- WASHINGTON POST
House Speaker Mike Johnson Used Faith in Campaign against Gay Rights
12:59 JST, October 27, 2023
Mike Johnson had just entered the Louisiana state legislature in 2015 when he introduced a bill that ran counter to a growing consensus among Americans – clashing even with the attitudes of the conservative majority in Baton Rouge.
The bill, the Marriage and Conscience Act, sought to protect people with anti-gay attitudes from adverse government action, such as denial of a business license or contract.
For Johnson, who this week was chosen by his Republican colleagues in Congress to become speaker of the House, the measure was in line with a career-long crusade against gay rights. He first embarked on that crusade in the 2000s as an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom, a platform he used to call gay relationships “inherently unnatural.”
Johnson had little luck with the polarizing proposal, which was voted down in committee. But when the bill died, the conservative firebrand did something unusual: He smiled for a picture with two of the activists who had worked to kill it.
“We spoke on the phone almost every day during that period, communicating honestly about how we were approaching the work,” said one of the activists, Bruce Parker, who posed next to Johnson for the photo, taken inside the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. The idea of taking a picture together, no matter the legislation’s fate, had become a point of levity for the two men during the days they spent at loggerheads, Parker said.
The posture by Johnson, now 51, points to his unlikely ability to pursue hard-line priorities – those appealing to an influential far-right wing in the House – while appealing to some skeptics. He is a congenial crusader, say friends and foes alike, qualities that will now be tested by a fractious Republican conference.
It’s that rare mix that elevated him to the speakership, after three weeks of failed votes that doomed better-known and more experienced candidates. The result is a Republican standard-bearer who is virtually unknown to the public, even as he was a leading proponent of former president Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Johnson’s voluminous record on hot-button social issues, unified above all by his efforts to narrow the separation of church and state, is only now coming under scrutiny.
A Johnson spokeswoman pointed to a Facebook post written by the congressman last year in which he argued that “biblical beliefs” were inseparable from “public affairs.”
When he addressed colleagues from the House dais on Wednesday, Johnson wrapped his own ascension in his religious views, saying: “God is the one that raises up those in authority.”
“He is brilliant and terrifying. And we are just seeing the beginning of him,” Parker said.
‘Like a minister’
Johnson’s worldview and interest in politics took shape early in life, by his own account and those of friends.
He was 12 years old when tragedy struck his family. His father, an assistant fire chief in Shreveport, responded to an explosion at a cold storage facility that badly burned 80 percent of his body.
“The explosion was such a pivotal thing my life,” Johnson, a Southern Baptist, would later tell the Shreveport Times. “From a young age, I saw that prayer and faith are real, tangible things. I watched God work a miracle and save my father’s life.”
The eldest of four children, Johnson studied business at Louisiana State University, graduating in 1995, and continued on at the law school, earning his degree in 1998.
“The only election he has ever lost in his entire life was to me,” said Charles G. Blaize Jr., a classmate who, in their final year of law school, bested him for president of the student bar association. The two discussed their political ambitions, his classmate said, and joked that one of them would ultimately become governor of Louisiana.
In law school, Johnson “carried himself like a minister,” Blaize said. “He didn’t drink very much, if at all. He was very socially conservative.”
When Johnson married his wife, Kelly Lary, in 1999, they chose what’s known as a covenant marriage, which requires people to engage in premarital counseling and makes it harder to get divorced. The couple became spokespeople for the arrangement, first made available in Louisiana two years before they were wed and only allowed in a handful of states. Appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” a few years later, they called covenant marriage a “no-brainer.”
“I’m a big proponent of marriage and fidelity and all the things that go with it,” Johnson said. He and his wife have four kids and live in Bossier Parish, across the Red River from Shreveport.
After law school, Johnson went to work for a prominent Shreveport law firm, according to a partner there, Donald Armand Jr. He focused on standard-issue litigation, Armand said, but soon informed the partners that he was leaving for more mission-oriented work.
In 2002, he jumped to the Alliance Defense Fund, as it was then known. The Christian nonprofit, a conservative answer to the American Civil Liberties Union, has been at the leading edge of litigating high-profile cases contesting protections for abortion, contraception coverage and gay and transgender rights.
He also began writing columns in the local Shreveport paper decrying gay intimacy and anti-discrimination protections for gay workers. After the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law making gay sex a crime and erased sodomy laws in a dozen other states, Johnson called the landmark 2003 decision, in Lawrence v. Texas, a “devastating blow to fundamental American values and millennia of moral teaching.”
A year later, he described same-sex marriage as a threat to democracy. Weighing in on a proposed amendment to Louisiana’s constitution defining marriage as “the union of one man and one woman,” he argued that any other interpretation would “de-emphasize the importance of traditional marriage to society, weaken it, and place our entire democratic system in jeopardy by eroding its foundation.”
He called gay relationships “inherently unnatural,” warning that if society countenanced “such a dangerous lifestyle,” similar demands would emerge from “every deviant group.”
“Polygamists, polyamorists, pedophiles, and others will be next in line to claim equal protection,” he wrote in the 2004 column, among numerous broadsides first reported by CNN.
He also sought to put the weight of government behind his Christian belief system. He endorsed the 2004 constitutional amendment enshrining a traditional definition of marriage.
In 2005, he pushed a local ordinance in a small Louisiana parish regulating “sexually oriented businesses” and, in the Shreveport Times, called for government action against the porn industry and what he called the “enemies of innocence.”
Much of his advocacy has been animated by an effort to shrink the separation between church and state. In 2002, he argued in favor of Bible instruction in public schools in Louisiana. Later, he led the Alliance Defense Fund’s work on behalf of a North Carolina county board sued for opening public meeting with a religious prayer. His group represented the board for free, assisting in a five-year legal battle ending in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the board’s appeal.
His field of cultural battle was broad – extending to the Christmas hearth. In 2005, his was a leading voice threatening public officials not to refer to Christmas trees as “holiday trees.”
“It’s a sad day in America when you have to retain an attorney to say ‘Merry Christmas,'” Johnson told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Johnson was hardly toiling in the shadows. In 2007, he wrote the “faith” portion of the campaign platform put forward by Bobby Jindal in his successful campaign for governor, said longtime Jindal aide Kyle Plotkin.
“Mike’s a happy warrior,” Plotkin said. “That’s why he’s well-liked within the conference and also respected by the other side.”
Johnson left the Alliance Defense Fund in 2010, according to a spokeswoman for the group, and he ultimately led his own firm, Freedom Guard, which defended a creationist group in its quest to secure tax rebates for a theme park modeled on Noah’s Ark.
“A movement is underway in America today to censor, silence, and marginalize people of faith, and to erode our most fundamental rights,” said Johnson, a longtime trustee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, explaining the need for firms like his. “We are concerned that many in our churches today have no idea of the storm that is coming.”
‘Whip smart’ vs. ‘bigot of the highest order’
Johnson put himself at the center of a storm when he sponsored the religious freedom bill as a freshman lawmaker in 2015.
The issue was a priority for Jindal, and it represented a major fault line in national politics, with Indiana’s then-governor, Mike Pence, having just championed a similar effort over significant opposition. But most Republicans joined Democrats on a Louisiana House panel to reject it 10-2.
Frances Kelley, an activist for LGBTQ+ rights and the other Johnson adversary who posed for the photo with him after his bill’s defeat, said his willingness to engage with critics stood in stark contrast to some of his colleagues and made clear to her that he believed in the righteousness of his actions.
“I think he’s focused on being effective over the long-term on the issues that are most important to him,” Kelley said. “People shouldn’t underestimate him. This is not someone who’s trying to show off or get social media attention.”
The political neophyte spent little time licking his wounds after his legislative defeat. In June of that year, he was on the trial team defending a Louisiana state law that required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, according to Steve Aden, a former colleague at the Alliance Defense Fund who also joined the trial team. Proponents of such laws – a major test of abortion jurisprudence before the 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade – said they were critical to women’s health, while advocates of abortion rights said they effectively extinguished access to the procedure.
The case ultimately worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which invalidated the law in 2020.
Aden described Johnson as “whip smart” with a “winsome personality.”
John Delgado, a former Republican city council member in Baton Rouge, offered a different view, calling Johnson a “bigot of the highest order.” (Johnson’s office did not respond to the criticism.)
After just a year in the state legislature, Johnson announced his candidacy for a congressional seat. Johnson coasted to victory in the ruby-red district in the northwest part of Louisiana and has won handily in each of his three elections since, running unopposed last year.
His Democratic opponent in 2020, a community organizer named Kenny Houston, said Johnson has been using the seat to wage a cultural battle in which his constituents never enlisted. Meanwhile, Houston said, the district has suffered under the weight of joblessness and intensifying crime.
“You would think with Shreveport being one of the most dangerous cities in America, you would hear him talking about it,” Houston said.
Johnson has spoken more about other issues, especially abortion. In 2020, during a largely unnoticed interview with Students for Life Action, a leading antiabortion group, Johnson was raising alarm about abortion pills, demand for which has soared after the end of Roe.
“In the abortion industry, Planned Parenthood and the abortion cartels are going to try their best to maximize profits with that, of course,” he said.
Recently, Johnson has tried his hand as a talk radio host, launching a podcast with his wife last year called “Truth be Told.” In an episode last fall, he argued that common understandings of the separation of church and state are all wrong.
“The sad irony is that over the last 60, 70, 80 years, radical progressives and leftists and atheist organizations have twisted the meaning of it, and now they regard the First Amendment as a weapon to be wielded against the people of faith when it was supposed to be their shield,” he said.
The country’s founders, Johnson argued, understood that catastrophe would ensue “if the men in charge had no fear in eternal judgment by a power higher than their temporal institutions.”
Meanwhile, some of his friends are asking for help on his behalf from a higher power.
“It’s a tough job,” said Aden, the former colleague from the Alliance Defense Fund. “I will keep him in my prayers.”
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