Exclusive: Speaker Mike Johnson on His Faith, the Media’s Attacks, and Congress’s Biggest Challenges
A month ago, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) never dreamed of the dramatic turn his career was about to take. Now, two weeks into what he calls a “whirlwind” promotion as House speaker, the Louisiana leader took time to sit down with longtime friend and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins to talk about the challenges, changes, and commitments he’s working through as a Christian in one of the most powerful jobs in the world.
“It hasn’t really [set in yet], to be honest,” Johnson admitted to the man he’s known since law school. “And as soon as I was handed the gavel, they told me, ‘When you step down from the rostrum, your life will not be the same so long as you hold the gavel.’ And it’s largely been true,” the dad of four admitted. “This is an all-points bulletin kind of job. I mean, you have to be on 24 hours a day. There’s not a lot of downtime. And I think that’s particularly true right now because of the way this transition happened. It was a regretful, a regretful [thing],” Johnson said, referring to the turmoil that vaulted him into Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) former role.
“To assume a speakership, to begin one midstream — right in the midst of a Congress — is very different than it’s normally done,” Johnson explained. Not to mention, Perkins chimed in, that he bypassed the typical ladder that most leaders climb to get there.
“Somebody said it’s the JV team to the NFL,” Johnson said. “Whatever the metaphor is, it was a lot. And there was a lot to be done, because we were kind of in a tumultuous period for those weeks, and we had to pull the team together. We had to cast the vision. We had to staff up immediately. The speaker’s office has, I think, over 80 employees with the various divisions and jobs that must be handled. We had to set the policies and procedures in place. And immediately, of course, upon us [are] the government funding issues, the appropriations deadline and all the rest. So it’s been a lot,” he admitted. “It’s been a lot.”
As most people in D.C. know, the biggest hurdle Johnson faces right now is the looming government shutdown, which could happen as early as November 17. And while the House is working late into the night to tackle the seven remaining appropriations bills, most agree it would take a miracle to finish them all before next Friday.
“And part of the reason for that,” the speaker explained, “is that there was no muscle memory. This has actually not been done for quite some time in Washington,” he pointed out about budgeting in regular order. “In fact, they told us they could not be done — but this House Republican majority committed to doing it a different way [and] changing how Washington works. And I’m pleased to say that we’ve done a great job in that regard. We’re moving the separate appropriations bills through the process, but we’ve run out of time because we lost a little bit of the clock, a little bit of the calendar. And so it will require a stopgap measure to allow us additional time to complete that process. But I’m very optimistic about this.”
Johnson was happy to report that one of his biggest encouragements since he took over is that “there’s a great esprit de corps amongst the members in the House — more than I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here.” He’s also been able to meet with a lot of the rank-and-file and talk through their concerns. “And we’re reaching consensus,” he insisted, invoking a word most people haven’t used to describe Congress in quite some time.
When it comes to the budgeting process, Johnson is emphatic: “We’re not going to fix it the way they have always done to us in the past, as long as I’ve been here. And that is wait till the very last minute right before Christmas and jam an omnibus spending package upon members of Congress … that spends trillions of dollars and is 3,000 pages that no one read. We’re not doing that anymore.”
Of course, the backdrop to the government shutdown is another crisis — Israel. “The Middle East looks like it could spin out of control at any moment,” Perkins pointed out. “It can,” Johnson agreed. That’s why he made a resolution to support Israel as his first act as speaker. “And every day since then, we have been emphasizing that the first major bill that we passed was the Israel supplemental funding package, the aid that they desperately need.”
But the Senate isn’t moving on it, he acknowledged. “And you know why? Because we have to pay for it. What a concept! That’s another thing that we’re [trying to change]. You know, you can’t just borrow the money from some other country to spend …” America’s $33.6 trillion dollars in debt “is not sustainable,” the speaker shook his head.
“[W]e have obligations as the great superpower, the great leader in the world. But our first obligation is stewardship of the precious resources [of] the American people,” Johnson argued. “And maybe I’m old school, but I think we can do these things simultaneously. But it takes fiscal discipline. Every hardworking family in America has to make a budget. They have to live within their means. They don’t get to spend beyond that. And their government should operate on the same principles. It’s not rocket science, but we’ve gotten away from it. And that’s why we’re in this terrible situation, and we’re trying to bring common sense back to the equation.”
He pointed to the cuts he wants to make to the IRS budget to help pay for the Israeli aid package. “I sent a message to Senator Schumer and the Democrats who run the Senate. I think helping Israel right now is a little bit higher priority than hiring IRS agents. I wasn’t trying to make a political statement. It just makes sense.”
In the meantime, the Louisiana leader has been shocked to see the level of anti-Semitic sentiment gripping America. “We’re seeing it everywhere. I really thought that the large wave of anti-Semitism was not something that we would see in America. I thought we were kind of beyond that. There’s always pockets of that. But wow.”
He pointed to the volatile situation on college campuses, where students “have been indoctrinated by these radical leftist professors and all of that. We know that that’s a cultural issue. But,” he lamented, “to have it here in Congress has been so disconcerting. I mean, we had a member of Congress in the last 24 hours who doubled down on this [pro-Hamas rhetoric]. Basically the message is they want to eradicate the state of Israel. And that’s an elected member of the people in the United States Congress.” And they’re not just pro-Palestine, he warned about Democrats like Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), “it’s as if they’re supporting the atrocious actions of Hamas.”
And it doesn’t end with Jews, Perkins cautioned. “We need to be paying attention, because it’s the canary in the coal mine. And when you look at what’s happening here in the United States, it’s not going to stop with this anti-Israel, anti-Jewish [sentiment]. It moves to Christianity next. History tells us that.”
It’s the same spirit that’s driving the attacks on Johnson’s faith, Perkins contended. “The fact that, you have a covenant marriage ... and you’re protecting your kids from evil influences [like pornography]. Somehow doing what used to be normal makes you a target, a villain.”
“It’s been remarkable, hasn’t it?” Johnson replied. “Look, we know what comes with the territory. When you rise up in leadership, there are whole industries, as you know, that are dedicated to taking down public officials like me. They can’t stand the idea that someone would openly acknowledge their faith. That’s not in vogue in Washington anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time. So what you’re seeing right now is Washington and the surrounding press corps interacting with a leader who openly acknowledges what he believes. What a concept. … As of right now, the polling affirms that over a majority of the American people also identify as Christians.” So frankly, he said, “This should not be a remarkable thing. What would be remarkable to the framers of our Constitution is that this would be controversial. That’s how far we’ve come.”
The point of the media’s hostility, Perkins insisted, is to make Christians feel isolated and alone. “And that’s what’s happened over decades,” Johnson agreed. “You know, we’ve lamented this many times. … [W]hat [the Left has] convinced a generation or two of Americans of is that that means that faith can have no influence in the public square. Of course, the original meaning of the First Amendment was that the government could not encroach on the church. ... The Founders were so clear. They wanted a vibrant expression of faith in the public sphere, because they knew that what we were doing here was an experiment in self-governance. And they knew that to maintain a constitutional republic of, by, and for the people, you had to have a basic consensus, a sense of morality and virtue that undergirded the Republic. ... We have completely forgotten those notions.”
When Perkins asked how Americans could be praying for Mike and his family, he admitted, “It’s no fun to be lied about and maligned and misquoted. You faced that in your time in service and [in your] career as well. I’ve got a resilient little team here [in my] family. I’m blessed. Kelly is a woman of strong faith,” he said. “She knows she believes God called us to this. And so she’s being sustained by the prayers and support and encouragement of lots of friends and people that we don’t even know around the country are praying for us. All of our kids feel that. They’re not unaccustomed to this either. And we’re going to get through it. Look, I’m undaunted by it. I had my feelings surgically removed back in the 1980s, so they can’t hurt my feelings. It’s no fun to have your family attacked in the way they are, but they have a strong sense about why we’re here, and we’re sticking together. But we appreciate all those prayers and that encouragement of support.”
Part of that strength, Perkins pointed out, is that the Johnson family sees God’s hand at work. “God has been directing your steps. Nothing happens by chance.”
“Scripture is very clear about that,” he agreed. “And if you are a Bible-believing Christian, you know that God is the one that raises up people in authority, and he sets down others, and He is sovereign. And so understanding that is actually very liberating. It takes the burden. He says, ‘My burden is light,’ because if you’re doing your best, as flawed as you are, to operate in accordance with God’s principles and to do what is right and good for the people, then God blesses that. And it takes the responsibility in some measure off your shoulders. As John Quincy Adams famously said, ‘Duty is ours. Results are God’s.’”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.