Washington is bursting with varied reactions to House Republicans electing U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as speaker — ranging from “hooray!” to “who?” — but the strangest might be allegations that Speaker Johnson will turn America into a theocracy. “Welcome to the Republican Era of not even pretending they aren’t forcing their religion on Congress and the American people,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) on Wednesday, in reaction to a clip from Johnson’s inaugural speech. “This is a slippery, dangerous slope to theocracy.”
Huffman was offended when Johnson described his belief that “God is the one that raises up those in authority.” Here’s the full context from Johnson’s speech:
“I want to tell all my colleagues here what I told the Republicans in that room last night. I don’t believe there are any coincidences in a matter like this. I believe that Scripture, the Bible, is very clear that that God is the one that raises up those in authority. He raised up each of you, all of us. And I believe that God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment in this time. This is my belief. I believe that each one of us has a huge responsibility today to use the gifts that God has given us to serve the extraordinary people of this great country, and they deserve it.”
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) agreed with Huffman’s assessment, “Speaker Mike Johnson? Anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, anti-gun safety, anti-democracy. This is what theocracy looks like.”
“It was as though, the moment he said this, a memo went out among Democrats with the word ‘theocracy’ in all of their talking points,” said Family Research Council Action President and former Congressman Jody Hice, guest host of “Washington Watch.”
“This is just basic Christian belief coming right out of the Bible,” responded David Closson, director of Family Research Council’s Center for Biblical Worldview, “that God is the one that ordains authority. God is the one that gives delegated authority to human beings to wield it on his behalf.” He appealed to Daniel 2:21, “he removes kings and sets up kings,” and Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
This doctrine is a particular application of God’s sovereign, providential oversight of all human affairs. Once King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon “knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will” (Daniel 5:21), he confessed, “he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35). Nobody ever accused King Nebuchadnezzar, sacker of Jerusalem, of instituting a Judeo-Christian theocracy.
In fact, this doctrine strengthens rather than undermines even secular governments. The apostle Paul articulated it, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).
Submission to governing authorities is a standard view “that Christians have held for literally 2,000 years,” Closson explained. “I think we need to see this for what it is: … folks who don’t have any reference to what the Bible teaches, trying to scare millions of Americans, when so many of us would just be saying ‘Amen.’”
Johnson’s belief in divine sovereignty over human affairs — a supposed “slippery, dangerous slope to theocracy” — is not all that different from widespread beliefs at the time of America’s founding. Even some of the least Christian figures from America’s founding era acknowledged this fact.
On June 28, 1787, no less a skeptic than Benjamin Franklin devoted an entire speech to urging the Constitutional Convention to institute daily prayers “imploring the assistance of Heaven” in their deliberations. Just before he cited Matthew, Psalms, and Genesis, Franklin said, “I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men.” This from one of the least religious among the Founding Fathers. After such an address, why did no one warn of the Philadelphia plot to impose a theocracy?
On February 14, 1776, Enlightenment writer Thomas Paine — widely suspected of being a closet atheist — published his viral pamphlet “Common Sense.” While his view of government as a “necessary evil” that would not exist in an unfallen world contradicts biblical teaching, Paine still appealed to Christian teachings in a way that would render him open to the charge of wanting to establish a “theocracy” in today’s moral environment. He quoted extensively from Judges 8 and 1 Samuel 8 and 12 to argue against monarchies, concluding, “that the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.”
Paine continued, “But where, say some, is the King of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above.” Paine endorsed having a day “solemnly set apart for proclaiming the [national] Charter,” bringing it forth “placed on the Divine Law, the Word of God,” and having “a crown be placed thereon.” These are the words of perhaps the least Christian person involved in America’s founding. Yet now members of Congress are calling Speaker Johnson a theocrat merely for stating his belief in God’s sovereign providence.
Yet another heterodox Founder, Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged divine providence over human affairs. In the time-tested words of the Declaration of Independence, he argued that men may set up new governments for themselves according to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and that men are “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” While his words were edited into the final version, on this point Jefferson’s original draft communicates the same basic ideas.
Jefferson also “often referred to his or ‘our’ God but did so in the language of an 18th century natural philosophy: ‘our creator,’ the ‘Infinite Power, which rules the destinies of the universe,’ ‘overruling providence,’ ‘benevolent governor,’ etc.,” according to the left-leaning Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which manages his home at Monticello. Acknowledging divine providence was no problem for the president who coined the phrase, “separation of church and state,” but, when Speaker Johnson articulated the same doctrine, he was accused of wanting to establish a theocracy.
Early American evidence for belief in God’s sovereignty and providence even goes beyond private writings to official, legal recognition. The Judiciary Act of 1789, which passed with 70% support in the Senate, required all judges to take an oath of office ending with the words “so help me God.” What is that, if not an acknowledgement of God’s sovereign control over human governments? Today, all federal officials except the president must take an oath ending with the same words. A “popular story” holds that George Washington appended the same phrase to his oath of office, and many presidents since have done likewise. What a “slippery, dangerous slope to theocracy!”
Critics of Christian politicians often overlook the fact that, while a biblical worldview should influence a Christian’s policy objectives, the policy application of biblical teaching is — with a few notable exceptions, such as marriage and life — not necessarily straightforward. In the same speech where Johnson supposedly outed himself as a theocrat, the new House speaker articulated seven governing principles he argued were foundational to conservatism and America. These seven principles were, “individual freedom, rule of government, rule of law, peace through strength, fiscal responsibility, free markets, and human dignity.”
While Johnson’s faith certainly informs his valuation of these principles, the principles themselves are not inherently religious, and all of them can be defended on secular grounds as well — Paine’s “Common Sense,” for instance, provides secular arguments for most of his seven principles.
“It definitely shows us how few in the media and in the Democrat[ic] Party even have an understanding of just basic Christian tenets,” Closson concluded. “Because I think if they did, they would maybe be a little bit more subtle in how they went after him.”
“All of us who are evangelical Christians are not surprised at the criticism and denunciations of Speaker Mike Johnson,” said Closson. “These kinds of criticisms would have probably been hurled at any Republican who was chosen. … What’s surprised some of us is that so much of the criticism that’s being hurled and levied at him really just overlaps with [criticism of] really basic Christian beliefs.” “That is the point of attack,” agreed Hice, “the Christian foundation upon which he stands.”
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.
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