Speaker Mike Johnson is better at thumping his Bible than believing it

By Rich Barlow, The Boston Globe, March 30, 2024

‘I am a Bible-believing Christian,’’ House Speaker Mike Johnson said to Fox News’ Sean Hannity last fall.

It’s certain that Johnson doesn’t believe everything in the Bible. As Outreach, a Catholic ministry to LGBTQ people, noted, “Even though they honor the Old Testament, Christians don’t stone people who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2). We don’t sell people into slavery (Exodus 21:7). And if someone curses God, we don’t execute them (Leviticus 24:10-16). In the New Testament, St. Paul told slaves to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:25-29). He also said that women should be silent in churches (1 Corinthians 14:34).’’

Assuming Johnson rejects stoning, slavery, and silencing women, what does he mean by “Bible-believing’’? The question matters to we Christians as we approach Easter, our most sacred holy day. It also matters to all Americans, since the speakership enables Johnson to lather public policy with his Southern Baptist take on scripture.

Johnson has clarified at least some things he does believe based on his biblical interpretation. Alas, that interpretation veers down paths of “lousy exegesis,’’ in one critic’s term, on two topics in desperate need of Christian charity: immigration — he led burial rites for the bipartisan bill that would have addressed the chaos at the border — and gun safety — the day after the Lewiston shooter killed 18 Mainers, Johnson offered a Second Amendment fundamentalist’s usual, evasive tripe.

Distinguishing between scripture’s eternal moral truths and ancient nostrums that long ago hit their sell-by date — see: stoning — might frighten some believers as sowing religious doubt. They forget that acceptance of doctrinal doubters is itself biblically prescribed. Jesus defended his hungry followers gathering food on the Sabbath, overriding the scriptural ban on labor during the holy day: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’’ Later, when “doubting’’ Thomas quite rationally questioned reports that his messiah had come back from the dead, the resurrected Christ appeared before him — and kept him as an apostle, rather than exile him for his skepticism.

St. Augustine recapped the case for humility and doubt about the divine: “If you understood Him, it would not be God.’’

Yet Johnson appears unburdened by doubt. He invited us in that Hannity interview to consult his spiritual owner’s manual: “Go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.’’ Having just joined my Catholic parish’s prayer and discussion group for men, where we probe what we believe and why, I take that invitation seriously. Start with guns, on which he offered an unusual explanation for school shootings.

Johnson once suggested that there is a direct line from the teaching of evolution to moral relativism to gunmen killing schoolchildren. It’s his business if he wants to believe in creationism but blaming Newtown and Uvalde on Charles Darwin?

“At the end of the day,’’ he told Hannity, “the problem is the human heart, not guns, not the weapons. At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves. And that’s the Second Amendment.’’ How does he reconcile that with loving thy potential-shooting-victim neighbor?

Since Johnson already parses scripture to balance what to retain and what to ignore, it shouldn’t be impossible for him to similarly calibrate Second Amendment rights with common-sense regulation.

On immigration, the speaker should read not just his Bible but also expert commentary on the Good Book. Faced with abundant Old and New Testament admonitions to welcome the stranger, Johnson insists that that command merely dictates “personal charity,’’ not government policy. That would surprise the ancient Jewish writer Josephus, who coined “theocracy’’ — a “system of state organization and government in which God is recognized as the ruler’’ — based on these lines from Leviticus:

“But the stranger who dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. … When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.’’

Josephus, in other words, read the Bible as commanding that the Israelite nation welcome the stranger.

Johnson is, or could be, better than his “lousy exegesis.’’ The speaker — who with his wife “took custody’’ of a Black teen 24 years ago — triggered right-wing, see-no-evil ostriches by acknowledging systemic racism, based on his son’s experience. Which makes it all the sadder that for victims of guns and xenophobia, he’s better at thumping his Bible than believing it.

Rich Barlow writes for BU Today and WBUR’s opinion page.

 Image Credits: Jim Watson