As Calder McHugh writes at Politico: “Whether you’re looking to understand Mike Johnson the man or Mike Johnson the politician, you don’t have to dig deep. It’s already all there on tape. All you have to do is listen.” You can listen to the Johnson family podcast here.
I listened to the first episode. It focuses on American exceptionalism and the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “rights” come from our “Creator.” In fact, Johnson references the same G.K. Chesterton quote that he used in his Speaker of the House acceptance speech: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded upon a creed….” Johnson and his wife Kelly then move to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and talk about Jefferson’s claim that our rights come from our “Creator.”
Three comments on this part of the podcast:
First, Jefferson certainly did believe that our rights come from God. But the way the Christian Right uses this reference to the “Creator” in the Declaration leads to behavior and commitments that do not seem to square with the words of Jesus or the message of Christianity. (Remember, the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson, not God.) Did God really bestow us with the “right” to bear an AR-15? Does the right to not wear a mask, even if it gets our neighbors sick, really come from God?
Second, what Jefferson wrote in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence was not new or “exceptional.” And Jefferson, John Adams, and others knew this. I wrote about this extensively in my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. (Read this shorter piece here or here.) When Jefferson suggested that rights came from our Creator he was simply echoing the ideas common in England, the most liberty-loving nation in the world at the time. When understood in its transatlantic context, the Declaration of Independence was just another state paper. Only later did it become what historian Pauline Maier called American Scripture.
Third, anyone who has studied democratic socialism in the United States knows that most Democratic Socialists rejected the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. In other words, counter to Johnson’s claim, democratic socialism has does not always lead to Soviet-style communism. This is a scare tactic the Christian Right uses on a regular basis.
The Johnsons’ end their first episode by offering three things that are necessary to sustain the Republic.
- Religion and morality. Yes, the founding fathers did believe that religion and morality was important to the country. But if you read them closely, I don’t think they would have embraced a form of religion and morality that did not prop-up their republican experiment. Remember, the founders were not theologians or pastors, they were statesmen. They were trying to build a nation based on virtue–the idea that people would sacrifice their interests for the greater good. (Most on the Christian Right see “virtue” in a Victorian moralistic sense of the term, not as a political idea).In this sense, the founders thought religion would help people care for their neighbors and, at times, subordinate their rights to the public interest. They knew from studying history that this was the only way republics survived. Most of the founders would not recognize what Mike and Kelly Johnson are saying here. 18th-century virtue was not related church membership, as Kelly Johnson implies when she reads from Barna polls about religious decline.
- An engaged and informed electorate. Yes, the founders did want an educated citizenry. This is perhaps the most ironic part of this podcast episode. Everything about this podcast suggests that the Johnsons are misinformed about the founding and some basic ideas about American history. So much for an educated Speaker of the House.
- Trust in our institutions. Wow! This is rich coming from the guy who tried to undermine the 2020 presidential election.
I will try to listen to more episodes. This podcast certainly offers a glimpse into the mind of our new Speaker of the House.