December 10, 2023

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, has delivered his verdict on the separation of church and state: it is a “misnomer”.

The second-in-line to the presidency informed Americans on Tuesday that their time-honored conception of one of the founding principles of the country was a “misunderstanding”. Speaking to CNBC’s Squawk Box, he tried to turn the conventional wisdom about the founders’ intentions on its head and claimed what they really wanted was to stop government interfering with religion, not the other way around.

“The separation of church and state is a misnomer,” the speaker said in an interview with the TV channel from the US Capitol. “People misunderstand it. Of course, it comes from a phrase that was in a letter that Jefferson wrote. It’s not in the constitution.”

Johnson was referring to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, written in 1802 when the third president was in the White House. It makes clear that the founding fathers subscribed to a powerful separation of church and state, which they enshrined in the establishment clause of the first amendment.

Jefferson in his letter quotes the establishment clause saying that Congress should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. He goes on to say that it builds “a wall of separation between Church & State”.

Johnson’s contentious remarks fall in line with years of effort on his part to bring Christianity into the center of American politics. The New York Times has dubbed him the first Christian nationalist to hold the powerful position of speaker.

Mike Johnson and other Republican members of Congress kneel in prayer in the House chamber on 6 January 2023. Photograph: Jon Cherry/Reuters

In the CNBC interview, Johnson was asked to explain the unusual sight of him praying along with a group of other members of Congress on bended knee on the floor of the House shortly after he was sworn in as speaker.

He has made no attempt to obscure his religious fervor. He told Fox News that anyone who wanted to know what he thought about any issue should “go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it – that’s my worldview”.

That worldview goes as far as to cast the US not as a democracy but as a “biblical” republic, as he stated in a 2016 interview. Before he entered politics as a member of the Louisiana legislature in 2015 he worked for many years as senior lawyer for the extremist Alliance Defense Fund.

The same group, renamed the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), has spearheaded attacks on LGBTQ+ rights before the US supreme court and played an important hand in the overturning of the right to an abortion in the court’s Dobbs decision.