RFI President Eric Patterson: The Relentless Character Assassination of Speaker Mike Johnson

November 9, 2023

By Eric Patterson

Rep. Mike Johson (LA-4) has been subjected to searing criticism since being elected as the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives by his colleagues on October 25. Though not well known nationally before assuming this role, Speaker Johnson has been elected and re-elected by his constituents by huge margins. A loving father and husband, and a champion of religious freedom for all Americans, he has been savagely attacked for the last two weeks as a bigot, fundamentalist, and “Christian nationalist.” These ugly attempts at character assassination are directly tied to his religious faith and, therefore, are deeply troubling in a country rooted in pluralism and religious liberty.

And elite media outlets are falling in line. A Washington Post opinion headline says, “Mike Johnson is a pro-gun Christian nationalist. Yes, be afraid.” The author says Johnson’s “ideology” may encourage violence. A The New York Times opinion piece calls the friendly, smiling Johnson “The Embodiment of Christian Nationalism in a Tailored Suit.”  

Since about 2006, critics have shrilly complained about the threat of so-called Christian nationalism, despite the fact that few Christians have known what it is and even fewer subscribe to it.

The bogeyman created by radical progressives is a blend of racism, militarism, and fascism.  According to writer Andrew Whitehead, Christian nationalism is an existential “threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States.”  Andrew Seidel, vice president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, claims that it is an “existential threat” to this country. Amanda Tyler, president of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, contends that Christian nationalism is the “single biggest threat to America’s religious liberty.” Finally, and many additional examples could be given, Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry recently informed us that white Christian nationalism is a “threat to American democracy.”

Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry have defined Christian nationalism as:

An ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture [that] includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.

Upon a closer look, this misuse of labels and data has a partisan character with strong anti-Christian overtones. For example, Whitehead and Perry’s research, based on flawed survey results, seems to suggest that if someone believes Biblical teaching to be true, then that person is a potentially violent Christian nationalist. Such a conclusion brands hundreds of millions of faithful Protestants and Catholics across the Western world as fascists.

Thus, we should not be surprised to find Whitehead and Perry writing the following in TIME magazine: “When we say Speaker Johnson is a Christian nationalist, we mean he provides a near-perfect example for each element.”

As scholar Mark David Hall has written, although there is a small minority of Americans who do hold expansive views about the role of Christianity in American public life, very few are white supremacists or militarists.

Speaker Johnson is under assault for his Christian convictions. He has been consistent about Biblical teaching and honest about his beliefs, whether as an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom or as a father and husband. That is why he is labeled a Christian nationalist. 

Such invective is not just unprofessional, it is extremely dangerous for a republic. Even more insidious, his wife and children have been attacked for their convictions informed by their Christian faith. How did we get to the point where an elected leader’s spouse is fair game for intimidation, character assassination, and threats of violence? The American people rightfully were appalled and disgusted when Nancy Pelosi’s husband was viciously attacked, and that awful episode should make all of us vigilant about preventing digital shaming, cyber attacks, physical intimidation, or violence directed at anyone, especially the families of public servants.

Eric Patterson is President of the Religious Freedom Institute.