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Mike Johnson, Polite Extremist
The new speaker of the House has deep ties to proponents of the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement that helped fuel the January 6th insurrection.
HOT-OFF-THE-PRESSES PROFILES of Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House, contain a seeming paradox. Some emphasize that he is a “mild-mannered,” “soft-spoken,” and temperamentally courteous individual. They similarly describe him as a “Christian conservative” and a “deeply evangelical Christian.” But many of the same profilers have also highlighted Johnson’s troubling activity surrounding the 2020 election and Trump’s attempt to overturn the American people’s verdict. Johnson’s involvement was substantial enough that he has even been labeled the “mastermind of the January 6 plot” and “a threat to democracy.”
So which is he: an anti-democratic politician and an insurrectionist, or a mild-mannered Christian? Part of the problem is that we have come to imagine that a person cannot be both at the same time. Mike Johnson shows that you can.
I have spent nearly three years researching the Christian theologies and Christian leaders that drove the January 6th insurrection. In an audio-documentary series released earlier this year and in my forthcoming book, I profile a set of these Christian leaders who mobilized and galvanized Christian Trumpism, and who showed up on January 6th to do spiritual (and sometimes physical) warfare against American democracy. Many of them are mild-mannered, conservative, deeply evangelical Christians, too. And it turns out that quite a few of them have connections with Mike Johnson.
To understand the Republican party’s internal politics today, we need to redraw some old distinctions. The most important ones to keep in mind today are not between Christians and non-Christians, nor between conservative Christians and liberal Christians, but between conservative Christians and politically extreme conservative Christians.
There are principled, conservative Christians with heartfelt moral views on abortion, LGBTQ-rights, and a host of other cultural issues who value democracy and pluralism and recognize their preferred policies won’t always win the day. (Think Russell Moore and David French.) And there are politically extreme conservative Christians who might hold the exact same views on the same issues as Moore and French, but who are also willing to upend democracy to see their agendas realized, which Moore and French simply are not.
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Politically extreme conservative Christians were some of the foremost leaders who bought into and bolstered Trump’s 2020 election lies, who used theology to justify their own authoritarianism, and who have brought their extremist theologies into the heart of right-wing politics. Mike Johnson can be located in this group.
HOW DO WE KNOW THIS? The key Christian instigators of January 6th I have tracked are part of an amorphous, nondenominational network called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). They believe and propagate extreme theologies that provide a mandate for Christians to take over society, and they have become increasingly influential in Republican politics in the past eight years. Several New Apostolic Reformation leaders—they usually call their leaders either apostles or prophets—were influential evangelical advisers to Donald Trump. (Presumably, some of them still are.)
While he is not formally attached to the NAR movement, Mike Johnson, a Southern Baptist, has spent years hanging around with NAR leaders, looking to them as mentors and friends, and pursuing their agenda. Let me give a couple examples.
First, Jim Garlow and Mario Bramnick were very important evangelical advisers to Trump who frequently met with the former president. They are both also influential apostles within the NAR movement, and they were instrumental in sparking the Christian rage that fueled the conflagration of January 6th. Both Garlow and Bramnick have been outspoken proponents of one of the signature New Apostolic Reformation theologies: the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” a profoundly anti-democratic program for Christians to take over key positions of influence in society to transform nations into hegemonic Christian domains.
After the 2020 election was called for Joe Biden, Garlow and Bramnick organized a series of “Global Prayer for Election Integrity” calls where they gathered like-minded Christians (predominantly others who were on board with the “Seven Mountain” paradigm) to pray and organize for Trump’s reinstatement as president. Political schemer Steve Bannon, future far-right Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, Christian nationalist worship leader Sean Feucht, and former general (and current conspiracy theorist) Michael Flynn all joined at least one of these calls, making them a central interface between the grassroots Christian nationalist forces angrily mobilizing on Trump’s behalf, on the one hand, and the planners and orchestrators of January 6th who intended to channel their rage towards specific objectives, on the other. Bramnick and Garlow even bragged in an open letter to Donald Trump that over the span of the eighteen prayer calls between the election and January 6th, more than a million people had either joined the live calls or watched the video recordings of them.
While the 2020 election has receded from view for most Americans (with one major exception), these “Global Prayer for Election Integrity” calls are still going on and still being led by Garlow and Bramnick. They are now called “World Prayer Network” calls, and Mike Johnson has been a regular participant. He has also described admiring and following Jim Garlow for more than two decades. “You’ve been a profound influence on my life and my walk with Christ, brother,” Johnson told Garlow during one World Prayer Network call.
Garlow and others in the NAR movement may even have started to create an alternative faith-and-politics infrastructure to compete with the one that has long provided an interface between Washington politicians and normie evangelical leaders. This past February, a group of former members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, NAR leaders, and Republican congressional leaders convened an alternative event to the iconic National Prayer Breakfast, this one at the Museum of the Bible. While it received little press coverage (and did not feature breakfast), this was truly a strange event: Co-hosted by Garlow and Tony Perkins (the right-wing activist who has been president of the Family Research Council for two decades), it included Christians blowing shofars—ram’s horns used in Jewish ritual, but frequently appropriated today by evangelicals and Pentecostals. (The Christian nationalist version of this practice was made famous during the Capitol Riot.)
This prayer breakfast alternative also featured Christian worship led by Alma Rivera, a leader who literally led worship and prayers over the besieged Capitol with NAR leaders on January 6th from a stage just yards away from the rioters. Most pertinently, in the lead-up to the February event, Garlow named Mike Johnson as one of its key coordinators, saying that he is “at the helm of the planning” for the event, that Johnson suggested the theme of “repentance” for it, and that he’s “at the epicenter of the repentance movement” in Congress. (“Repentance,” usually a term associated with an individual’s change of heart, here is a key Christian nationalist term for the United States collectively renouncing sinful practices.)
SECOND, IN HIS OWN DISTRICT, Mike Johnson has cultivated very close ties with a church whose local NAR-affiliated apostle has helped make it a hub of extreme ideas and theologies. The apostle’s name is Timothy Carscadden, and his church has the innocuous-sounding name of Christian Center Shreveport. Both Carscadden and Christian Center are deeply linked to the ideas and ministry of a man with an even more innocuous-sounding name: Dutch Sheets.
Those who have never heard of Sheets should consider committing his unusual name to long-term memory: He is a major apostle in the New Apostolic Reformation, a right-wing Christian strategist, and one of the more dangerous ideologues of the religious right. I would argue that among those who spurred politically extreme conservative Christians to show up in Washington, D.C. on January 6th prepared to take violent action, no Christian leader was more influential than Dutch Sheets.
One of the markers of Sheets’s extremist theology is his reinterpretation of a Greek word from the Bible. The word is ekklesia, which in Greek means “assembly,” but it is usually translated simply as “church.” In Sheets’s view, ekklesia should actually be translated to mean something like government, meaning that the church is God’s ordained governing body on the earth. Sheets envisions and advocates “marrying civil and spiritual government.” This is a formulation he seems to favor; the idea is that the church would align itself with interdependent government leaders, and they would do the bidding of the church.
It is important to reiterate that Dutch Sheets is not some marginal pastor or isolated theologian. He is an influential activist, and he was a core—though covert—adviser to the Trump administration, helping to coordinate prayer and spiritual warfare efforts. This he did not only along with Garlow and Bramnick, but also in concert with Mike Pence and Paula White-Cain (Trump’s closest religious adviser). I have previously reported on a bizarre multi-hour meeting at the White House that brought Trump administration officials together with Dutch Sheets, who was accompanied by a team of his most trusted apostles and prophets. It took place on December 29, 2020—eight days before the attack on the Capitol.
Timothy Carscadden, this Shreveport apostle who is very close to Mike Johnson, has been part of Dutch Sheets’s circle of apostles for more than a decade. He hangs out with Sheets, mimics his theology, and has even echoed Sheets’s ekklesia language and concepts while speaking directly to Johnson.
Sheets has apparently been relying on this Carscadden connection to get inside information about Johnson. On his daily broadcast on Friday, Sheets crowed that “God has given us a miracle” in the form of Johnson’s ascension to the speakership. Sheets says that, while he does not know Johnson personally, he has “several friends who do, and who attest to his qualification”—and his alignment with Sheets’s agenda.
JUST IN CASE YOU’RE WONDERING whether Mike Johnson really believes any of this or might just be humoring these hardline apostles of Christian supremacy, as so many Republican politicians feel they must do nowadays to remain electorally viable, here it is from the horse’s mouth. On one of Garlow’s prayer calls last year, Mike Johnson summarized his view of working in Congress: “This transcends politics . . . this is a spiritual battle that we’re in now for the survival of our country.” NAR leaders used the same rationalization to whip conservative American Christians into a frenzy leading into January 6th, and here it is on the lips of our newest speaker of the House.
There is no contradiction in observing that Mike Johnson is both a mild-mannered, courteous, conservative evangelical Christian and a politically extreme ideologue. He has surrounded himself with some of the most dangerous, anti-democratic Christian leaders in the country—the same people who theologized the January 6th insurrection—and offered them his public support and praise. Is there any doubt about the flock to which he belongs?