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Thursday, November 02, 2023

I Grew Up in Mike Johnson’s District, Where Kindness Can Mask Cruelty

I Grew Up in Mike Johnson’s District, Where Kindness Can Mask Cruelty

A close-up of Mike Johnson looking off to the side.
Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

By Charles Blow

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I don’t know Mike Johnson, the brand-new speaker of the House of Representatives, but I feel as if I do because we’re from the same neck of the woods. He’s from Shreveport, in Caddo Parish, La., where I was born and where one of my brothers died.

Johnson’s district encompasses my childhood hometown, Gibsland, about 40 miles east of Shreveport, and home parish, Bienville, which is where most members of my family have lived for as long as I can track them back. My mother and two of my brothers still live there.

He graduated from Louisiana State University. A few years earlier, I had turned down a scholarship to L.S.U. to accept one at Grambling State University, a historically Black college about a half-hour east of Gibsland. He also wrote opinion essays for the newspaper where I cut my teeth as a working journalist, The Shreveport Times.

We never crossed paths, but we came of age politically in the same locality, a place I know better than almost any other on Earth, shaped by many of the same cultural forces.

And for that reason, I believe that he’ll most likely be able to avoid being tagged as an extremist — at least in the short run — as America gets to know him.

In a statement after Johnson was elected speaker, the Democratic National Committee castigated him as an “election-denying, anti-abortion MAGA extremist” who was “a mastermind behind House Republicans’ efforts to overturn the 2020 election” and “is a loyal foot soldier to the real leader of the Republican Party — Donald Trump.”

All that is true, but unlike Trump’s, Johnson’s efforts to undermine American democracy are served like a comforting bowl of grits and a glass of sweet tea. He is not abrasive. He is likable.

He is from a part of the country where your nemesis will smile at you and promise to pray for you, where people will quickly submit that they “love the sinner but hate the sin,” where one hand can hold a Bible while the other holds a shackle. He is from a place where people use religion to brand their hatred as love so that they act on it cheerfully and without guilt.

He is what many have feared: an example of second-wave Trumpism — politicians rising in Trump’s wake who come with the same policy priorities and ideological proclivities, but in a far more congenial and urbane package, propelled by something more than personal grievance. Trumpism is a religion developed to serve a man. What happens when it evolves into a pillar of an established creed and is viewed as a way to serve God?

Johnson has taken that ethos into his politics.

In an interview last week on Fox News, Johnson said: “Someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘It’s curious, people are curious. What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it.’ That’s my worldview.”

Johnson tried to create some daylight between his zealotry and his politics, saying that not all lawmakers’ deeply held beliefs can become law. He also said that when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was constitutionally protected it became “settled” law and “the law of the land,” and as a constitutional lawyer, “I respect that.”

But does he? Anticipating that decision in 2015, he introduced a failed religious exemption bill in the Louisiana State Legislature aimed at blunting the ruling’s effect. He said at the time about the court’s eventual ruling, “It is difficult to overestimate the damage this will do to our culture and deep religious heritage that has defined America since its founding.”

On another occasion, he said the court had decided “to usurp the authority of the people and force same-sex marriage on all 50 states by judicial fiat.”

Does that sound like respecting a ruling to you? Of course not. It’s an example of Johnson’s fundamentalism in action: his Captain Ahab-like obsession with opposing L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

He has a longstanding friendship with Tony Perkins, a former Louisiana legislator who is the president of the Family Research Council, an organization whose website says that “homosexual conduct” — not just same-sex marriage — is not only “harmful to the persons who engage in it” but “also harmful to society at large.”

Like Perkins, Johnson is on a crusade to advance a religious agenda, even when it comes at the expense of constitutionally protected liberty.

As Peter Wehner wrote for The Atlantic, Johnson “uses his Christian faith to sacralize his fanaticism and assault on truth.” Johnson’s worldview seems to be that the will of God is greater than the rights of man — a view nurtured by the place that nurtured him.

The year after same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, the American Bible Society ranked Shreveport the country’s fourth most “Bible-minded” city, a measure of Bible reading habits and beliefs about the Bible.

This patina of piety affords Johnson a sense of cheerfulness, the sense that he’s a harmless, happy warrior in the conservative Christian cause: After Johnson’s bill was killed in the State Legislature in 2015, he smiled for photos with two of the activists who had helped kill it.

Where he and I are from, even would-be oppressors can be affable. It’s not just good manners, it’s the Christian way, the proper Southern way. And it is the ultimate deception.

Charles M. Blow joined The Times in 1994 and became an Opinion columnist in 2008. He is also a television commentator and writes often about politics, social justice and vulnerable communities. @CharlesMBlow  Facebook

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