House Speaker Mike Johnson Says People Are Misunderstanding ‘Separation of Church and State’

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
November 14, 2023Politics
House Speaker Mike Johnson Says People Are Misunderstanding ‘Separation of Church and State’
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks as House Majority Whip Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) listens during a news briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 2, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) declared the political concept of “separation of church and state” to be a misunderstanding of the founding fathers’ intentions, while he shared his views on the proper role of religion in government in an interview on Tuesday.

Appearing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday, the newly elected speaker of the House said America’s founders “wanted a vibrant expression of faith in the public square because they believed that a general moral consensus and virtue was necessary to maintain this grand experiment in self-governance.”

Mr. Johnson has been open about his Christian faith throughout his political career. This aspect of Mr. Johnson’s character has in turn become a point of heightened focus, and even criticism from some political commentators, amid his rise to House speaker.

Last month, former White House press secretary-turned-MSNBC host Jen Psaki wrote: “It’s not just his political ideology that should scare us. Johnson is basically a Christian fundamentalist. He believes that America is a Christian nation, and that those values should be reflected in our interpretation of the Constitution. His ideas of what America should be are completely out of line with what America actually is.”

As MSNBC’s sister channel hosted Mr. Johnson on Tuesday, “Squawk Box” co-host Aaron Ross Sorkin noted Mr. Johnson had prayed with some fellow lawmakers on the House floor following his election last month and asked for the lawmaker’s views on the idea of religion in government.

“There’s a question about the separation of church and state,” Mr. Sorkin said. “We often talk on this show about … whether religion should play a role inside a company, whether people should be allowed to pray inside a company. There’s one thing to pray outside and to have your faith, and there’s a great importance in that, but how do you think about that and how do you think about the public perception of that?”

Mr. Johnson responded that “faith, our deep religious heritage and tradition, is a big part of what it means to be an American,” and suggested religion serves as an essential moral guide to government officials.

“We created a government of, by, and for the people. We don’t have a king in charge. We don’t have a middleman. So we’ve got to keep morality amongst us so that we have accountability. And so [the Founders] wanted faith to be a big part of that,” Mr. Johnson said.

The speaker of the House went on to say the concept of “separation of church and state,” often cited in American political discourse, is also often misunderstood.

“The separation of church and state is a misnomer, people misunderstand it,” Mr. Johnson said. “Of course, it comes from a phrase that was in a letter that [President Thomas] Jefferson wrote—it’s not in the Constitution—and what he was explaining is they did not want the government to encroach upon the church, not that they didn’t want principles of faith to have influence on our public life. It’s exactly the opposite.”

The speaker of the House appears to have been referencing a letter by President Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, on Jan. 1, 1802, to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut, who were a religious minority in the state at that time. Members of the Baptist congregation had expressed their concerns to the president about their religious liberty being curtailed in the state. President Jefferson replied that it was his interpretation that the U.S. Constitution creates a “wall of separation of church and state.”

Mr. Johnson went on to quote President George Washington, who in his 1796 farewell address stated, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Mr. Johnson next quoted President John Adams, who wrote in 1798, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

“I think we need more of that—not an establishment of any national religion, but we need everybody’s vibrant expression of faith because it’s such an important part of who we are as a nation,” Mr. Johnson added.

Prior to his political career, Mr. Johnson worked as a constitutional lawyer. From 2004 to 2012, Mr. Johnson served on board of the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has also worked as a professor at the Helms School of Government at Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian university.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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