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How the nonreligious in Congress view Speaker Mike Johnson

By Jim Saksa, CQ-Roll Call
Published: November 19, 2023, 6:05am

WASHINGTON — As a congressman of faith, Mike Johnson is hardly alone. Like the new Republican speaker, 88% of House members called themselves Christian at the start of the 118th Congress. Like him, a majority are Protestants. Breaking it down further, Johnson is one of 57 Baptists, making it the second largest denomination in the House, behind the 122 Catholics.

Despite Christianity’s numerical advantage in Congress, Johnson has argued repeatedly that his religion is under nationwide attack by, as he put it in one 2006 op-ed, a “sprawling alliance of anti-God enthusiasts (that) has proven frighteningly efficient at remaking America in their own brutal, dehumanizing image.”

As a congressman of no faith, Jared Huffman is very much alone. He calls himself a humanist and is the only out apostate in Congress. “I’ve got to speak for the majority of Americans who actually aren’t churchgoing devout believers,” the California Democrat said. “That’s a heavy burden.”

So, when Huffman heard that Johnson believed that “very often religious viewpoints, specifically Christian viewpoints, are censored and silenced,” he chuckled ruefully.

“It’s laughable to anyone who’s not in their little echo chamber,” said Huffman. “It is the biggest fiction you could concoct.”

As much as the religious right has reveled in the good news of Johnson’s sudden rise, secularists like Huffman have worried it will deepen America’s already divisive culture wars.

“There are all kinds of universal values that we ought to be working together on,” Huffman said, adding that he sees eye-to-eye with other deeply religious members, like Missouri Democrat and United Methodist pastor Emanuel Cleaver II. “You could just read the Beatitudes and develop a pretty good list.”

“Where it breaks down is this tortured culture war that becomes a religious war for many of these guys,” he added. “Anytime you start trying to impose your religion on others, through the law and through our public institutions, that’s just a red line. And there’s no room for compromise on that.”

Johnson has often professed that his faith not only informs his politics, but is indivisible from them. “It is what you are — you can’t separate it,” he said on his podcast last year. “There is not a distinction or dichotomy between your ‘religion and your religious life’ and the rest of your life. It is all one.”

And in his first interview after winning the speaker’s gavel, Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked Johnson where he stood on the issues. “Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it,” Johnson said. “That’s my worldview.”

Instead of the partisan fire and brimstone that often marks speeches on the House floor, Johnson used his inaugural remarks as the new speaker to acknowledge “that we live in a time of bitter partisanship.”

“We have to sacrifice sometimes our preferences because that’s what is necessary in a legislative body,” he said. “But we will defend our core principles to the end.”

What worries secularists like Huffman is whether Johnson’s “core principles” place fealty to his interpretation of the Bible above the Constitution; that the new speaker wants to “remake our government into a biblical Republic.”

“Most people, even devout Christians in most cases, don’t want to live in a theocracy,” Huffman said. “It is extreme and disturbing and totally antithetical to the way our government was founded and has existed for all these years.”

‘Benefit of the doubt’

Those concerns animate others on the less-than-religious left, who say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach.

Like a lot of people, when Johnson was elected speaker last month, Rep. Mark Pocan didn’t know him from Adam.

“I don’t know if I could have pointed him out in the crowd,” said the Wisconsin Democrat.

But Pocan, who has declined to answer questions about his faith because “I don’t think that has anything to do with my job in office,” was familiar with some of the bills Johnson had sponsored, like one modeled after Florida’s so-called “Don’t say gay” law.

“I’m going to assume that he’s not going to govern like a theocrat until I see elsewise,” said Pocan, who married his husband in 2006 and now chairs the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. “I’m going to try to give him the benefit of the doubt. But certainly, we are watching everything he does very closely given his past statements and activities.”

Johnson’s views are “pretty much the embodiment of the extreme MAGA wing of the Republican caucus,” Pocan added. “He’s essentially a cleaned-up version of Marjorie Taylor Greene. He’s presentable, he smiles, he comes across as congenial. But his views are probably some of the most extreme around — especially around gays and lesbians — that I’ve seen in all of Congress.”

While Johnson is hardly the first religious speaker of the House — the previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is also a Southern Baptist, and the two before him, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, are both devout Catholics — his political career is inextricably interwoven with his faith. Johnson first rose to prominence as a lawyer who defended sodomy laws, describing homosexuality as “ inherently unnatural,” and fought for prayer in school.

Speaking to the Louisiana Baptist Message during his first congressional campaign in 2016, Johnson described his vocation to a career in law and politics: “Some people are called to pastoral ministry and others to music ministry,” Johnson said. “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 like these when they’ve been under assault.”

“My values follow the model of our founding fathers,” he later added. “We were established as one nation under God. We are perilously close to forgetting that principle now — and we desperately need to return to this fundamental understanding.”

Since becoming speaker, Johnson has retreated from some of the extreme rhetoric in his old editorials, telling Hannity, “I don’t even remember some of them. I was a litigator called upon to defend the state marriage amendments,” adding that he respects the rule of law and loves everyone “regardless of their lifestyle choices.”

His elevation to the third highest office in the nation comes at a time of crisis for American Christianity. From 1937 until 1999, around 70% of Americans told Gallup pollsters they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. But church membership has been dropping over the past two decades, falling to 47% in 2020. At the same time, Gallup found that the percentage of Americans who don’t identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 2000 to 21%.

Gallup identified two sub-trends driving Americans out of the pews: People of all generations abandoning their churches and younger generations increasingly eschewing religion altogether. “Since the turn of the century, there has been a near doubling in the percentage of traditionalists (from 4% to 7%), baby boomers (from 7% to 13%) and Gen Xers (11% to 20%) with no religious affiliation,” the pollsters wrote. “Currently, 31% of millennials have no religious affiliation, which is up from 22% a decade ago. Similarly, 33% of the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood have no religious preference.”

In a 2018-2019 survey, Pew Research Center similarly found that 65% of American adults called themselves Christian, a 12 point decline over the prior decade, while respondents describing themselves as “as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’” increased to 26% from 17% in 2009.

In light of these numbers and shifting views on issues like abortion and gay rights, Johnson has repeatedly warned sympathetic audiences that their religion is under assault. “You are what’s left of Christianity in America,” Johnson said to a Baptist congregation after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. “If we lose these next critical battles, it’s over. There is no hope for religious freedom. I’m not overstating.”

The final taboo

Such arguments elicit eye rolls from atheistic audiences, who instead contend the inherently divisive, community-dividing nature of politicized religion that has come to dominate evangelical denominations over the past 50 years has driven away congregants. The idea that nonbelievers like him are somehow pushing people out of church is nonsense, said Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and author of “Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion.”

“If people stop eating candy corn at Halloween because they don’t like it, does that mean candy corn is under attack?” Zuckerman said.

“No one is forcing them out. No one’s punishing them. No one’s persecuting them,” he added. “No one is forcing anybody to stop going to church, stop baptizing their kids, stop getting married under religious auspices.”

Zuckerman noted that, while many Americans still believe in God, that doesn’t mean they necessarily agree with Johnson’s views on the role religion should play in public affairs. Johnson has described the separation of church and state as an overstated myth, arguing that when the Founders wrote the First Amendment, they “wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.”

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“He’s just making that up out of whole cloth,” Huffman said. A 2021 Pew survey found that “even among White evangelical Protestants and highly religious Christians, fewer than half say the U.S. should abandon its adherence to the separation of church and state (34% and 31%, respectively) or declare the country a Christian nation (35% and 29%).”

Even though voters may not go to church as often as they used to, the politicians they elect are still a God-fearing bunch. According to CQ Roll Call data compiled by Pew, Huffman was the only humanist at the start of the 118th Congress, while independent Kyrsten Sinema on the Senate side was the only religiously unaffiliated member. The religion of another 20 members was unknown, with some of those refusing to answer when asked.

Atheism is the last electoral taboo, said Zuckerman. “When you look at the political landscape, you can be openly gay, you can a Muslim, you can Jewish, you can be Black — there are so many minorities that experience very real discrimination … and yet, politically, it’s not a barrier to the same degree: They can be elected,” he said, pointing to a 2019 Gallup poll that showed 96% of Americans were willing to vote for a Black president, 93% for a Jewish one, 76% for a gay or lesbian, but just 60% for an atheist. “And yet atheists just don’t seem to be able to get over that hurdle.”

The reason is obvious, Zuckerman said: Americans associate atheism with immorality — even other atheists are less likely to trust a nonbeliever over someone who attends church.

“We have so much research showing that Americans have a gut association with atheism with immorality,” said Zuckerman.

That’s a viewpoint Johnson has explicitly endorsed in speeches to student groups, according to The New York Times. “There’s no transcendent principles anymore. There’s no eternal judge. There’s no absolute standards of right and wrong. All this is exactly the opposite of the way we were founded as a country,” he said.

“It’s going to take some time for that stereotype, which really Is not grounded in any reality at all, to dissipate,” said Zuckerman, pointing to studies suggesting that atheists may actually be more empathetic and compassionate than theists.

But Americans’ preference for the devout has deep roots, Zuckerman said, noting how Puritans and Quakers fleeing religious persecution in England founded the first colonies. Zuckerman also points to the lingering influence of the Cold War, when the Soviet persecution of religion linked atheism to tyrannical dictatorship in American minds, something Johnson alluded to in his inaugural speech.

Huffman understands why there are so few publicly secular politicians, even though he thinks voters have it wrong. “If you take the time to look at what humanism is, it is, frankly, far more moral, in a modern sense, than all of these heavy-handed dictates from the Book of Leviticus,” he said, adding that he’d welcome the chance to discuss religion and morality with Johnson.

And Huffman doesn’t think Americans really do care as much about a politician’s religion as the polls suggest. “I came out as a nonreligious humanist in 2017,” he said. “You can take a look at my reelect numbers since then.”

Huffman has won them all by more than 45 percentage points.