by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear in April..
Rep. Mike Johnson and I are Louisiana natives. We both were born and raised in North Louisiana. We both were raised as Southern Baptists. We both graduated from LSU, he from the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, and I from the Ph.D. program in the Department of Communication.
I imagine that he, like me, attended the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport numerous times in his childhood. I am sure that he, like me, grew up pulling for the LSU Fighting Tigers on Saturday nights.
He has become a powerful politician and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I am an American Baptist preacher and writer.
We both profess to be evangelicals. But his understanding of what it means to be evangelical is dramatically different from mine. Perhaps the differences in a pair of Louisiana guys maps the major differences within American evangelicalism, within American Christianity:
- Johnson is an election denier who believes Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. I know that Joe Biden was legitimately and fairly elected as our president.
- Johnson is a MAGA supporter of Donald Trump; I believe Trump is the most dangerous and evil politician in America. I have written two books attempting to tell evangelicals the truth about Trump. In The Immaculate Mistake I argue that evangelicals gave birth to Trump and his demagoguery. In Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, I argue that Trump is philosophically, biblically, rhetorically, and politically evil, as his political alienation, demagoguery, violence, and authoritarianism are shaking the foundations of democracy.
- Johnson is a young Earth creationist who believes the world was created 6,000 years ago. He has defended Ken Ham, the Creation Museum, and the Ark Encounter in court, helping Ham receive millions of dollars in tax breaks and funds from the Kentucky Department of Tourism. I find young earth creationism to be fake, false, and unchristian, as the Creation Museum is nothing but the visualization of right-wing ideologies.
- Johnson is a virulent opponent of the LGBTQ community, even to the point of lamenting the dissolution of anti-sodomy laws in a dozen states. Perhaps his most egregious statement came when he claimed,
- “Homosexual relationships are inherently unnatural and, the studies clearly show, are ultimately harmful and costly for everyone. Society cannot give its stamp of approval to such a dangerous lifestyle. If we change marriage for this tiny, modern minority, we will have to do it for every deviant group. Polygamists, polyamorists, pedophiles, and others will be next in line to claim equal protection. They already are. There will be no legal basis to deny a bisexual the right to marry a partner of each sex, or a person to marry his pet.”
- In contrast, I am a supporter of the LGBTQ community and am the interim pastor of a welcoming and affirming American Baptist and UCC church.
- Johnson is a hardline anti-abortionist, to the point of asserting that doctors who give abortion care should be “imprisoned at hard labor.” I am not a hardline anti-abortionist, and am appalled by the unending crusade to criminalize more and more people who are involved in helping women.
- Johnson believes America was founded as a “Christian nation, following the lead of the American history “hobbyist,” David Barton. But Barton’s views have been convincingly contradicted by the overwhelming majority of actual historians in America, including some very conservative ones. In contrast with Johnson, I know America was not founded as a Christian nation.
- Johnson is a Christian Nationalist, and his Christian Nationalism is rooted in an American Gnosticism and idolatry that is but one example of the failure of the Southern Baptist Church to be the church. On the other hand, I believe that Christian Nationalism is a form of idolatry.
- Johnson opposes the separation of church and state. Maintaining my Baptist roots, I am a firm supporter of the separation of church and state.
- Johnson defines his Christianity as a commitment to culture war politics. I define my Christianity as a commitment to the politics of Jesus – an alternative to the secular politics of violence and death.
I will address two problems that I have with Rep. Johnson’s political/theological understandings: His use of the word “people” and his claim to be an “evangelical.” I want to clarify who Johnson actually is; that is to say, I want to clarify what makes him so dangerous.
Johnson Doesn’t Care about the “People”
I don’t trust smiling, hand-shaking, back-slapping politicians and Baptist preachers going on until doomsday about the “people” and loving the people. There’s an agenda hidden behind the theatrics.
He voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory. He even wrote a court brief that argued that polling irregularities stemming from COVID protocols invalidated the results in four key states. He has been willing to violate Constitutional rules to do permanent damage to democracy. Thomas Friedman has reminded us, “The peaceful, legitimate transfer of power is the keystone of American democracy. Break it, and none of our institutions will work for long, and we will be thrust into political and financial chaos.” The new Speaker of the House attempted to halt the peaceful transfer of power, and in so doing he was trying to break the ties that bind us together as one people.
All this political activity may be deemed necessary by Johnson, but it’s not a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is a government of right wing culture warriors and the rich. Over the course of the last ten years, Republicans like Johnson have resurrected a social Darwinism that allows the strong to control the majority with strict laws and authoritarian ways. These strange Republicans push for a lack of government intervention in issues that matter to them – Wall Street, evangelical church “freedoms,” and the environment – while at the same time demanding extreme government intervention in the sex lives of the people. These folks have no empathy for the poor and no desire to enlarge the social safety net, and they are persistent in their effort to reduce voting rights, especially for minorities. In the name of “the people,” Johnson’s party works hard every day to destroy truth, decency, patriotism, national unity, racial progress, and U. S. democracy.
Mr. Johnson made it clear what his agenda will be as Speaker: “You’re going to see an aggressive schedule in the next few days and weeks ahead. You’re going to see Congress working as hard as it has ever worked, and we are going to deliver for the American people.”
Crack open Johnson’s agenda, and you will not see one benefit for the people. Mr. Johnson, like the ancient Gibeonites, is the hewer of wood and drawer of water for Trump.
The promise that the new Speaker will work hard for the “American people” can’t be trusted.
Johnson Is Not a Real Evangelical
The media has already made a big splash about Johnson being an evangelical. But while Johnson was born in what was once the “Bible Belt,” his birthplace of Shreveport, Louisiana, the region is now the “Gambling Belt.” Where the First United Methodist Church and the First Baptist Church of Shreveport once dominated Shreveport, they have been replaced by Bally’s Shreveport Casino & Hotel, Boomtown Casino Hotel Bossier City, Eldorado Resort Casino Shreveport, and Margaritaville Resort Casino Bossier City. Shreveport has gone from the Bible Belt to the Altar of Mammon.
The same erosion has afflicted evangelicals in general. The word “evangelical” has morphed from “preacher of the good news,” to political supporters of the right-wing of the Republican Party. Evangelicals “ain’t what they used to be.”
I challenge the right of Christians like Mr. Johnson to even use the word “evangelical.” Prior to the 20th century evangelicals were preachers and prophets who called for justice, who honored the teachings and example of Jesus, who asked his followers to act as peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.” Evangelicals supported voting rights for women, rights for African Americans, working people, and care for the poor.
Today’s evangelicals are much less substantive as they promote a religion based on success, the prosperity gospel, and “church growth.” With the triumph of right-wing Christianity, evangelicals are not nearly as interesting. The people who once “turned the world upside down” in defiance of Caesar have now made alliance with Caesar to obtain worldly political power.
Evangelicals, for centuries, had a biblical calling: “The kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the good news!” To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently. But evangelicalism, in its concern for gaining power and control, has confused the kingdom itself with the benefits of the kingdom. So, the prosperity gospel preachers, the positive-thinking preachers, the charismatic preachers who promise that God will make you rich, healthy, and happy have an individual prescription for life. But all this is not the Gospel, nor is it historic evangelicalism.
The historian Randall Balmer has suggested
an evangelicalism for the twenty-first century that takes seriously the words of the Hebrew prophets who called for justice, an evangelicalism that honors the teachings and the example of Jesus, who asked his followers to act as peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.” Such an evangelicalism, I am confident, would look rather different from that of recent years.
Amen. But this is not Mike Johnson. He is not a true evangelical, and he is not for “the people.”
He is, however, perfect for MAGA Republicanism.