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How Mike Johnson’s Faith Changed His Path on Ukraine

“For Mike Johnson, that’s the truth. It’s a religious decision,” said one Republican member.

Mike Johnson
Johnson faced increasing pressure in recent days from fellow Southern Baptists to support Ukraine. Mariam Zuhaib/AP

For House Speaker Mike Johnson, the fight to get new aid to Ukraine was as much a religious question as it was about policy — and it offered the clearest window into how his Southern Baptist faith has influenced his decision-making since claiming the gavel.

Johnson wrestled over the legislation in prayer, according to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, who said he was with Johnson the night before he chose to bring up the aid after weeks of stalling.

“He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but he got down on his knees, and he prayed for guidance and said, ‘Look, tell me. What is the right thing to do here?’” McCaul said of Johnson during a hearing this week. “And he told me the next day: ‘I want to be on the right side of history.’”

Even Johnson’s critics know how pivotal his faith was in bringing the legislation forward. “For Mike Johnson, that’s the truth. It’s a religious decision,” said South Carolina Republican Ralph Norman, who voted against advancing the bill to a floor debate on Friday. “He’s prayed about it. He said that when we met with him.”

As he left the House chamber on Friday, Johnson declined to answer a question from NOTUS about how his religion played into his decision. His office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Johnson delayed action on a Senate-passed Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan aid bill for two months, knowing his party was deeply divided on it. But he faced increasing pressure in recent days from fellow Southern Baptists to support Ukraine. The aid package passed the House on Saturday, and it’s expected to pass the Senate next week.

In a letter last week, four high-profile Baptists — including Dr. Richard Land, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission — urged Johnson to “consider the plight of Christians” in Ukraine. Pastors there have faced threats, torture and removal from their positions by Russian forces, the letter noted.

“Despite Russian efforts to paint Ukraine as intolerant of Christians, it is the Russian government that has aggressively harmed peaceful law abiding faithful Christians in the occupied areas of Ukraine,” the letter added. “The Russian army has destroyed hundreds of Baptist churches where evangelical Christians once exercised their faith freely in Ukraine.”

Daniel Darling — who also signed the letter and directs Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s center for cultural engagement — told NOTUS the group felt compelled to send it after seeing distorted narratives spread that Russia is defending Christianity.

Some of Johnson’s own colleagues hold that view. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the speaker’s fiercest Republican opponents, said this month that Russia “is not attacking Christianity. As a matter of fact, they seem to be protecting it.”

“We want Ukraine to prevail because we’re on the side of freedom instead of totalitarianism,” Darling said in an interview Friday. “We know that if Russia does prevail and takes over Ukraine, it’s a bad thing for religious freedom.”

The current president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Brent Leatherwood, made a similar argument in his own letter urging Johnson to back Ukraine last week. Leatherwood wrote that Southern Baptists “have long held that authoritarian regimes directly undermine human flourishing and undermine religious liberty.”

“Bowing to political factors, Congress has considered ceasing to fund the defense of Ukraine, a United States ally of over thirty years,” he wrote. “Still more egregious, the Ukrainian people continue to suffer without the assurance they can count on their most powerful ally to come to their aid.”

Those voices hold a lot of weight for Johnson, who served as a trustee for the ERLC between 2004 and 2012 and overlapped with Land’s tenure. (Leatherwood also once said Johnson was the first person he met with on Capitol Hill after becoming president of the commission.)

Johnson’s critics, meanwhile, aren’t convinced he’s doing God’s will.

“It’s really, really unfortunate because this was someone that I was very excited to see become the speaker, mainly because of his faith. And right now, I see pride more than I see humility,” Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican who opposes more funding for Ukraine, told reporters this week.

Asked what she meant by that with respect to policy, Boebert complained that Johnson is “only talking about the impossibilities” of advancing far-right agenda items in a divided government — instead of hoping for a miracle to pass something like hard-line border security legislation over President Joe Biden’s opposition.

“That’s looking at your own abilities and your natural circumstances instead of relying on God’s ability and the people that he put you around to actually move forward with something aggressive, and that will be productive for America,” she said.

Others gave Johnson a little more leeway, even as they disagreed with his stance.

“Seeking God’s wisdom is a good thing, especially with some of the heavy decisions we make up here,” said Florida Rep. Byron Donalds. “At the end of the day, you seek his wisdom, and I think he’s also given us a measure of wisdom. That’s why we have minds and we have wills, and we go from there.”

“God’s given me a measure of wisdom, and for this place and a lot of my colleagues, a hefty measure of grace,” Donalds added.

This story has been updated to include passage of the aid bill in the House.

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.