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Mike Johnson's speakership marks a new phase in the white evangelical-GOP alliance

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24.
Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24.

The ascension of Mike Johnson to the post of speaker of the House marks the latest and perhaps the most consequential event to date in the alliance of white evangelical Christians with the Republican Party.

It also adds a chapter to the alliance of evangelicals and former President Donald Trump. If there were many in the Capitol and in the country surprised to see the little-known Johnson as speaker, they share that amazement with those who could not imagine Trump in the White House.

Beyond that, there is the eye-opening fact that these utterly different personalities — and the conservative Christian movement itself — all owe their current status and power to their cooperation with each other.

How Johnson came to be speaker

Those in conservative circles are still debating Trump's role in the rebellion that ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy in early October. As president he had a relationship with McCarthy, even calling him "my Kevin" at times. This year he was not pleased to see McCarthy strike a deal with Democrats on the debt ceiling in the spring and again on the government shutdown deadline this fall. But the anger that boiled over and forced McCarthy out came from within his own ranks of House members.

Thereafter, Trump did put an endorsement for Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, one of the several candidates who would be nominated to succeed McCarthy but unable to get a majority of the whole House to elect him. Jordan had been perhaps the fiercest defender of the former president during Trump's first impeachment proceeding in 2019.

Trump's backing was a big plus for Jordan, who had not been part of the leadership before. But in the end, even that endorsement was not enough. The fear among swing-district Republicans was that Jordan's high-profile abrasiveness would dim or even doom their own reelection prospects in 2024.

When Jordan failed, the House Republicans entertained a new batch of candidates for their nomination, and among them, Johnson initially got just 32 votes out of more than 200. The field shrank to just Johnson and Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the House majority whip and next on the leadership ladder. Emmer prevailed 117 to 97.

Trump had made it clear earlier that Emmer was not his pick, calling him "totally out of touch with Republican voters" and a "globalist RINO." The Minnesotan had voted to certify the results of the election in 2020, apparently making him anathema to Trump and therefore to many House Republicans. Without even taking the issue to the floor, Emmer withdrew.

Johnson, a junior member of leadership little known outside Louisiana but a champion of Trump's false claims of election fraud in 2020, suddenly stood tall. Trump came out for him, clearing that hurdle. So the choice for his party confreres had become Johnson now, or who-knows-who and who-knows-when. After three weeks of indulging their personal preferences, they were ready to be done.

Johnson's conservative record

Trump erupted with predictions of success for Johnson on social media. He will certainly be the most pro-Trump speaker. He may also be the most conservative speaker in generations, and surely the most public about his religiosity. The first photos to go viral after his selection showed him leading the House GOP in prayer.

In 2020, when in just his fourth year in the House, he rounded up support in the chamber for a Texas lawsuit alleging the votes of four other states should be thrown out because court decisions had made it easier to vote in those states. The suit was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it got Trump's attention.

All on his own, Johnson is a deep-dyed conservative even by the standards of his party, his state and his church. Long a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and a bastion of evangelicalism, Johnson has been active in internal church debates over the denomination's direction. Johnson has taken the side of a greater commitment to conservative theology and traditional social practices.

He has also been an activist — as a lawyer and as a legislator — against abortion and same-sex marriage and an array of other rights for the LGBTQ community.

By elevating Johnson to the uniquely pivotal speakership, Republicans have once again committed themselves to a viewpoint and an agenda deeply rooted in the nation's past. They have also recommitted themselves to those parts of the country where that past is most celebrated and admired, and to those voters most inclined to do so.

They have also once again proven that no one has more say in the House than Trump — not the speaker or the leading candidate for speaker, and not the candidate with the most support among his colleagues.

Making a long-standing relationship stronger

White evangelical Christians have been playing a notable role in the GOP since they migrated into the party in greater numbers in the late 1970s. Ironically, that was during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, a Baptist Sunday school teacher and "born again" Christian.

The IRS under Carter had begun a more aggressive enforcement of rules regarding tax-exempt private schools often called "Christian academies." These schools had their roots in resistance to the 1954 Brown v. Board decision in the Supreme Court that ended official segregation in public schools.

That mobilized a cadre of parents and activists and coincided with the emergence of several new political organizations such as the Moral Majority, which was founded during the Carter years (1979) by Jerry Falwell Sr., who also founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Johnson has been a paid online faculty member for Liberty as he served in the House.

It was also an era when "televangelists" were acquainting more Americans with white evangelicalism. Best known among them was Marion "Pat" Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network. His "Christian Coalition of America" was founded in 1987 and soon turned over to a young protégé named Ralph Reed.

Under Reed's media-savvy and politically attuned leadership, the Christian Coalition became a leading organizer of votes for Christian conservative Republicans. The group had such impact on the 1994 elections that gave the GOP control of Congress that Time magazine featured the 33-year-old Reed on its cover with the headline "The Right Hand of God."

Taking up residence in the GOP

Carter would be the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the support of white voters who identified as evangelical. Even in his reelection year of 1980, the category deserted him for the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. Although not an evangelical himself, and not known for religious devotion prior to his political career, Reagan appealed to these voters as an anti-tax conservative who opposed abortion and excessive federal power. When he left office eight years later, most white evangelical voters stayed with the GOP.

In a sense, Reagan as a political figure anticipated Trump. He had little personal history in the church but made a great show of his reverence for the rights of religious traditionalists. Reagan famously asked the throng of delegates at the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980 to bow their heads and pray with him as he accepted their nomination for president. As a moment, perhaps it also presaged Speaker Johnson leading his flock in prayer the day he got the big gavel.

There have been several Republican aspirants to the presidency who tried to harness the strength of white evangelical voters. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who ended his candidacy the same week Johnson was elected speaker, was the most recent.

In today's electorate, it must be said the evangelicals punch above their numeric weight. In the latest measures of verified voters' identities and preferences taken by the Pew Research Center, white evangelicals made up about one-fifth of all voters in 2016 and 2020, shrinking just slightly from 20% to 19% in 2020.

But it may seem at the same time that they are growing in influence, partly because they represent a growing share of white Protestants. Even while the numbers of evangelicals have slipped, the numbers of non-evangelical "mainline" Protestants has fallen even more. So the two sub-categories together now account for just 35% of all American voters, down from past generations when they constituted a clear majority.

The combined categories of atheists, agnostics and "nothing in particular" now account for a third of all American voters, according to Pew Research Center's extensive surveys of voters. Smaller segments identify as Anglo Catholic (14%) nonwhite Protestant (12%) and Hispanic Catholic (5%).

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.