Mike Johnson: God Damn America
Reckoning with who is allowed to criticize America and who isn’t.
Hey all, it’s Tim in for JVL again. For this newsletter I wanted to expand on a point I made as an aside about Jeremiah Wright and Mike Johnson during last week’s Secret Pod with Sarah. (For. Subscribers. Only.)
And make sure you don’t miss my Sunday interview with Scott Galloway, the marketing guru/entrepreneur/professor/Kara Swisher wingman. We covered a lot of ground on tech bros and patriotism, AI, TikTok, why young men are struggling, and more.
1. God Shed His Wrath On Thee
Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House, might represent the party of Great Patriots™ but he sure doesn’t seem to think America is that great. Last week, Rolling Stone reported on remarks he made on a livestream only a few weeks before he flopped into the speakership and well . . . go ahead and read it for yourself:
This is an inflection point. We are at a civilizational moment. The only question is: Is God going to allow our nation to enter a time of judgment for our collective sins which his mercy and grace have held back for some time or is he gonna give us one more chance to restore the foundation, to return to Him? . . . We will not be able to do it without the Lord’s help, because the flesh and the mistrust, and the sin and everything is so great here that this is going to have to bring people to their knees.
This livestream—a “prayer call” via Zoom with a right-wing Christian network that Johnson is closely associated with—took place on October 3, just hours before Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the speakership, so the turmoil in the House is the backdrop of Johnson’s remarks. At one point, his interlocutor, the pastor Jim Garlow, asks: Could this be a time of judgment for America? Johnson’s reply:
You all know the terrible state that we’re in. . . . The faith in our institutions is the lowest it’s ever been in the history of our nation. The culture is so dark and depraved that it almost seems irredeemable at this point. The church attendance in America dropped below 50 percent for the first time in our history since they began to measure the data sixty years ago. And the number of people who do not believe in absolute truth is now above the majority for the first time. One in three teen girls contemplated suicide last year. One in four high school students identify as something other than straight. We’re losing the country.
So there you go. The speaker of the House thinks that the prevalence of American teen bisexuals is a sign America is so depraved that it deserves God’s judgment and the best we can hope for is that he shows us mercy.
Doesn’t sound like a country Johnson can be proud of to me. In fact it sounds like he thinks America as it actually exists is shit and deserves what it gets (maybe that’s why he’s for Trump?).
What Johnson is offering is not some rhetorical innovation, of course. There has been a long tradition of eschatological fundamentalism among the political influencers on Christian Right. But this type of rhetoric from a leading GOP politician is still a notable departure from the “shining city on a hill” and “America: Fuck Yeah” culture of my childhood GOP.
And that’s where this gets interesting. Because the reaction to these comments and how it compares to another man of God who had a similar analysis of America’s scriptural health provides a telling insight to the state of politics in America.1
2. ‘God Damn America’
Back in the halcyon days of 2008 the political world went into upheaval when video leaked showing then-candidate Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, giving a sermon in which he said: “God damn America.”
To be honest, when Johnson’s remarks called this speech to mind, I couldn’t remember a single line in Wright’s sermon besides that one. And when I went back to find it, I was reminded that Wright said and did a lot of other objectionable shit that merited criticism but which isn’t relevant here. (Here’s Salon editor Joan Walsh with a contemporaneous and fair-minded liberal critique of Wright if you are interested. NB: Joan was awesome in our Sunday interview a few weeks ago if you haven’t watched).
But for present purposes, I want to set aside the other (deserved) criticisms and just focus on the “God damn America” sermon. Here is a good chunk of it:
And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme! The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent. . . .2
But I’m fitting to help you one last time. Let me tell you something. Where governments fail, God never fails. When God says it, it’s done. God never fails. When God wills it, you better get out the way. ’Cause God never fails. When God fixes it, oh believe me, it’s fixed. God never fails. Somebody right now, you think you can’t make it, but I want you to know you are more than a conqueror, through Christ you can do all things, through Christ who strengthens you.
In one sense there is an overarching similarity in Johnson’s and Wright’s observations. Both men believe that America is sinful and needs to turn to God. Both explore the possibility that we deserve his judgment. And both express optimism that through God we can be redeemed. But the differences are more interesting than the similarities.
Johnson is saying that the American people are sick, present tense. That our culture is dark and irredeemable. That non-binary youth and people not attending church are causing us to fall from grace.
Wright argued that our government is sick. That those in power have marginalized certain groups and failed them.
Johnson is damning the American people, while Wright is damning the American government. So if you were inclined to be offended by one of these statements on behalf of our nation’s honor and dignity, on its face it seems Johnson’s critique was more sweeping and censorious.
But only if you dismiss the racial subtext.
In the dominant American culture, black men aren’t given the same leeway to criticize America that whites are. A white Christian patriot can talk about how things in America have gone to shit because of our sinfulness and his fellow white Christian patriots understand that they are not the ones being criticized. The connotation in his remarks does not point the finger at themselves or at the foundational core of the nation. Johnson is saying that Those People Over There Are Taking America Away From God. “We” are losing the country to “them.”
The “them” might be gays or critical race theorists or people with nose rings or liberals or Jews or Bud Light PR reps or woke teachers or atheists or someone else entirely depending on the day. But the not-quite-explicitly-spoken-but-completely-understood argument is: They are bad. We have done nothing. We are being punished for their sins.
So for Johnson's allies there is nothing to be upset about in this condemnation of America, obviously. And Johnson’s foes don’t really care much about the moral judgment of someone they find morally repulsive.
But when a black pastor damns America that’s a different ball of wax.
For Wright to say that these actions of the American government are fundamentally sinful hits at the heart of the national story, ego, and identity.
His point, which white America heard loud and clear, is that we should feel shame about our country's past and the way we’ve treated our citizens. When white Americans heard “God damn America” it was not just a critique of the government (though it was that), but a reminder that Americans should feel ashamed about something that many feel is central to their identity. Wright was not merely saying that America did bad things via its government but that we ourselves in some sense are bad. For a little dime-store psychotherapy: This is the difference between guilt and shame and Wright is going straight at it.
Nobody likes to be told to feel shame. Especially when their subconscious knows they—or in this case their country—might be guilty. And this becomes even more acute when it is about something that defines their sense of self.
This, in addition to crass political considerations, is why the response to Wright was apoplectic.
3. Shame Spiral
Although not as apoplectic as it would have been: To John McCain’s eternal credit, he would not let his campaign use the outrage in its advertisements, despite his vice presidential nominee and some top advisers agitating for it.
But that didn’t stop the rest of the right-wing infotainment ecosystem. In the first six months of Obama’s presidency, Sean Hannity brought up Wright on at least 45 different episodes of his show, according to Media Matters. 45! Bill O’Reilly said Wright preached “anti-white and anti-American rhetoric.” Newt Gingrich slammed the “stunningly hateful” things Wright said about America.
Republicans still bring Wright’s sermons in campaigns over a decade on. Mandela Barnes was attacked over the “God Damn America” speech during his 2018 campaign because he appeared in a picture with Wright. In 2020, the Georgia Republican Party ran an ad juxtaposing Raphael Warnock’s past praise for Wright with the “God damn America” clip. (Wonder if there is anything linking Barnes and Warnock that might’ve made them ripe targets for this attack? Hmmm . . .)
Needless to say there was no such outrage from the right when word came of Johnson’s remarks. Nobody was concerned that he had hurt America’s fragile ego or been hateful to the nation that has been so good to him.
Part of that is politics. But the other part is that their definition of America was not insulted at all by Johnson. It was the interlopers and blasphemers and the enemies of the people who should fear God’s judgment because they are the ones who are redefining America in the devil’s image.
And this is where the Johnson view of the world and the secular MAGA exceptionalism come into harmony. Trump might not be comfortable on a Zoom meeting with pastors. He might not think that the country is being judged by God. And he definitely doesn’t want God punishing sexual libertinism.
But when it comes to the vermin and the enemy within, for both Trump and Johnson, “God damn America” sounds about right.
Substantively speaking, it should be obvious to any frequenter of my material that as a gay lapsed Catholic I’m not very keen on any philosophy that espouses divine punishment for worldly sins. That said, I don’t begrudge anyone who is speaking in a manner that is true to their faith, and if Johnson looks out at America and sees a country that has strayed far from God’s light, we can agree that there is certainly a lot of evidence for that.