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The Revelation of Mike Johnson the Speaker
Do we really want a Christian nationalist who truly believes that the Rapture is imminent determining our policy in the Middle East?
The first time Mike Johnson spoke after his unlikely election as Speaker of the House, he had this to say: “I don’t believe there are any coincidences in a matter like this. I believe that Scripture, the Bible, is very clear: that God is the one who raises up those in authority. He raised up each of you. All of us. And I believe God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment and this time. This is my belief.” Later, he participated in a prayer circle, right there in the House chamber.
I don’t object to any of that. For an inexperienced, obscure weirdo to attribute his sudden ascension to the Will of God is hardly some fanatical Christian Nationalist concept. It’s no different, fundamentally, than saying, “The Universe wanted me to have this job,” or “Fate brought me here today.” Nor should we be giving Johnson shit for using a quiet break in the Congressional business to give thanks and praise to the Almighty. Humility is a positive trait in a politician.
The danger here is that Mike Johnson, as best as I can tell, believes his election as Speaker is part of some eschatological master plan to hasten the Rapture. That he took the gavel just as war was breaking out in Israel would only strengthen that belief, as I will explain shortly—if he genuinely holds that view. Does he? And if he does, what does that portend for the rest of us?
The Washington Post identifies Mike Johnson as “an evangelical Christian” who “has been tied to multiple Baptist churches over the years and currently attends Cypress Baptist Church in Benton, La., according to the Louisiana Baptist Message. He is also a former lawyer and communications staffer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which later became known as Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal firm.” From the looks of things, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is only interested in defending religious freedom—and not the religious freedom that helps Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, occultists, agnostics, or atheists.
“Your race, creed, and sex are what you are, while homosexuality and cross-dressing are things you do,” the new Speaker once wrote in an editorial in his local paper. “This is a free country, but we don’t give special protections for every person’s bizarre choices.” To Mike Johnson, we choose our sexual orientation, but our belief systems are inalterable, hard-coded into our DNA. Here in the real world, of course, the opposite is true. People change their minds all the time on matters of faith. I was raised Catholic and lasted long enough to get confirmed, but I no longer belong to the Church. This sort of thing happens every day, to lapsed Catholics, Mormons, Evangelicals, and so on. Johnson himself has meandered from denomination to denomination. Why move around so much, if his belief system didn’t change? Furthermore, why would evangelicals be so gung-ho on converting nonbelievers, if creed is static?
The attorney Andrew L. Seidel, former director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and author of American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, tweeted that “Mike Johnson is a virulent Christian Nationalist who pushed all kinds of hateful anti-LGBTQ bigotry while at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Nationalist legal outfit that wants to drag this country back to the 5th century.” He added, “No, that’s not a typo. ADF ‘seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries.’ I wrote a lot about ADF in American Crusade, including that.”
Third, fourth, and fifth centuries? Huh?
What in God’s name does this mean?
The formative years of the Christian church—the Early Middle Ages—were indeed robust. The O.G. Church Fathers had to determine what was the officially sanctioned religious dogma and what was heresy. Big brains like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Ambrose of Milan wrestled with big questions. For example: whether Jesus was a man, a god, or both, and how this affected our interpretation of His suffering on the Cross. At times, the debate got testy. Pompous, misogynistic, middle-aged celibates tearing into each other, arguing the finer points of theological arcana most people didn’t know or care about, vociferously denouncing each other as heretics if they didn’t agree: it was like Dark Ages Twitter.
But there is a specific reason the ADF wants to hearken back to the Good Ol’ Days. In his 1992 best-seller Apocalypse: The Coming Judgment of Nations—a well-written, well-researched, easy to read, and not preachy book that is a handy primer on End Times beliefs—the late Christian author and Biblical researcher Grant R. Jeffrey explains:
Unfortunately, as the Church gradually departed from the evangelical faith in the fifth and sixth centuries, they also abandoned the teaching of prophecy. The literal and futurist view gave way to the allegorical method of interpretation introduced widely by Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 410). During the medieval age very little was written on prophecy. After the Reformation in A.D. 1520 and the re-discovery of the literal view of biblical interpretation, the futurist view increasingly came into favor. The Reformers progressively recovered many of the key doctrines of the faith that were lost during spiritual darkness of the medieval period when Bibles were forbidden to laymen. After the 1830s the literal and futurist method of interpretation became the dominant Protestant method of interpreting Bible prophecy. This method strongly re-adopted the premillennial view of the early Church. It looks for the Second Coming of Jesus to precede His establishment of a one-thousand-year kingdom on earth.
Prophecy is well known to anyone who has spent even a few Sundays in Church. The Gospels take great pains to point out all of those things Jesus supposedly did “in fulfillment of the Scripture”—in other words, to validate some bizarre forecast a long-dead Hebrew prophet once made, probably under the influence of heavy-duty hallucinogens. This was important to the authors of the Gospels because Jesus had to check all the prophetical boxes, or His claim to be the Messiah would be invalidated. The readings at Mass hit you over the head with this, lest you doubt for one fleeting moment that Jesus is the Chosen One.
What these ADF types are interested in, however, is End Times prophecy. That means interpreting that most trippy of all the books of the New Testament, the Apocalypse of St. John the Apostle, better known as Revelation. This odd coda to the Bible begins thus:
The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending His angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Revelation was written in A.D. 96, during the reign of Domitian, while John was in exile on the Greek island of Patmos—at least, that is “the consistent opinion of the early Christian writers closest to John’s lifetime,” per Jeffrey. That would have been a quarter century after the Romans—led by Domitian’s brother and predecessor on the throne, Titus—sacked Jerusalem, put down the Jewish revolt, and razed the Temple.
It is likely, if not certain, that Revelation was presented as a “prophecy,” and filled with allegorical language, to disguise the fact that it was a screed against the prevailing Roman Emperor, at whose orders John was waiting out his dotage on that godforsaken rock in the sea—like how novelists can tell the truth about someone by passing it off as fiction. At least, that is my novelist’s read on it.
Evangelicals of this stripe don’t see it that way. To them, Revelation is super current. Heaven time is different than human time, they’ll tell you. “Near” is not the reign of Trajan or Antoninus Pius. The mad ramblings of a bitter first-century exile nursing a grievance speak to today, to right now, or else to events still to come. The “time is near” to us, here in 2023.
Which, again, I don’t object to. The United States was originally settled by religious sects too kooky for Europe. Freedom of religion is a hallmark of the American way. Plus, it’s fun—as an intellectual exercise, rather like doing a crossword puzzle—to try to figure out what 666 means and who the Whore of Babylon might be. I unironically enjoyed reading Jeffrey’s book. There is the frisson of excitement, akin to key moments in horror movies, when we realize that some of the ancient prophecies may be not that far off. Personally, I don’t believe a word of it, but if some True Believers do, so what?
So plenty, as it turns out.
“Jesus was asked by His disciples about the signs that would precede His Second Coming and the end of the age,” writes Jeffrey in Apocalypse. “He answered with a series of very specific signs regarding wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, pestilences and rising anti-Semitism.”
Right now, there are, suddenly, two wars going on, and the very real possibility that those wars will expand to swallow up the globe; there are more earthquakes than usual; Putin’s Black Sea blockade threatens to starve Africa, and climate change will certainly ravage future harvests; covid-19 happened, with more virulent pandemics a near certainty; and this past month has, disgracefully, seen a huge worldwide spike in anti-Semitic activity.
Many, including some Christian writers, believed that a Jewish state would never rise again. However, the prophecies of the Bible reflecting God’s covenant with Israel cannot be broken. On May 15, 1948, as the British Mandate ended at midnight, the new Jewish state of Israel was reborn exactly as a fig tree putting forth leaves [as was foretold]. Christ promised that “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled.” In the Bible, a generation is sometimes forty years, seventy years, one hundred years and, in one case, one hundred and twenty years. Christ was not setting a date. His words indicate a single generation of people will witness two great prophetic events, the rebirth of Israel and the return of Jesus the Messiah. I believe the generation that witnessed the rebirth of Israel in 1948 will not die as a group until the coming of the Messiah.
The humans old enough to have borne witness to something that happened 75 years ago are getting up there in age. If Jeffrey is right, the clock is ticking. Or, as John puts it in Revelation: the time is near.
Israel, as you can see, plays a leading role in this eschatological epic. As the story goes, there will be a great war, as foretold by the prophet Ezekiel:
Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshek and Tubal; prophesy against him and say: “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, Gog, chief prince of Meshek and Tubal. I will turn you around, put hooks in your jaws and bring you out with your whole army—your horses, your horsemen fully armed, and a great horde with large and small shields, all of them brandishing their swords. Persia, Cush and Put will be with them, all with shields and helmets, also Gomer with all its troops, and Beth Togarmah from the far north with all its troops—the many nations with you.”
The consensus among the folks who study this stuff is that “Magog” is Russia, and “Gog” is the ruler of Russia. So we have Russia allying with Persia—Iran—and a bunch of other nations with odd place-names that are thought to be Arab countries and the “-stans”—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and so on—to gang up on Israel. Until this happens, the True Believers say, there will be no emergence of the Antichrist, no Rapture of the good Christians, and no Second Coming.
In other words, an attack on Israel by Russian, Persian, and Arab forces is the first step on the road to Armageddon. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, Russia and Iran are allies of Hamas/Hezbollah in the Israel-Hamas War that began on October 7. To a True Believer, what’s happening right now certainly looks like the overture to the Apocalypse, as foretold by the prophet Ezekiel, and elaborated upon by John of Patmos. For all we know, the reason Putin is using the non-Cyrillic letter “Z” for his stormtroopers is because it signifies The End.
Compelling stuff, right? Scary, even. But the thing is, Jeffrey identified similar signs in 1992—31 years ago—when he wrote his book with the coming Millennium in mind. The Revelation prophecies are sufficiently vague to allow for that. He died in 2012, 64 years after the formation of Israel, without witnessing the Second Coming. And while he insisted that the prophecies of Revelation be taken at face value, the fact is that that book is written entirely in symbols—symbols that could mean whatever we want them to mean—and is harder to decipher than the later works of James Joyce. The Number of the Beast that we will all have to get on our foreheads or our right hands could be a bar code, or a tattoo, or a chip implanted in our brains by Elon Musk or in our bloodstreams by Dr. Fauci, or something involving crypto and the blockchain. There are so many possibilities. Too many. Because “666” could signify anything, it signifies nothing.
Here’s how the story ends, as best as I can tell: The Antichrist, presenting as a charismatic world leader, possibly based in Rome, shows up to broker peace in the Middle East. A seven-year treaty is signed by Israel and its enemies. This begins the Great Tribulation. After the first three-and-a-half years, the Rapture happens, whereby all the True Believers—you know, Mike Johnson and his holier-than-thou chums—are plucked up to safety by the Hand of God, like one of those giant metal claws at Chuck E. Cheese. This would be awesome, except that the rest of us will be left to contend with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which is even worse than it sounds. By the end of the seven-year period, anyone who hasn’t come to Jesus is damned to Hell for eternity—including those Jews who don’t convert.
And that’s the problem with Mike Johnson believing in this stuff. Evangelicals don’t support Israel because they’re big fans of the Jewish people or value democracy in the Middle East. They support Israel because Jews are essential characters in their End Times horror movie. And now one of them is Speaker of the House.
An election denier and insurrectionist, Johnson opposes abortion of any kind, no-fault divorce, LGBTQ rights, and big government; has a big hard-on for guns and more tax cuts for the wealthy; and doesn’t much care for democracy. All of this is awful, but he’s no more awful than any other MAGA Christian nationalist. Most Americans don’t want the United States to be a theocracy, and I have faith that Johnson and his ilk will be removed from power in 2024.
The danger of Mike Johnson is that—again, assuming he really believes all of this, and only he knows that for sure—he has a vested interest in there being a gigantic war in the Middle East where Russia and the Arab States invade Israel. He wants that more than anything. The Rapture is so close, he can taste it. How can we expect this belief, of all religious beliefs, not to inform his foreign policy as Speaker—the guy who brings aid bills to the floor, who sits in on intelligence and armed forces meetings, who is two heartbeats from the presidency?
Johnson’s presence in a position of great power could have real-world consequences that are terrifying. Gog’s Magog army can’t very well invade Israel if it continues to get its ass kicked in Ukraine. So a True Believer would want to cut funding to Kyiv in order to help Gog. The Netanyahu government’s response to the Hamas attacks—isolating Gaza, blowing stuff to smithereens, killing a lot of people, rolling in tanks—is just the sort of thing that could prompt the Arab States, Iran, and Russia to attack Israel—and that’s what the True Believers want!
To reiterate: Mike Johnson may not be a True Believer, and he may also be able to internally separate his own personal church and state. But it’s very likely that he is, and even more likely that he can’t. Do we really want a Christian nationalist who truly believes that the Rapture is imminent determining our policy in the Middle East?
Robert Graves—the poet, author of the historical novels I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and King Jesus, and one of the more brilliant minds of the last century—took a stab at the Number of the Beast in his nonfiction book White Goddess. He found that “666” was numerical shorthand for the Emperor Nero, the fiddle-playing early persecutor of Christians, and counters Jeffrey’s assertion that Revelation was written in A.D. 96. “[S]ince the eleventh chapter of the Apocalypse [i.e., Revelation] predicts the preservation of the Temple,” Graves points out, “the original version of the book must have been written after the death of Nero, but before the destruction of the Temple and at a time when rumours of [Nero’s] reappearance in the flesh were widely current.”
It is possible, then, that the first version of the Apocalypse was a Jewish nationalist tract, written in Aramaic before A.D. 70, in which 666 was a cypher meaning “Little Beast,” which pointed to Nero; but that it was re-written in Greek and expanded for Christian readers at the close of the first century, by which time the Pauline converts, who knew no Hebrew, were at pains to prove that Jesus had rejected the Law of Moses and transferred Jehovah’s blessing from the Jews to themselves.
In other words, Revelation, as we know it, is not an original work. John of Patmos didn’t come up with it himself—and even he didn’t know what 666 meant. Like a 21st century movie producer, he merely rebooted a popular old franchise. Not only is it a fairy tale, it’s a remake of a fairy tale, with much of its original meaning lost.
Does Mike Johnson understand this? Are we willing to take that risk?
Thanks to Skeptical Texan for her help with this.