In the early morning hours of Jan. 6, as Rep. Kevin McCarthy prepared to try for the 12th time to win enough votes to become speaker of the House, a little-known Louisiana congressman named Mike Johnson joined a small group of his Republican colleagues in the empty legislative chamber to kneel in prayer.
The lawmakers repented to God for their “individual transgressions, and those collectively as a legislative body, and as a people, as a nation. And we asked for his divine guidance,” Johnson recalled later. “Lord, the House is divided,” he prayed. “We ask you to unite this House.’”
Before dawn the next day, McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican, had been elected speaker.
But the unity Johnson’s group had prayed for did not last. By October, rebel Republicans had ousted McCarthy from GOP leadership and the House had selected a new leader: Johnson.
“I don’t believe there are any coincidences in a matter like this,” Johnson said to his colleagues minutes after being elected. “The Bible is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority.”
To those unfamiliar with the varied expressions of American religiosity, the differences between how faith influences McCarthy and Johnson — two Southern Baptists — may be hard to parse.
The transition of the House speakership from McCarthy, a proud but subdued Christian, to Johnson, a fervently devout evangelical, nonetheless marks a significant shift. Though the Republican Party has long relied on the support of white evangelicals, Johnson’s sudden ascension from junior Louisiana representative to speaker of the House highlights religious conservatives’ dominance of the GOP coalition.
McCarthy and Johnson have each spoken publicly about becoming born again Christians, and the role that Jesus plays in their lives. They’ve both backed bills that would advance Christian conservatives’ policy preferences, including restricting abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Neither of their offices responded to interview requests for this story.
But while McCarthy is more of a political animal than a crusader for social conservatism, Johnson’s social conservatism has always been central to his career.
McCarthy sold sandwiches out of his uncle’s yogurt shop, worked as a seasonal firefighter in college and started a job as a congressional staffer the year he turned 22. His first boss on Capitol Hill, former Bakersfield Rep. Bill Thomas, was one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress, known more for his work on tax cuts and trade policy than social policy.
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