Tyler testifies before Congress on the same day of Speaker Mike Johnson’s election
BJC again provided testimony before Congress last week, this time on the same day that the House of Representatives finally landed on a new speaker. That pivotal day is the topic of this week’s Respecting Religion podcast, and there is a lot to cover.
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., was relatively unknown on the national stage before his election as Speaker of the House. Now that his record is coming under scrutiny, the extent to which Speaker Johnson embraces Christian nationalism has become clear.
Writing for TIME magazine, Dr. Andrew Whitehead and Dr. Samuel Perry, professors of sociology and researchers of Christian nationalism, argue that Speaker Johnson “provides a near-perfect example of each element” of the dangerous ideology. Here is an excerpt:
Speaker Johnson has explicitly embraced the idea that the U.S. was founded upon particular Christian principles, in 2016 claiming, “you know, we don’t live in a democracy… 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.”
In the same interview, he reiterated his belief that the separation of church and state is not a constitutional principle. “Over the last 60 or 70 years our generation has been convinced that there is a separation of church and state… most people that that is part of the Constitution, but it’s not.” And in 2022, he stated “the founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.” Johnson, and those he has famously represented, insist the United States is a nation with “Judeo-Christian roots” at which “secular forces are chipping away.”
According to The New York Times, Johnson has referred to the Declaration of Independence as “a creed” and “a religious statement of faith,” and he says Christians in America are uniquely persecuted and subject to discrimination.
Sarah Jones, senior writer for Intelligencer, reports that Speaker Johnson has blamed school shootings on the teaching of evolution in public schools. And then there is this from her article:
Johnson additionally has ties to David Barton, a Christian-right activist who specializes in a kind of pseudo-history that falsely claims the Founders intended the United States to be a fundamentalist Christian nation with no separation between church and state. NBC News reported on Thursday that Johnson spoke at a 2021 conference hosted by Barton’s nonprofit, where the congressman praised Barton and his work, saying he had “a profound influence on me, and my work, and my life and everything I do.”
As Amanda Tyler said on X in response to this revelation, “BJC has opposed David Barton’s views on church-state separation for decades,” sharing this link to a resource written by former BJC Executive Director Brent Walker that critiques some of Barton’s work.
Reporting for the Texas Tribune, Robert Downen did a deep dive into Barton’s work and influence, linking to that piece by Walker and many others:
Barton, a self-styled “amateur historian,” has for years been debunked and ridiculed by actual historians and scholars, who note that he has no formal training and that his work is filled with selective quotes, mischaracterizations and inaccuracies — critiques that Barton has claimed are mere attacks on his faith. He has been accused of whitewashing the Founding Fathers — particularly, their slave owning — to fit his narrative of a God-ordained nation. He has acknowledged using unconfirmed quotes from historical figures. And Barton’s 2012 book, “The Jefferson Lies,” was so widely panned by Christian academics that it prompted a separate book to debunk all of his inaccuracies, and was later pulled by its Christian publisher because “the basic truths just were not there.”
The entire Texas Tribune article is worth a read, including Barton’s connection to Speaker Johnson. Here’s what Amanda told Downen:
Tyler said that Johnson’s views are particularly concerning because of his background as both a Southern Baptist and as a constitutional lawyer. Baptists, she noted, have a long history of advocacy for strong church-state separations because of the persecution they faced during the country’s founding — a stance that she said Johnson has betrayed throughout his legal and political career.
“He has worked actively for these principles that further Christian nationalism,” Tyler said. “I am also a Baptist, and to see someone who is a Baptist really reject foundational concepts of religious freedom for all — concepts which are really core to what it means to be a Baptist — is also very disheartening.”
As quoted in an Associated Press report on Speaker Johnson’s rise to power, Tyler summarized these concerns: “Johnson’s brand of Christian nationalism is bad American history and a betrayal of the historic Baptist commitment to religious freedom.”
Earlier that day, Tyler provided testimony to a House subcommittee hearing about threats to global religious freedom.
In her testimony, Tyler argued that the best way to combat the growing threat of global religious persecution “is to 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,” she added, “I hope we will also examine how well we are living up to this value at home.”
While there, her exchange with Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., has become a hit on social media, and he spoke of the dangers he sees – as a person of faith himself — in Christian nationalism. Tyler herself called it “one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever witnessed from a Christian lawmaker affirming the separation of church and state.”
The whole exchange is worth a listen. Here is my transcript of one excerpt:
FROST: Have you noticed a coordinated attempt in America to co-opt the right of religious freedom to try and justify stripping rights away from people?
TYLER: …[L]anguage 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 religious to allow all religious to flourish.
FROST: The Bible itself in 2 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. We have to recognize the threat that it poses to our most sacred freedoms and root it out everywhere. I think it is incumbent on us especially as Christians — and me as a Christian — to be at the forefront of this fight, to be sure that white nationalism and Christian nationalism doesn’t see the light of day.
In response to questioning from Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., about ways in which Congress can protect Americans against religious persecution domestically, Tyler emphasized that it starts with the words they use:
TYLER: … I think that people follow what they hear here [in Congress]. It’s important that we as a country live up to the values that we’ve established in our Constitution and also in who we are as a people — that we don’t use rhetoric that dehumanizes other people; that we don’t claim that God is on the side of – on any side of any war; and that we take care of civilians and that we don’t equate civilians with the governments of their countries. I think any attempt to try to use religion or religious people to justify a particular government policy has the ability to first harm religion but also to spread violence and hatred. …
You can watch the entire hearing, entitled “Faith Under Fire: An Examination of Global Religious Persecution,” here. And, you can get a behind-the-scenes look at the hearing – as well as more on Speaker Johnson – on this week’s Respecting Religion podcast.