With the elevation of Louisiana Representative Mike Johnson (R-LA) to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, the political spotlight has returned to the evangelical Christian right. Much has been said about the prominence of evangelicals in US politics, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the group’s political theology, especially as it relates to the modern state of Israel and the prophesied “end of days.” Understanding evangelical eschatology is essential to a larger examination of the relationship between the Christian right and American foreign policy. But first, we must meet Johnson and the American evangelical movement.
Mike Johnson was a relatively unknown figure in national politics before becoming Speaker of the House following a series of unsuccessful speaker nominations within the House Republican Caucus. A committed evangelical Christian, Johnson is conservative on social issues ranging from sexuality to LGBTQ+ rights to abortion. In a recent interview, Johnson told reporters, “Go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.”
While Representative Johnson—until recently—flew relatively under the radar, his religious and political views have prompted much dialogue since he was “raised up” to Speaker. Channeling religious beliefs toward political action, referred to as political theology, is an especially potent brew for Speaker Johnson, who is often described as a Christian nationalist. Christian nationalism combines conservative Protestant Christianity and conservative political thought. Broadly, Christian nationalists support ending the separation of Church and State in the United States, viewing Christianity as the cornerstone of America’s past and future.
While only 24 percent of the US population identifies as evangelical, extreme social and political views are popular within the movement. Take the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—Johnson’s own denomination—as an example. Once the camp of Billy Graham and President Jimmy Carter (until 2020), the largest American Protestant denomination has fought dwindling numbers in the past few years. The SBC has persistently shifted to the right on many cultural issues, from restricting LGBTQ+ rights to eliminating abortion. Despite a small faction within the SBC moving to divest from political action, the momentum remains with those seeking to keep the Southern Baptists in lockstep with the GOP, often equating the success of the Republican Party with victory for the Church. Now, the SBC and US evangelicals more broadly are aligning themselves with the tenets of Christian nationalism, both at home and abroad.
Nowhere is the influence of Christian nationalist political theology more pronounced than in the unique connection of evangelical Christians to Israel. Even former President Donald Trump has identified evangelicals’ “love” for Israel. This zealous support is so widespread within the movement that it has become common knowledge in both the United States and Israel itself.
Speaker Johnson himself resolved to “stand with Israel,” stating that “God has given us that opportunity. God is not done with America and God is not done with Israel.” This commitment has so far been borne out in his policy decisions, as the new Speaker pushed to uncouple the bill to send aid to Israel from that for Ukraine, signaling his greater commitment to Israel. This is crucial to understanding evangelical political theology: Speaker Johnson believes that aid for Israel is not merely a present-day political priority, but one which has eternal ramifications.
The anchor of evangelical support for Israel lies in their eschatology. Evangelical Christian theologians frequently discuss the nature of Judaism in relation to Christianity, foregrounding the relationship between the Jewish people and the “Last Days,” or the end of the world. While some evangelicals only cite the covenant between God and Abraham as the basis of their support for Israel, others believe that the establishment and security of the modern state of Israel is essential to bringing about the Second Coming of Christ. These evangelical Christians hold to a view known as dispensational premillennialism: the beliefs that biblical prophecy must be read literally, Israel and the Church are different entities, Jesus will physically return to Earth, and Christians will be taken to Heaven via the rapture before seven tribulations, among other things.
This theology, directly tying the physical existence of the state of Israel to the eschaton, is reflected in the policy positions of many prominent evangelicals—Speaker Johnson among them. Despite some apparent hesitancy from younger generations to commit to a fully premillennial dispensationalist view, evangelicals’ support for Israel has only increased following the October 7 attacks. Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas and regular Fox News contributor, claimed that “to attack Israel is to attack God Himself.” Jeffress, an influential figure in American evangelicalism, believes that the existence of Israel is a testament to God’s promises and that the end times rely on Israel’s existence.
This exegesis of evangelical eschatology explains the political positions taken by members of these congregations, most especially those in positions of power. For many of these evangelicals, American non-involvement in Israel would be tantamount to disobeying God, and when the stakes are this high, strong political action is no surprise. Expect American evangelicals to continue to advocate for complete and total support of Israel, to profess Israel’s “right to self-defense” to quote Jeffress, and to devote large amounts of political capital to ensuring the stability of the US-Israel alliance. While the ongoing support for Israel from the United States is by no means solely attributable to the influence of evangelical Christians, their voices are certainly elevated by one specific politician: Speaker Johnson.
Speaker Johnson will make political decisions informed by his faith, and he is not trying to hide this fact. He has blamed school shootings on the teaching of evolution in schools, heralded homosexual marriage as a “harbinger of chaos,” and espoused belief in young-earth creationism. It could even be argued that Speaker Johnson’s key role in attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 US presidential election through the Big Lie was informed by his faith—though that is just conjecture. Although Johnson is only one part of the complex landscape of Christian nationalism in the United States, understanding evangelical political theology is essential to gaining a fuller understanding of his decision-making as the 56th Speaker of the House of Representatives.