question, next question.

CHAKRABARTI: So we have members of the GOP caucus there telling reporters to shut up for just asking a question about the 2020 election and then Mike Johnson declining to even answer. Philip, what does that tell you?

GORSKI: Tells me that Mike Johnson and probably many of his colleagues believe that the election really was stolen. They believe that the failed self-coup attempt on January 6th of 2021 was an expression of legitimate political protests, that it was a tourist visit to the U. S. Capitol and that they're tired of being asked about this.

They want to put that behind them at this point. It does also, I think, point to a couple of deeper issues. One is the connection between this Christian Nationalist subculture and conspiracy culture, this is a finding in a lot of survey research, that there's a tremendous overlap, for example, between QAnon and Christian Nationalism, and that people who affirm Christian nationalism strongly are very likely to believe the big lie about the stolen election.

So it is, so to speak, to put it in conspiracy theoretical terms, it's all connected.

CHAKRABARTI: Is it a subculture? Is Christian nationalism a subculture any longer? Because it was just a few years ago that I think it would have been challenging to find an openly avowed Christian nationalists in any GOP leadership position.

But here we have Mike Johnson as House Speaker. Not that he's openly embracing Christian nationalism, but you two are laying out an argument that says his beliefs and behaviors would equate to as such.

GORSKI: I think secular progressives and left leaning observers just didn't see it. It has been, it's one of the most powerful currents within our contemporary politics.

It's been one of the most powerful currents in American politics for centuries, but it operated under the surface and out of view. You saw the periscope, a submarine like pop up on January 6th, and now you've got the entire, the entire submarine has breached the surface, and become visible and impossible to ignore.

But it was always there, and I'm sure Anne will confirm that, someone who's been studying these hidden networks and dark money for a very long time.

CHAKRABARTI: Anne, go ahead.

NELSON: Yeah. What I can say is that the language was the norm in Oklahoma when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s. It was just the culture that has been very slow to change.

It has been changing, but it's just, we all pledged allegiance to the flag, one nation under God. That was our world. For me, what changed was when the money got behind it and weaponized it and you cannot leave out the fossil fuel industries. You just cannot. It's not a coincidence that Mike Johnson got a 2% rating from the Sierra Club for his voting record.

It's not a coincidence that the various organizations that seek to roll back taxes, corporate taxes, et cetera. And Mike Johnson, foundations like the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, have gotten behind these initiatives and really push them. So you know, you have a whole constellation of anti-democratic measures.

For example, CNP member Cleta Mitchell has gone around the country trying to undermine elections. She was on the Raffensperger call with Trump as one of Trump's lawyers, funded by the Bradley Foundation. A lot of the people who are driving the financing and the strategies of these measures have very slender connections to anything religious.

I often say that they appear to worship mammon over anything else.

CHAKRABARTI: So as we wrap up here, we've just got about 30 seconds left. And Philip Gorski, I'm going to offer you this last question. Can you find any reason to believe Johnson, when he says now that a house as house speaker his belief that the United States should be a Christian nation won't inform how he runs the house?

GORSKI: Gosh, you would have to mark me very skeptical. He said, even one of the clips that you played, that his Christian faith, and that one should be able to bring one's Christian faith openly and explicitly into the public square. Why would we doubt his own public statements?

This program aired on November 6, 2023.


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Hilary McQuilkin Producer, On Point
Hilary McQuilkin is a producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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