Deus ex machina

Among the many 50th anniversaries that now dot my personal landscape, there's one coming up on Boxing Day this year: the release of The Exorcist, the day after Christmas, 1973. I'd been out on adventure the summer after high school, "moved out" for a time to enjoy a spectacular fall on the Door peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, moved back in with my parents, and was working full time in a diecutting factory, as an interesting and remunerative thing to do before trying college. I might have gone to Mass with the folks around Christmas, but maybe not. My Confirmation didn't take, and I walked away from the one, true, holy, and apostolic church (as it claimed for itself) to find my own way, without the memorized recitation of dogma, and stuff.

But there were plenty of traces of dogma and stuff left in my young brain to make a "supernatural horror film" work some dark magic on me, even at the ripe age of getting into an R rated movie on my own. I don't remember having any particular fear of the dark as a child, but I slept with the light on in my room that night.

This week's remarkable events in the House of Representatives didn't include any priests (that I saw), or ritual casting out of demons, but there's always that free-form prayer to start the session, and somehow, the fractious and squabbling caucus of Republicans managed to come to unanimity, and apply their narrow majority to electing a new speaker. One with a portmanteau bulging with religious notions that he seems to think everyone should adhere to. Even more remarkably, he suggested his election as House speaker was ordained by God. Imagine that.

“I believe that Scripture, the Bible, is very clear: that God is the one who raises up those in authority,” Johnson said in his first speech after being elected speaker in a 220-209 vote. “He raised up each of you. All of us.”

Album cover from the Mike & Kelly Johnson podcast, Truth be Told

So now, 2nd in line to the presidency, we have a man who has "repeatedly rejected many broadly held interpretations of the separation of church and state." Religion News Services links to the September 2022 episode of the podcast "Truth Be Told" from Johnson and his wife (with his [sic] "very special guest," their son), “Separation of Church & State” and the Rights to Religious Expression in Schools. It starts with a splatter of right-wing folk extolling his virtues, one saying "I think he might be the sharpest guy in the Republican conference in the House." Also an endorsement from our orange man exemplar of morality, virtue, and religiosity. "Mike Johnson, what a job, what a great guy! What a good, good politican, because you love it and you love the people. You really are, you're a natural. Thank you very much, I appreciate you being here, Mike." The narrator's intro-wrap ends with "few couples are trusted more."

Johnson launches into "one of most important principles, and that is the subject of religion in the public square." Not that a subject is a principle, but ok. "Now, there's no doubt that most Americans remain confused about this issue, and what the laws on point actually say." He's got some rules of thumb to clear it up for the confused masses, which he'll get to eventually.

The Truth to be Told in this particular episode is the one about "the separation between church and state, and the rights to religous expression in schools." You know, like the coach having group prayers at football games.

“The founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around. The 1st Amendment, both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, when understood together, were intended to create a shield for people of faith.”

Then came the snake in the garden. "Over the last 60, 70, 80 years radical progressives, and and leftists, and atheist organizations, have twisted the meaning of it."

Speaking of twisting, he's got religion and morality interwined in the imaginative way that those using religion as a weapon (rather than a shield) like to do. The unenumerated "principles of religion and morality," in a gloriously broad sweep, on his way to reading the minds of all our Founding Fathers to pronounce that "the seedbed of virtue is religion."

Any religion in particular? Because they didn't all share the same one, you know. Any religions excluded? Do you have to be a monotheist as (only) some of them were?

"They believed in liberty that is legitimately constrained by a common sense of morality, and a healthy fear of the Creator who granted all men [sic] our rights. See, the founders understood that all men [sic] are fallen and that power corrupts and they also knew that no amount of institutional checks and balances or decentralization of power in civil authorites would be sufficent to maintain a just government if the men [sic] in charge had no fear of eternal judgment by a power higher than their temporal institutions. So, a free society and a healthy republic depend upon religious and moral virtue, not only because they help prevent political corruption and the abuse of power, but also because those convictions in the hearts and the minds of the people [finally, thank you] make it possible to preserve their essential freedoms, by, by emphasizing responsibility, and self-sacrifice, and the dignity of hard work, and the rule of law, and things like civility, and patriotism, the value of family and community, the sanctity of every single human life, because without those virtues, being indispensably supported by (heh) religion and morality (as Washington said), every nation will ultimately fall."

His smooth, sweet, nice radio voice did indeed have a little hitch before "religion" there, a little tell of the rhetorical trick he was working, before going on about "these principles" as if he's made his point, ipso facto, presto digitata, now and forever amen. Some of Jefferson's words are chiseled in stone, you can go see them. His facile confounding of religion with morality is simply (!) beyond question, so whatever dogma strikes him as True, is thereby True for all. All men are fallen! Only fear of eternal judgment can make us behave! His God is the Eternal Judge.

Perhaps a dollop of the "keen observation" of Alexis de Tocqueville that our greatness is in our goodness, and our righteously flaming pulpits are the source of our goodness? It's famously misattributed, truth be told. Just like the "exceptionalism" that he moves onto next. "We have to defend truth on every front." Truly.

A playback error mercifully cut our time together short. The Mike and Kelly Johnson website, has been taken offline. (If the Apple Podcast doesn't work, try this webpage for the episode before it too is vaporized.)

I did also stumble upon the just two-months ago Epsiode 64: Trump's Arrest, the Republican Candidates Debate, & the Most-Watched Video of All Time. (That one from Spotify, this thing is all over. Also on

Mike had some thoughts about the "outrageous" prosecution of Trump in Georgia, and the "most-watched" video was the alternate programming against the "debate": "Donald Trump skipped the event and the granted an interview to Tucker Carlson instead..."

"This is blatant lawfare," he says. "They have weaponized the Department of Justice." In, uh, Georgia? It's a vast conspiracy. Oh, and Jim Jordan was going to have his House committee look into that Georgia prosecutor, speaking of weaponization. How did that go?

"Listen: don't make any mistake about it. I think every single one of these bogus prosecutions is overtly weaponized politial prosecutions..."

He may be right that a few hundred thousand voters in 5 or so swing states will decide yet another election next year, one hell of an indictment of our perversely twisted system for electing presidents.

He's also got the "retribution" argument, how terrible it is to have a system of justice to provide accountability for crimes, because "from this point forward" both sides will do it? Just like Lindsey Graham said, and just like Brett Kavanaugh said. And just like Jim Gym and Comer are doing their damndest to implement.

This is a man with a contortionist's ability to use "religion and morality" to cover corruption and malfeasance. (All Trump did was "question the outcome of an election," don't you know. And their clip from the Tucker Carlson interview ends with Trump saying "well I am the President.")

Johnson should make a hell of a Speaker.

Tom von Alten, October 27, 2023

Stormy weather, through a glass, darkly

Indexes and threads

My reading list
Patent watch


Previous essays

Alternate access

Site map
Keyword index
Title index