S5, Ep. 04: A pivotal day in the U.S. House
Amanda and Holly discuss the election of Speaker Mike Johnson and Amanda’s recent testimony before Congress
Get an inside look at the U.S. House of Representatives and the challenges of Christian nationalism in this week’s episode. Amanda Tyler and Holly Hollman take you behind-the-scenes of Amanda’s testimony to Congress, held on the same day lawmakers elected Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., to be Speaker of the House. They share key moments from the hearing on religious freedom around the world, including a powerful moment with Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla. Plus, they discuss troubling statements from Speaker Johnson, his embrace of Christian nationalism, and how he might navigate his new role.
Segment 1 (starting at 00:38): Returning to testify before Congress
Read Amanda’s written testimony at this link.
Watch a portion of Amanda’s opening statement at this link, and watch the entire hearing on the YouTube channel of the U.S. House Oversight’s Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs.
Learn more about the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom here. It is also known by its initials USCIRF, pronounced “You-Surf” in conversation.
The United Nations has a website page devoted to the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will be Dec 10, 2023.
Read more about BJC’s advocacy fighting the travel ban here.
Segment 2 (starting at 17:34): Questions from Congress and an exchange with Rep. Maxwell Frost
You can watch the exchange with Amanda and Rep. Frost at this link.
Segment 3 (starting at 30:08): Speaker Mike Johnson and Christian nationalism
Amanda is quoted in this article by Nick Mordowanec for Newsweek: Mike Johnson Uses Bible to Justify ‘Aggression,’ Urges Christians to Fight
Amanda is quoted in this article by Peter Smith for the Associated Press: Christian conservatives cheer one of their own as Mike Johnson assumes Congress’ most powerful seat
Brian Kaylor and Jeremy Fuzy of Word&Way wrote this piece on Speaker Mike Johnson for the “A Public Witness” newsletter: Christian nationalism in the Speaker’s chair
Dr. Kristin Du Mez did a Q&A with Politico’s Katelyn Fossett about Speaker Johnson: ‘He Seems to Be Saying His Commitment Is to Minority Rule’
Dr. Andrew Whitehead and Dr. Samuel Perry wrote this piece for TIME magazine: The Christian Nationalism of Speaker Mike Johnson
Amanda mentioned Dr. Walter B. “Buddy” Shurden’s writings on Baptist history. Click here to read a copy of his “How We Got That Way” presentation on Baptists and religious liberty.
Holly mentioned this piece in The New Yorker by David Kirpatrick on ADF: The next targets for the group that overturned Roe
Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.
Transcript: Season 5, Episode 4: A pivotal day in the U.S. House (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)
Segment 1: Returning to testify before Congress (starting at 00:38)
AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.
HOLLY: And I’m general counsel Holly Hollman. Today we’re reflecting on our front-row seat in the House of Representatives last week on a momentous day in that legislative body’s history.
AMANDA: That’s right, Holly. I was called to testify at a congressional hearing on the same day that Representative Mike Johnson was elected speaker of the House.
HOLLY: We could see the members heading into the House as we were leaving the House office building and walking back to our office at BJC headquarters, which is on the Senate side of the Capitol, not knowing exactly about the excitement that would unfold.
AMANDA: And I was there to testify about our nation’s bipartisan commitment to international religious freedom and the challenges we face at home and abroad. So it was interesting to be testifying on a bipartisan issue while the House was pretty divided along partisan and even intraparty lines.
HOLLY: So today we’re going to give our listeners a peek into the hearing experience and our reaction to the announcement of the new speaker of the House on this U.S. House of Representatives-focused episode of Respecting Religion.
AMANDA: So let me start with explaining a little bit of the behind-the-scenes of these hearings. In Congress, whichever party has the majority is called the majority party, and that party sets the agenda for all of the committee business, so they call the hearings, set the agendas, and then also invite their own witnesses. Then the minority party gets to invite one witness usually as their witness for the hearings as well.
You know, I testified on last Wednesday, and I only got the official invitation to testify less than 48 hours before then, on Monday afternoon. I was invited by the minority side of the U.S. House Oversight Committee, and so I had a soft invitation from the staff that was working with the Democrats on that committee on Friday afternoon. But even with that, I only had about five days to prepare for the hearing.
And I also wasn’t sure really until we walked into the hearing room if the hearing was going to go off as scheduled, and that’s because the prior week, all of the scheduled hearings or at least most of them had been cancelled because most of the Republicans were in their caucus meetings, trying to figure out who they would nominate to be the next speaker of the House.
HOLLY: Yeah. It was quite the whirlwind of preparation, because when you get invited to testify, you first have to prepare a written testimony, then prepare for an oral statement. But, indeed, it did come to pass, and, Amanda, you testified at this subcommittee hearing, the Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs. That’s a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. And the name of the hearing was Faith Under Fire: An Examination of Global Religious Persecution.
AMANDA: And I was familiar with this committee, because last December, I testified for another subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee as a majority witness. I will say that the House Oversight Committee has incredibly broad jurisdiction. On its website, it describes its purview this way. It says, “Our primary responsibility is oversight of virtually everything government does.” So ‑‑
HOLLY: Pretty wide mandate there, huh?
AMANDA: They do. So they have a wide variety of hearings, and this particular week, they wanted to focus on global religious persecution.
HOLLY: Well, as some of you know, BJC’s work is largely focused on domestic religious freedom issues, but, of course, we care about international issues as well. We recognize that many Americans understand religious freedom at home based on how they see America’s commitment to religious freedom in our Constitution as distinct from the way that religious freedom is protected or not protected in other parts of the world.
And, Amanda, as BJC’s been working against Christian nationalism more intentionally in the last few years, we’ve certainly seen a connection between our work at home and the need for leadership on the world stage. So let’s talk about how it went.
We headed over there, walked over with some of the other BJC staff and went into one of these big, nice conference rooms. I think we were in the same room where you testified back in December. And, yeah. After you have a little time with committee staff and then you go get set up in front of the dais where the members sit. So why don’t you describe specifically kind of what your approach to this hearing was.
AMANDA: Well, I think the broader context of the hearing and where we are, we just acknowledge, first of all, the number of challenges that we are facing in the international community here. Of course, with the war in Ukraine and also the war between Israel and Hamas, and while those particular conflicts were not the focus of the hearing, there were references to both of them for the purpose of the focus of the hearing which was global religious persecution.
And that, even though members, including members on this particular subcommittee, might have different views about the war in Ukraine and about American response to the war between Israel and Hamas, one thing that they could be united in is condemning global religious persecution and looking for ways that the United States can be a stronger advocate for those who are victims around the world.
So broadly, my testimony first focused on bipartisan support for the International Religious Freedom Act, which is 25 years old; also focused on the threat of blasphemy and apostasy laws, and specifically BJC’s advocacy against these laws and the enforcement of these laws which can often lead to religious persecution.
And then I shifted gears and talked about how the United States could best maintain our credibility and our diplomatic force on the world stage to try to influence countries not to enforce, for instance, our blasphemy laws, and that is to be sure that we’re attending to religious freedom here at home. And to do that requires us to move away from Christian nationalism, to work to dismantle it, and to respond to what many see as a rising occurrence or tide of Christian nationalism in the United States, and then specifically talked about one particular policy issue in our not-so-distant past, and that is the last administration’s creation of a travel ban from Muslim majority countries.
This was a policy that sometimes goes by the shorthand of a Muslim ban. This policy went through a number of different iterations, and it was eventually upheld by the United States Supreme Court, in part because of the complexity of foreign relations issues. But what has been roundly rejected, certainly by the BJC and others in the religious freedom community, has been its fatal flaw that it could never overcome and that was targeting of a particular religion and religious group for disfavor by the U.S. government. So that’s kind of the broad outline of the testimony.
HOLLY: Yeah. And as you mentioned, the opportunity to testify about international religious freedom also is an opportunity to talk about religious freedom as a bipartisan issue, because historically it has been much easier to find agreement and to bring people together across the aisle when talking about our responsibility to promote religious freedom abroad.
You mentioned the International Religious Freedom Act, and, Amanda, you noted that bipartisan commitment, as you said, in the written testimony. The State Departments of both Republican and Democratic administrations have implemented the law through the Office of International Religious Freedom.
AMANDA: That’s right. And one of the major pieces of work product from that office is this annual report to Congress on the status of religious freedom in countries around the world. And so for each of those countries in this really comprehensive report, it goes over the religious demography of that country, along with how well religious freedom is respected, both by government but also by society in general, which I think is really important to note the way that societies can either uphold or denigrate religious freedom as well.
And so then based on that report, the U.S. Department of State can also designate certain countries as countries of particular concern or certain nongovernmental entities, like terrorist organizations, as entities of particular concern. And I think all of this just goes to shine a brighter light on what is actually happening in these countries and can also, I think, give us a better idea comparatively, country to country, about the state of religious freedom worldwide.
HOLLY: And the International Religious Freedom Act also established the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, known as USCIRF, which is an entity that operates as an independent bipartisan U.S. federal agency. And that continues to be lauded for its work that represents a continuing commitment of Congress and our country to the importance of religious freedom abroad.
Among its important assignments, USCIRF advises Congress, engages the executive branch, and monitors religious freedom conditions abroad through research, raising public awareness of the need to end religious persecution and really access sort of a public advocacy entity to really continue to shine a spotlight on problematic issues across the globe.
AMANDA: So I was a witness called by the minority. The majority of the committee called three different witnesses, and one of those witnesses, David Curry, is president and CEO of Global Christian Relief, who is himself a commissioner for USCIRF and so could testify on behalf of USCIRF as well, to that entity’s viewpoint on international religious freedom.
The other two witnesses that testified alongside me were Dr. Eric Patterson, the president of Religious Freedom Institute, and Dr. Meaghan Mobbs, a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum. And we will link in show notes to the full written testimony that I submitted on behalf of BJC, as well as we’ll have a link to USCIRF’s website so you can learn more about the work that that important agency does as well.
HOLLY: And now we’re going to play Amanda’s opening statement.
AMANDA: (audio clip) Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Garcia, and members of the Subcommittee. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the lead organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism.
For 87 years, BJC has worked to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. As Baptists, we are concerned about the infringement of religious freedom against people belonging to any religious group and nonreligious people, too.
International religious freedom has long been a bipartisan priority in Congress, and this hearing is another great example of congressional commitment to this crucial element of our nation’s work. For 25 years, Democratic and Republican administrations have faithfully implemented the International Religious Freedom Act.
We are concerned about blasphemy and apostasy laws which stifle religious expression, undermine human rights, and foster religious intolerance, discrimination and violence. Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and others have been fined, imprisoned, tortured and executed for blasphemy offenses. BJC applauds both the House and Senate for passing the resolution calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws in 2020.
Faith is, indeed, under fire around the world, and the best way that we can make a difference is by not adding more fuel to the fire of religious extremism and nationalism. Instead, we should focus on being a role model to the world by ensuring the institutional separation of church and state which protects all of us. As we examine religious persecution globally, I hope we will also examine how well we are living up to this value at home.
The single greatest threat to religious liberty in the United States today and thus our reputation as leaders in the fight for religious liberty to the rest of the world is Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to fuse American and Christian identities. Christian nationalism seeks to privilege Christians and Christianity in law and policy.
We see what happens when religious nationalism in a country is allowed to flourish and use the power of the state to attempt to force a set of religious beliefs or create only one accepted form of religious belief. To oppose Christian nationalism is not to oppose Christianity. In fact, a growing number of Christians ‑‑ and I am one of them ‑‑ feel a religious imperative to stand against Christian nationalism.
More than 35,000 Christians have signed their names to a unifying statement of principles at the heart of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign which includes this language: “Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to the oppression of minority and other marginalized groups, as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion. We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation, including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship against religious communities at home and abroad.”
It’s deeply alarming that a member of the U.S. House of Representatives openly identifies as a Christian nationalist. Yet all of us who care about religious freedom should be able to quickly and definitively reject Christian nationalism. What happens abroad has an impact on the daily lives of Americans. We’ve sadly seen increased religious bigotry in the United States because of the war between Israel and Hamas. It’s up to all of us to reject antisemitism and Islamophobia in all of its forms.
An example of Christian nationalism and Islamophobia in law and policy is the prior administration’s enactment of a series of travel bans aimed at Muslim majority countries. On the first day of the new administration in 2021, President Biden issued a proclamation overturning the Muslim ban, stating in part, “Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”
BJC praised the Biden administration’s decision to overturn the Muslim ban, but we also recognize that there cannot be any future attempt to ban immigrants based on their religion. This year, former president Donald Trump has stated on multiple occasions that he will reenact his Muslim ban policy if reelected.
Religious freedom is at a crossroads today. Religious persecution around the world, coupled with the resurgence of Christian nationalism at home, means we must redouble our efforts to protect religious minorities and the nonreligious, both domestically and globally. Thank you.
Segment 2: Questions from Congress and an exchange with Representative Maxwell Frost (starting at 17:34)
HOLLY: And after that statement, it was time for the members of the subcommittee to engage the witnesses. Of course, engaging them means asking them questions, as well as making their own statements.
AMANDA: Yeah. And I think that’s something that maybe people who aren’t watching Congress all the time don’t have, you know, a real appreciation for, is really what are these hearings for. And often they are for the majority, who is calling the hearings, to pursue a certain agenda or line of questioning. And this is true no matter who is in the majority of Congress.
And so often that comes from members asking their own witness or witnesses questions to pursue their own goals for the hearing. You know, in listening to the questions from the majority to the majority’s witnesses, I really saw, in addition to wanting to understand global religious persecution and the threats today, the majority through their questioning was making an argument that was critical of the Biden administration for some of the decisions it had made in designating certain countries as countries of particular concern or in ways that they were protecting global religious freedom, but also as a way to try to promote religion itself as a public good and juxtaposing that to the danger of atheism or, quote/unquote, wokeism, as if that is some other kind of ideology that needs to be pushed back by a greater commitment to religion.
Now, obviously, particularly that second line of questioning or sense of trying to bring that meaning to this hearing was very troubling from our perspective, because we see government as not having a role in promoting or denigrating religion.
Instead, the government’s role is to protect religious freedom and of course, protect against religious persecution, but some of the questioning got into, I think, calling some things religious persecution that did not resemble in any way the kind of persecution that people around the world are facing when it comes to threats to their life.
HOLLY: Yeah. I certainly saw that, an effort to put some of this domestic political division into this conversation, although I would say it was not as successful as you sometimes see in these hearings, and I would say that that speaks well of the importance of this hearing and the preparation and participation of the witnesses for the most part.
There were some low moments, but for the most part, I would say this was a pretty good hearing, staying on focus and providing a way to bring the members across the aisle to some agreement and sense of responsibility to continue to work on religious freedom together. It was not as contentious as many of these hearings can be.
And another thing that impressed me about this hearing is that there was quite a bit of participation. A lot of members attended. Members on the subcommittee from both parties came in and asked their questions. Some of them even stayed around a while. And we know that that’s not always the case. I mean, we know we’ve been to hearings before where it can be quite lonely on the witness stand. Right, Amanda?
AMANDA: Where the witnesses outnumber the members who come to the meeting. Yeah.
HOLLY: Exactly. You sometimes get invited to be a witness, and you kind of look up and say, Whose party is this? Why was I invited and no one’s here to, you know ‑‑
HOLLY: — entertain me or to, you know, be entertained by me? So it can be very lonely, being a witness. But I had the sense, Amanda, that the members were very interested, and I think that also spoke well of the witnesses, that they had an opportunity to ask real questions and get answers.
I think I counted during the time we were there that 12 members of Congress attended and spoke during the hearing. That’s a pretty good showing for a hearing.
AMANDA: Yeah. And in addition of those dozen members of Congress, eleven are actually members of the subcommittee, and then Representative Jamie Raskin, who is the ranking member of the entire Oversight Committee and therefore not an actual member of any of the subcommittees, he also attended and asked questions.
He has been a real leader in opposing blasphemy laws, and he was the sponsor of the House resolution that passed a few years ago, so he was there, in part, to talk about the importance of pushing back against blasphemy laws and also reminding us of the proper relationship between church and state, as he often does.
HOLLY: We appreciate that. Well, one of the highlights of the hearing was an exchange between you, Amanda, and Representative Maxwell Frost, the youngest member of Congress, a newly elected member from Florida, and I think we should play that clip right now.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: (audio clip) Today on my line, I want to focus in and hone in on religious extremism happening here in the United States domestically, because I believe it’s also a very important part of this conversation.
Christian nationalism is a form of religious extremism making its way into our policies and undermining our democracy. These extremist actors are coopting the language of Christianity and religious freedom to push an undemocratic agenda that seeks the very opposite of what they claim to do.
And I want to start off by saying, I’m a man of faith. I was raised Southern Baptist. I love potlucks. I was in AWANA. I got the Sparky Award. I was in youth band for about ten years. This is a huge part of my life and part of the reason why I’m so passionate about it. As a man of faith, I know that Christianity is not Christian nationalism. I oppose my faith being used to whitewash a racist, violent and dangerous ideology.
Ms. Tyler, I have a few questions for you, but let’s start with this. How does religion differ from religious extremism, and why does religious extremism, specifically Christian nationalism, threaten the safety and lives of people in our communities?
AMANDA: (audio clip) Well, I think that religious nationalism is this tendency to merge our religious and national identities, and it can occur along a spectrum but can also be coopted by those in power to enforce a certain religious viewpoint on everyone else, and that’s why it’s such an urgent threat to religious freedom. But it is also, as you point out, an urgent threat to democracy, and it’s because it is taking this increasingly violent aspect.
And we saw that on January 6 in the way that Christian nationalism was used as a permission structure and as a uniting ideology for people who were here at the Capitol that day in search of a political cause that was then infused with religious fervor.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: (audio clip) And what would you say the relationship is between white supremacy and Christian nationalism?
AMANDA: (audio clip) Well, Christian nationalism often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. That’s because the Christian in Christian nationalism is not so much about theology as it is about an ethnonational identity.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: (audio clip) Yeah. And Christian nationalists have played vital roles in very violent attacks, even recently: the killing of eleven people attending services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; the killing and murder of nine people attending a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Emanuel Nine; the killing of 33 people shopping at Walmart and Tops in El Paso and Buffalo.
Ms. Tyler, how does Christian nationalism pose a threat to our democratic institutions?
AMANDA: (audio clip) Well, I think all of those examples are what happens when this ideology of Christian nationalism is used by white supremacists to try to justify their violence. It uses the symbols and the language of Christianity to try to justify what is indefensible, and it turns, again, their hatred into a religious cause and to something that they believe is ordained by God.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: (audio clip) But most Christian nationalists claim to support religious freedom while at the same time working to have the exact opposite of that happen. Have you noticed a coordinated attempt in America to coopt the right of religious freedom to try and justify stripping rights away from people?
AMANDA: (audio clip) Well, I do think that language really matters here and definitions. And too often, we hear the language of religious freedom being used for what is really religious privilege or Christian nationalism. True religious freedom requires equality for all people, regardless of religious belief, and that’s why it’s so important, as our Constitution promises, that the government will stay neutral when it comes to religion, to allow all religions to flourish.
REPRESENTATIVE FROST: (audio clip) And this threat to democracy has made its way to Congress. I mean, my colleague Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has said, “Christian nationalism is actually a good thing. It is an identity that Republicans need to embrace, and I am being attacked by the godless left because I said I am a proud Christian nationalist.”
My colleague Representative Lauren Boebert said, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk” ‑‑ junk being the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Bible itself in II Corinthians actually warns us against this. Paul warned against this. He warned us against people who would preach of a Christ that differs from the true Christ that we learn about in the Bible. That’s exactly what Christian nationalism is doing. I condemn religious extremism everywhere, globally and domestically, and we have to recognize the threat it poses to our most sacred freedoms and root it out everywhere.
And I think it’s incumbent especially upon as Christians and me as a Christian to be at the forefront of the fight to ensure that white nationalism and Christian nationalism doesn’t see the light of day. Thank you, and I yield back.
AMANDA: So for me ‑‑ and I told Representative Frost this after the hearing ‑‑ I thought that was the best and most effective speech by a Christian member of Congress opposing Christian nationalism that I heard. And I think part of that is because he starts with his personal story. He talks about his background as a person of faith and talks about particularly why Christians have a special responsibility to push back against Christian nationalism.
And that clip has gone viral on social media, and I think that speaks not only to the fact that Representative Frost is himself a member of Generation Z, but also because his message is resonating with so many people, Christians and people who are not Christians, and so it is fantastic to have that message get out beyond the walls of that hearing room to many more people who probably would not have otherwise known about this hearing going on on global religious persecution.
HOLLY: Yeah. And we’re always glad to have a strong public witness that shows the variety of thinking among Christians, because sometimes the media focuses on particular kinds of voices, and the public is really not served well, sometimes by the way religion’s covered in the media, to see the variety of perspectives.
Of course, we as Baptists liked hearing a Baptist voice speak up and to demonstrate the variety of thinking that can come out of that strong formative Baptist experience. It’s not always what you think or always what you hear from the press or from some of the most prominent leaders in Baptist life, but he, having been raised in that tradition, felt strong in his faith and felt a strong commitment to speak out against Christian nationalism and the harmful turn toward religious extremism that he has seen that, you know, is doing real damage in our country.
AMANDA: And if listeners want to watch the entire hearing, you will find a link to it in show notes.
Segment 3: Speaker Mike Johnson and Christian nationalism (starting at 30:08)
HOLLY: Well, since last Wednesday, among a lot of other important news, we’ve been busy learning about the previously little known member of Congress from the 4th Congressional District of Louisiana, Representative Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House.
He’s from Shreveport, Louisiana, which is a part of the country that we know quite well. It’s on that I-20 corridor, about halfway between Jackson, Mississippi, and Dallas, Texas.
AMANDA: Yeah. So it seems with Representative Johnson, now Speaker Johnson, that the fifth time is a charm for Republicans this Congress. They first, of course, had Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and then Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, and Tom Emmer all had failed bids at different parts of the process. So this was big news when they finally picked a speaker for this Congress.
Very disturbing news, though, in the process, were that some members of Congress were threatened and their families were threatened at times with death by supporters of Representative Jordan. Now, Jim Jordan, of course, denied any involvement in the threats themselves, but it shows, I think, the level of political violence that we’re dealing with in our country that members of Congress would receive death threats based on who they were or were not voting for for speaker of the House.
HOLLY: Yeah. And, of course, we’re covering this for a couple of reasons, one of which is because all of this excitement was happening as we were in this important hearing.
Actually, I was preparing for another event later in the day where I was with some other First Amendment attorneys, and one of them mentioned, oh, have you heard the news; there’s a new speaker. One thing that he noted on his social media feed was how often Representative Johnson was noted because he was a, quote, Christian, unquote, lawmaker.
So, given our focus, of course, that piqued our interest, not only in seeing how the speaker drama played out and how it was finally ending, but we were interested in learning more about Representative Johnson and, you know, what that means, that he was being so identified in the press as some kind of Christian leader among lawmakers.
AMANDA: Well, and as we learned more, unfortunately we learned a lot of concerning things about the new speaker of the House, you know, first that he has engaged in a lot of election denialism. Representative Johnson promoted the false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. He repeated the discredited claims about election interference, bragged about being in touch with then President Trump, created talking points for his House Republican colleagues, and led the House Republicans’ amicus brief to the Supreme Court, supporting the last ditch effort to get the Court to step in and overturn the election.
So considering the continuing threats to democracy and to these false claims of election fraud or irregularity, it is concerning that he is now the speaker of the House.
HOLLY: It was immediately noteworthy that he comes from what could be described as the extreme MAGA wing of the party and that he’s someone who has very little experience. He is a fourth-term congressman who has never chaired a House committee, although he has chaired a Republican study committee.
AMANDA: And I think when you are, you know, kind of what’s known as a back-bencher in Congress, you can tend to be more extreme in your views, but when you come into leadership, you have to govern with Democrats. And, you know, he voted against the bipartisan bill that kept the government open just a few weeks ago.
Of course, that vote that kept the government open eventually led to the ouster of Speaker McCarthy, but now Speaker Johnson is supporting a continuing resolution that would keep the government open until January 15, if they are unable to pass all the funding bills before the deadline. So it will be interesting to see how he navigates this new role, given his earlier votes and his identification as a more extreme member of the party.
HOLLY: And for BJC particularly, we are concerned with what his leadership means in the ongoing struggle against the influence of Christian nationalism, both on religious freedom for all Americans and for our democracy.
We learned early on that he is a fan and student and promoter of the work of David Barton, one of the most significant purveyors of Christian nation mythology. And then there was his initial statement after being elected.
We’re going to play that in a minute, but let me just be clear that it is a core value of BJC that people of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to participate in our democracy, and that means including as elected officials. There are many deeply religious members of Congress and serving our country in all different kinds of positions.
And there are a wide variety of ways that people can express their personal religious background, their history, their beliefs, and their commitment, and many ways that they can do that while also being very clear to support religious freedom for all and to uphold our constitutional tradition that protects people of all faiths. I say that as we play this clip and get just a little feel for Representative Johnson and how he talks about his faith.
SPEAKER JOHNSON: (audio clip) I want to tell all my colleagues here what I told the Republicans in that room last night. 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 and 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.
AMANDA: Well, we agree that we hope that the United States will be an example to the world on what freedom and justice can look like, and we have a lot to live up to to meet that goal, I think.
But the other comments that he made, about his personal beliefs about how God had placed not just him in that role but everyone else, I found that language very heavy-handed, and it, you know, raised the question for me about, you know, what about all of the lawmakers there who don’t share his beliefs.
It felt very exclusive in that way and was at odds with what I would hope he would have in that moment, and that is a desire to unify what has been a really fractious House of Representatives and even his own party. And so I told Newsweek ‑‑ and we’ll link to the story that Newsweek put out. But I reacted this way.
I said, “In his first act as speaker, Johnson claimed God gave each member of the U.S. House authority. As a Christian, I rejected Christian lawmakers using language that alienates and excludes lawmakers and Americans of different faiths from the political process. While it is common for people of faith to feel called to their vocations, Americans dedicated to religious freedom for all are understandably alarmed by elected officials claiming to be God’s chosen.”
HOLLY: Many news outlets covered this aspect of the day’s events, and you can see extensive coverage over at Word&Way by Brian Kaylor and Jeremy Fuzy. They covered this in their newsletter called “A Public Witness.” They highlight Representative Johnson’s prior career and particularly his work with Alliance Defending Freedom and other religious legal entities.
AMANDA: It’s that work, specifically his work with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he has said the most about his views on separation of church and state, which he does not have high regard for the idea of separation of church and state.
And, you know, of course, that would be very concerning to us, Holly, to dispute what we feel is that really foundational idea of how we best protect religious freedom in this country.
And so when you add that with his Christian nation mythology ideas, we have, I think, a very troubling recipe for what it might look like to have even more Christian nationalism coming directly from the speaker of the House.
HOLLY: Yeah. And that’s a prominent enough part of his resume that we were contacted by the media, both Newsweek and the AP for some comment, and that was particularly fitting since you had been testifying earlier that day about the problems with Christian nationalism in this country.
You mentioned Newsweek earlier, but here’s what you told Associated Press. “Speaker Mike Johnson has an obligation to serve all Americans, people of all faiths and nonreligious Americans. Speaker Johnson’s long track record of denying the institutional separation of church and state and promoting the myth that we were founded as a Christian nation makes me doubt that he will be able to govern in a way that honors the U.S. Constitution’s promise of religious freedom for everyone. Johnson’s brand of Christian nationalism is bad American history and a betrayal of the historic Baptist commitment to religious freedom.”
And I think it was important, Amanda, that you called that out, because as people want to find out what kind of Christian this representative is, if that’s a big part of his biography, they will quickly see that he is a Southern Baptist and often speaks, talking about his Baptist faith, and a lot of his comments really are at odds with that Baptist distinctive Baptists who disagree on a lot of things often claim agreement on, and that is a commitment to God-given religious freedom.
AMANDA: Yeah. I wish he would read some other Baptist historians like Buddy Shurden to learn a little bit more about how Baptists for centuries have stood up for the institutional separation of church and state. I think that is more faithful to the Baptist movement, and I think it’s important that Baptists kind of point that out as places that we depart from his particular way of being Baptist and his particular brand of Christian nationalism.
We also want to recommend a couple of other pieces, and we’ll link to these in show notes. There was a Q&A with historian Kristin Du Mez for Politico. She is, of course, the author of Jesus and John Wayne and is a prominent public academic who talks quite a bit about Christian nationalism.
And then an opinion piece by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry for TIME magazine, and this is ‑‑ of course, Whitehead and Perry are some of the most prominent researchers studying how Christian nationalism shows up in the culture, so we’d recommend both those pieces.
And since I mentioned him earlier, we will link to a great resource from Buddy Shurden about Baptist history in the show notes as well.
HOLLY: Well, in the coming weeks and months, I’m sure that we will learn more about the new speaker. We will be watching intently to see if maybe he can reconnect to the best of his Baptist tradition and maybe find that commitment to religious freedom that we’re certainly hoping for.
We did mention what we fear is that he aligns more closely with groups like ADF, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and since we mentioned that briefly, his connection as a former lawyer working with them, we’ll also link to the recent New Yorker piece by David Kirkpatrick that really digs into the Alliance Defending Freedom, its history, its current work, and its impact on the law of religious freedom.
That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us. For more information on what we discussed, visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and a transcript of the program.
AMANDA: Respecting Religion is produced and edited by Cherilyn Guy with editorial assistance from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons and Jennifer Hawks.
HOLLY: Learn more about our work at BJC, defending faith freedom for all, by visiting our website at BJConline.org.
AMANDA: We’d love to hear from you. You can send both of us an email by writing to [email protected]. We’re also on social media at BJContheHill, and you can follow me on X, which used to be called Twitter, @AmandaTylerBJC.
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HOLLY: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.