Nearly 20 years after he wrote editorials in defense of sodomy laws, does the new Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.) still believe that states are not just constitutionally permitted but also morally obligated to criminalize sex acts between consenting adults?
Moving forward, is he willing to downplay or compromise on some of his socially conservative policy positions, perhaps if it means protecting GOP members running in purple districts and, potentially, maintaining the Republicans’ majority control of the lower chamber next year?
Last week, Johnson responded to the pundits and political reporters who were hungry for details about his views and eager to explore their potential political implications by instructing them to “Go pick up a Bible.”
Like others who knew Johnson before the House GOP conference voted to make him the top elected Republican second in line to the presidency last week, Bruce Parker says the evangelical congressman’s words should be taken as he intended them: literally.
His message echoed comments by avowedly anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who said during an interview with NTD Television on Oct. 27, “I’ve known Mike for probably over 25 years, and he operates from his faith, and so that guides what he does…as Christians engage in the political process, who are Bible believing Christians, it’s not difficult to know where we’re going, where we’re coming from.”
“It’s hard for people who don’t believe that way” to understand, Parker told the Washington Blade on Tuesday, but Johnson says God communicates with him directly. “I think Speaker Johnson would say — or he would have said, to me, when I spoke to him frequently — ‘it’s not my position that has to change, Bruce; it’s God’s.’”
Likewise, with respect to his work on behalf of powerful organizations on the Christian right like Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ hate group monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Johnson “would tell you that was legal work, but also moral work in the sense that I think that he thought he was helping carry out God’s will on Earth,” Parker said.
Now the deputy director of Out Boulder County, in 2015 Parker was engaged in advocacy work focused on LGBTQ and reproductive rights on behalf of Equality Louisiana and Louisiana Progress while Johnson, then a state legislator, was trying to pass his Marriage and Conscience Act.
The legislation, which ultimately failed, sought protections for those who objected to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, but it was characterized by critics as a license-to-discriminate bill.
During this time, when he was regularly in touch with Johnson, sometimes speaking with him as frequently as twice per day, Parker said, “I developed a genuine appreciation for parts of who he is” — though it was often difficult to reconcile how this was someone who “is super nice to you,” someone who, for example, “consistently” asked how Parker’s partner was doing, but at the same time “would work very hard to make sure you don’t exist.”
“The Speaker understands himself to be an authentically nice person,” Parker said, but his kindness should not be mistaken for weakness, and “people would be making a severe mistake to underestimate him” because the congressman is “a smart politician” who is strategic in every conceivable sense.
“There’s a correlation between being able to be super nice and polite to a queer activist, and learning how to talk about your values and your mission in ways that are not read as off-putting to the vast majority of the population,” Parker noted.
While he is certainly a lower-profile figure than some bomb-throwing members of the GOP conference like U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Parker said “it’s not that [Johnson] is lesser known, it’s that he has a mild mannered approach that doesn’t feel threatening to people, and so he will hug you and be really sweet to you while trying to pass legislation to make sure that you can’t get health care that is essential for saving your life.”
Johnson “has an agenda,” Parker said. “He has had that agenda for a very long time. And he believes that agenda comes from a place bigger than him. And that is overlaid with conservative values and politics, but I think at its core, there is what he would understand as a divine mission.”
So, while he can be expected to lead House Republicans strategically, “I can’t imagine how Speaker Johnson can put social issues on the back-burner because they’re not social issues to him,” he said.
In his 20 years of advocacy work fighting for abortion and LGBTQ rights in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and, now, Colorado’s Boulder County, Parker said he has never encountered someone as convinced as Johnson of the righteousness of his own positions.
Parker suggested the fact that he was raised in the church and conversant in Christianity may have endeared him to Johnson, who, in turn, may have softened his anti-LGBTQ rhetoric if not his anti-LGBTQ policy positions, “which is a part of what good queer activists do in southern and conservative places,” he added, putting a human face on the issue.
Still, “I don’t think that this is a person who will respond to political pressure,” Parker said. “I don’t think it’s a case where the right person can make a pro-LGBT argument and shift his perspective, and, so, I don’t know that that is a useful effort.”