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Mike Johnson symbolizes a new turn for the religious right

Analysis by Ronald Brownstein, CNN

(CNN) — The arc of Rep. Mike Johnson’s career encapsulates the shifting priorities of the religious right in the era of Donald Trump.

During his first decades in political life, the newly elected House speaker was a vehement opponent of legal abortion and greater legal equality for LGBTQ people. That focus reflected the dominant public focus of religious conservatives on issues of sexuality and gender roles from the 1980s until Barack Obama’s presidency.

Without abandoning those views, Johnson in recent years has embraced key priorities of Trump’s MAGA movement, describing illegal immigration as “the true existential” threat to America’s future and leading congressional efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he claimed suffered from “credible allegations of fraud and irregularity.”

In his own journey, the Louisiana Republican embodies the merger between different generations of public priorities for the movement of conservative evangelical Christians in which he launched his career and still strongly identifies. Long identified with issues revolving around sexuality, religious conservatives have also become the bedrock supporters of a Trump movement rooted in hostility toward demographic and racial change.

Multiple polls now show that the White evangelicals, and other Republican voters, who express the most conservative views on issues relating to sexuality and gender roles also take the most conservative positions on immigration and racial equity – amalgamating all these concerns into one overarching cry of resistance to the changes remaking 21st century America.

Like Trump’s commanding lead in the 2024 GOP presidential race, Johnson’s rapid ascent to the speakership in just his fourth congressional term showcases how this multi-front resistance to an evolving America has become the most powerful force binding the modern GOP coalition.

Johnson’s rise reveals the religious roots of that shift much more clearly than Trump’s ascent. As a twice-divorced New Yorker with a history of affairs and public scandals, Trump has always been an unlikely champion for religious conservatives seeking to impose their definitions of morality on public policy.

But Johnson, an evangelical himself, has been a virulent warrior for conservative cultural causes throughout his career, and has closely identified with far-right Christian nationalists seeking to tear down the separation of church and state. Johnson himself has declared, “The founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.” His rise to leadership underscores the links in the Trump-era GOP between hostility to social and cultural change and the belief that the founders intended America to operate as an explicitly Christian nation.

In the latest annual American Values Survey released last week by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute, a 52% majority of Republican voters agreed with the statement that “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.” Only about two-in-ten Democrats and three-in-ten independents agreed. More than half of White evangelicals agreed with that statement as well – the only major religious denomination in which it found majority support.

Robert P. Jones, president and founder of the PRRI, sees the fear that America is straying from explicitly Christian roots as the unifying thread binding the concerns about sexual behavior and gender roles, which preoccupied the first generation of religious right leaders, with the more overt focus on racial and demographic change in the Trump era.

With his embrace of MAGA themes after years denouncing abortion and same-sex marriage, Johnson “is a good symbol of this amalgamation,” said Jones, author of the recent book “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy.”

“I should say it straight here: it really is this view of a country that is a White Christian country. That’s the vision that is being put forward. In many ways that is the vision that holds this whole thing together.”

As the PRRI’s surveys show, White Christians, after representing a majority of the US population for most of its history, now constitute only a little over two-fifths of the total, with White evangelicals slipping to only about one-in-seven. Yet both groups are much more influential inside the GOP coalition, with evangelicals representing nearly one-third of Republican voters and all White Christians about two-thirds. Mike Podhorzer, the former political director of the AFL-CIO, recently calculated in a Substack post that fully 70% of House Republicans represent districts that rank in the top two quintiles for the largest share of White evangelical residents. “A group that represents less than 15% of the US population commands 70% of the districts comprising the majority party in the House of Representatives,” Podhorzer wrote.

As Jones notes, racial issues were central to the “genesis story of the Christian Right.” Though it is often assumed that the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a nationwide right to abortion was the trigger for the emergence of the religious right in the 1970s, in fact it originally coalesced around opposition to efforts from the Jimmy Carter administration to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially segregated religious schools.

Over the next few decades, though, religious right leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson put much more public emphasis on the issues relating to changing sexual mores than on questions tied to race or identity. That changed, Jones and others believe, earlier in this century, amid the combined pressure of increasing diversity in the population and Barack Obama’s election as the first Black president.

“What is new about Republican leaders like Trump and Johnson is not that they reveal a new blend of sexual culture wars and racial grievance,” Jones said, “but rather a willingness to more fully articulate the long-suppressed key ingredient in that recipe.”

As an attorney for the Dobson-linked conservative Christian advocacy group the Alliance Defense Fund (known today as Alliance Defending Freedom) through the early 2000s, Johnson was an especially zealous advocate on the issues of changing sexual attitudes  that dominated the religious right’s first generation.

Johnson not only opposed same-sex marriage, as many conservatives did in those years, but also supported the criminalizing of gay and lesbian sexual relationships, writing at one point that “States have many legitimate grounds to proscribe same-sex deviate sexual intercourse,” as CNN’s KFile recently reported. Even by the standards of that era, Johnson was especially vitriolic in his denunciations, calling same-sex relations “inherently unnatural” and a “dangerous lifestyle,” and describing gay people as “a deviant group,” as KFile found.

As an elected official, Johnson has generally tempered his rhetoric, but he does not appear to have wavered from those beliefs. As a Louisiana state legislator, he proposed a bill in 2015 that would have prevented the state from applying any sanctions, such as loss of a professional license, on anyone who discriminated against LGBTQ people. In the House of Representatives, he’s proposed a bill to extend nationwide the ban on discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in early public school grades that Florida has imposed under Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Johnson’s bill would also affect public libraries and museums.)

Johnson has also co-sponsored legislation proposed by Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor to extend nationwide the ban on gender-affirming care for minors – a version of which many Republican-controlled states have also approved. At a hearing on the issue this summer, Johnson expressed impassioned alarm about the large number of young people who identify as LGBTQ in recent surveys and alleged it was driven by conscious efforts to steer them toward that identity. “Whether it’s by scalpel or by social coercion from teachers, professors, administrators, and left-wing media, it’s an attempt to transition the young people of our country,” Johnson insisted.

Nor has Johnson slackened in his opposition to abortion. He’s been a co-sponsor of the so-called “Life at Conception Act,” which would declare a fetus as a person under the 14th amendment and create the legal framework for banning abortion nationwide. Johnson’s congressional votes on other abortion-related issues has consistently earned him an “A+” rating from groups that oppose legal abortion and a zero rating from groups that support it.

But in Congress, Johnson has also identified more with some of the party’s Trump-era priorities that revolve around demographic change. He’s described illegal immigration as “the true existential threat to the country” and insisted, “If you don’t have a border, you don’t have sovereignty, you don’t have a nation at all.”

While many Republicans and conservatives have expressed similar views, Johnson has been noteworthy in embracing one variation of the xenophobic and racist Great Replacement Theory. That theory, which originated in far-right White nationalist circles, argues that Democrats and liberals are deliberately importing undocumented immigrants to “replace” the White majority and diminish their political power. While Johnson has not framed that issue in overtly racial terms, he has repeatedly described illegal immigration as “an invasion” and insisted that Democrats are deliberately enabling it for partisan gain. “The Biden administration has done this intentionally,” Johnson declared in an interview on Newsmax earlier this year. “For what reason? Everybody asks me all the time. I think that ultimately they hope to turn all these illegals into voters for their side.”

Johnson, who’s a constitutional lawyer, also played a central role in organizing House Republicans behind Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Those efforts were inextricably bound to conservative fears of racial change as well. The GOP claims of fraud, as I’ve written, were centered on the claims that Democrats were stealing votes in heavily minority large cities rather than the more predominantly White suburban areas where Trump’s performance actually deteriorated the most from 2016 to 2020. Though Johnson was not the most extravagant in his claims of fraud, he echoed some of the key assertions from Trump that the election had been “rigged” against the former president and provided the intellectual and legal arguments that underpin House Republican efforts to reject the results.

In the convergence of these views, Johnson represents the core of the modern GOP coalition. The PRRI provided CNN unpublished results from its new annual survey that show how the same voters most uneasy about changing social mores also express the most discomfort about demographic change.

PRRI found, for instance, that about two-thirds of both Republicans and evangelical Christians who want to ban abortion also agree with a harsh statement that echoes “great replacement theory” language: “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” Likewise, over four-fifths of Republicans and evangelicals who oppose legal abortion said they support placing physical barriers, including razor wire, along the US-Mexico border to deter illegal immigration “even if they endanger or kill some people.” Among Americans who take liberal positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, there’s much less support for those ideas.

Tresa Undem, who polls for progressive groups, has found a similar correlation in multiple national surveys exploring attitudes toward race, gender and social change. In a national poll last year, she said, her firm found that among Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage or legal abortion, overwhelming proportions also agreed that illegal immigration is a big problem, discrimination against Whites is now as big a problem as discrimination against minorities and that “these days society seems to punish men just for acting like men.” The correlations were similarly powerful among White evangelical Christians: virtually all of them who oppose legal abortion or same-sex marriage also support building a wall at the US-Mexico border.

All of these views, Undem maintains, are the modern expressions of the perennial resistance through American history toward movements that challenge the preeminent societal role of White men, particularly Christians. “It’s a historical and ever-present crushing force against threats to White supremacy and patriarchy,” she argued. “So whether it’s Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, recognizing the humanity of transgender people, voting rights, ending slavery, anti-lynching legislation, women having control over their bodies, or a changing demographic population – the hammer strikes.”

The overwhelming support for exclusionary immigration policies marks a significant, and revealing, shift in evangelical politics over just the past few decades. Large segments of evangelical leadership supported efforts at comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the US under both Republican President George W. Bush and even Obama.

Pete Wehner, who served as a top White House adviser to Bush, said that in those years even many evangelical leaders who were deeply conservative on social issues still supported a welcoming posture toward immigrants. “There was definitely an openness to immigration reform that doesn’t exist today,” said Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum. “It was informed, for a lot of Christians who were involved in politics, on a biblical interpretation of welcoming the stranger and the outsider.”

To Wehner, Jones and other analysts, the near universal turn against immigration reform among religious conservatives reflects that community’s increasing sense of alarm about a changing America. From the start, Trump has centered his political identity around the claim that Democrats and other liberal forces are uprooting the nation from its historic traditions and transforming it into something unrecognizable. Johnson also embodies that belief in his marriage of social conservative sentiments from the early 2000s with the anti-immigrant emphasis of the Trump years.

These fears of “losing” America are perhaps most deeply felt in the corners of the religious conservative movement that most explicitly view the US as a Christian nation and most directly seeks to undermine the traditional barriers between church and state. As NBC News recently reported, Johnson in 2021 spoke at a conference hosted by one of the leaders in that effort, a self-styled historian named David Barton. In arguments dismissed by a wide array of professional historians, Barton has contended for years that it is a myth the founders wanted a separation between church and state; Johnson, at that conference, declared that Barton’s work has had “a profound influence on me, and my work, and my life and everything I do.” (CNN has reached out to Johnson’s office for comment on his current relationship with Barton but did not receive a response before deadline.)

Wehner says the religious conservative circles that believe “America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation” were “the waters in which he [Johnson] swam.” And it is those circles, he notes, that have responded most viscerally to the heightened ferocity and apocalyptic framing of Trump-era Republican politics. “The most important change” in the political engagement of religious conservatives over the past few decades “has not been on the policy agenda, though that’s been important,” Wehner said. “It’s in the temperament and sensibility. There is a ferocity and a cruelty and a dishonesty that characterizes Christian engagement in politics today compared to a generation ago, or even 15 years ago.”

“It doesn’t mean those elements didn’t exist before – if you go through Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, those elements were there,” Wehner added. “But they are more pronounced now and the Trump ethic is one that have imbibed, and they have embraced.”

In his personal demeanor, Johnson is as mild-mannered as Trump is bombastic. But each man appears equally committed to a vision of America that elevates the moral and political preferences of conservative White Christians over any other group. In a podcast recorded immediately after Johnson’s elevation last week, Barton and two colleagues told their listeners not to let the new speaker’s soft-spoken affect confuse them.

“There’s an axiom back from cowboy days that said, ‘Hey, this guy, he’s tough but he’s nice,’” Barton said. “’He’ll make you smile before he hits you in the mouth so he won’t bloody your lips before he breaks your teeth.’”

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