Where Does Religion Fit in a Religiously Pluralistic Country?

The election of conservative Baptist Mike Johnson as Speaker of the House has rattled the liberal establishment.

Congressman Mike Johnson attends a House Judiciary Committee field hearing on New York City violent crimes at the Javits Federal Building in New York City on April 17, 2023
Congressman Mike Johnson attends a House Judiciary Committee field hearing on New York City violent crimes at the Javits Federal Building in New York City on April 17, 2023 (photo: Lev Radin / Shutterstock)

After Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, The New York Times pronounced him part of the Christian nationalist movement. Then it hastened to find a sociologist who agreed that Johnson fit the pattern, including “being comfortable with authoritarian social control and doing away with democratic values.”

I have no idea whether Johnson is comfortable being called a Christian nationalist. My point is simply that The Times was guilty of journalistic malpractice in gratuitously linking him to the views just quoted. Johnson opposes abortion and same-sex civil marriage, but The New York Times avidly supports both. That does not entitle the paper to smear the man.

Clearly, the unexpected elevation of a very conservative Southern Baptist, whose religion shapes his politics, has rattled the liberal establishment. But the choice of a Speaker liberal in politics and agnostic in religion would undoubtedly have been hailed by The Times and other organs of the left. Evidently the time is ripe for some basics on religion in a religiously pluralistic country.

Start, then, with the inescapable fact that the Constitution bars a religious test for public office. Unless it be clearly established that an individual holds and, given opportunity, would act upon tenets of a violently antisocial nature, his or her theological views by themselves should not be the basis for granting or withholding access to office. 

That said, it should also be clear that a candidate should be comfortable with the great political solvent called compromise as a fundamental negotiating tool of political life. This, it should be clear, does not mean selling out or betraying principle. It means working for and accepting the best deal possible in the circumstances, while reserving the right to seek a better deal if one appears achievable at a later date.

Note, however, that not every issue is open to solution by compromise. Asked how he would approach abortion if he were to become president again, Donald Trump said, “I would sit down with both sides and I’d negotiate something and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.” 

That is naïve, to say the least, given that the right to life of the unborn has absolute value in the eyes of pro-lifers just as the “right to choose” has been similarly absolutized by abortion proponents. But even supposing that some temporary agreement were possible — for example, designating a point in pregnancy after which abortion isn’t allowed — the two sides would surely resume fighting before the ink was dry.

In its piece on Speaker Johnson, The Times made much of the fact that he opposes views on church-state separation that are commonly held by secularists. It quoted him as saying that in forbidding an “establishment” of religion, the founders sought to “protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.” 

As an attorney with the public interest law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, Johnson had considerable success advancing that view in the courts. Granted, it assumes a debatable reading of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, but it is no less intellectually defensible on that account. Besides which it’s a good summary of what many religious Americans — not just conservative Protestants either — see as the history of secularist aggression against religious faith in our ongoing culture war. 

If the new Speaker of the House of Representatives intends to bring that view with him to the lofty office he now occupies, I for one say more power to him.