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Mike Johnson Defies GOP to Heed Evangelical Pleas for Ukraine Aid

After lobbying from fellow Southern Baptists and Christians affected by the war, the House speaker moves a package forward.
Mike Johnson Defies GOP to Heed Evangelical Pleas for Ukraine Aid
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

When deciding whether to protect his place in leadership as House speaker or go against his party to do what he believed was right, Mike Johnson turned to prayer.

After weeks of hearing intelligence briefings and pleas from fellow Christians, Johnson ultimately sided with his convictions rather than conceding to the Republican Party’s isolationist wing. He backed a $95 billion foreign aid package that, despite the opposition of 112 GOP legislators, overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives last weekend.

Like many of his fellow Republicans, Johnson had initially opposed further aid to Ukraine, voting against it prior to becoming speaker and waiting months to move forward with an aid package after the Senate approved its version in February.

He “went through a transformation,” according to one GOP colleague, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul. The shift may have come in part due to the influence of Ukrainian evangelicals, fellow Christian leaders, and his personal faith.

“He got down on his knees, and he prayed for guidance and said, ‘Look, tell me. What is the right thing to do here?’” the Texas congressman told NOTUS’s Haley Byrd Wilt. The next day, Johnson said to McCaul, “I want to be on the right side of history.”

The House vote on the Ukraine provisions, around $61 billion, was 311 to 112; a majority of Johnson’s colleagues voted against the measure, while aid to Israel and Taiwan had broader support. The Senate cleared the package Tuesday in a bipartisan 79–18 vote. Now the measure heads to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Ukrainian leadership had grown more vocal about depleted weapons two years into the war with Russia, and Christian leaders had asked Johnson to move forward with authorizing further aid.

In addition to hearing intelligence briefings from national security advisors, the Louisiana congressman met with Ukrainian Christians, who detailed the horrors in the war-torn country. Pavlo Unguryan told the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that in speaking last week with Johnson, he painted the war as a spiritual struggle.

Another Christian, Serhii Haidarzhy, spoke to Johnson through an interpreter and shared how his wife and his four-month-old son Timofee had been killed due to a Russian drone strike.

Johnson reportedly embraced Haidarzhy and prayed for him, according to CBN.

During a press call earlier in the month, a group of evangelicals—including Patriot Voices chairman Rick Santorum, Faith and Freedom Coalition’s founder Ralph Reed, and Sandy Hagee Parker, chairwoman of Christians United for Israel—urged the speaker to offer support for Ukraine and Israel.

A group of influential Baptist leaders also wrote to Johnson to highlight the plight of Ukrainian Christians, saying, “We believe that God has put you in this position ‘for such a time as this.’”

The letter highlighted how, during the war, the Russian army has destroyed Baptist churches and threatened, tortured, and removed pastors from their positions. Signatories included Richard Land, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Current ERLC president Brent Leatherwood also wrote to the speaker, a fellow Southern Baptist, with concerns about the plight of Ukrainian Christians in Russian-controlled territories.

Our fellow Baptists have faced particularly intense persecution and have had over 400 churches destroyed by Russian attacks,” he wrote. Leatherwood urged Johnson and Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries to end the paralysis that gripped the House on the issue.

Johnson served as an ERLC trustee for two terms, and Leatherwood has sought to maintain friendly relations with the Louisiana lawmaker.

“He was at my first meeting in Washington as president of the ERLC,” Leatherwood told CT in an interview last year. “He’s obviously got that past, that historical connection with our entity, and I wanted to open a dialogue with him because he is such a prominent Southern Baptist on Capitol Hill.”

“I was struck in that meeting, because here is someone who is devoted to our convention. A number of the issues that he has publicly spoken about are issues that are very important to Southern Baptists. I think that kind of denominational history is very evident in the profile that he carved out as a member of the House of Representatives and now as speaker of the House.”

In February, the Senate passed a national security package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan with similar contours to the current package, but Johnson stalled acting on it in the House for two months.

Though aid for Israel remains strong on the right, supporting embattled nations in Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific region is expected to come with a cost.

Johnson acknowledged that it was a tough political decision: “I could make a selfish decision and do something different, but I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing,” he told reporters last week.

The move angered some Republicans, not least because it took votes from Democrats to get the foreign aid package across the line. There has been a pile-on by some influential voices on the right.

Trump ally Steve Bannon said that Johnson “must go just like Kevin McCarthy,” the former House speaker. Tucker Carlson lambasted the move and described Johnson as “weak” and “susceptible to evil.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s GOP colleagues on the Hill are considering a motion to vacate, a procedural move to bring up a vote to demote Johnson. So far, they have yet to act on it.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Johnson’s most outspoken critic at the moment, has taken to the airwaves to vow that Johnson’s time as speaker is over.

“People are fed up,” Greene said about the amount of money spent out of Washington. “He’s absolutely working for the Democrats, passing the Biden administration’s agenda. This is a speakership that is completely over with.”

But the criticism has been muted by bipartisan praise.

After the package was passed, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted his gratitude on the social platform X: “I thank everyone who supported our package, this is a solution for protecting life. I personally thank Speaker Mike Johnson and all American hearts who believe, as we do in Ukraine, that Russian evil must not be winning.”

There has also been support in unlikely, and influential, quarters.

Donald Trump has so far declined to join the criticism, which may protect Johnson from dissatisfaction spreading among the majority of House Republicans. Last week, the former president told reporters during a joint press conference with Johnson that “I stand with the speaker,” and, after the House passed Ukraine aid, Trump also rallied to Johnson’s defense.

On Monday, while addressing reporters in the midst of his legal trial, Trump noted that House Republicans have a razor-thin majority. “It’s not like he can go and do whatever he wants to do,” Trump told reporters. “I think he’s a very good person.”

His stance may be to prevent the House from being thrown into another chaotic speaker election in the lead-up to November. The perception—if it grows—that Republicans are unable to govern may hurt their ability to hang onto their slim and unruly majority come November, as some conservatives have pointed out.

In December, Leatherwood had forecasted that the speaker’s faith would play a significant role in his tenure.

“You can have two Baptists in a room and get seven different opinions. It’s very possible, in fact, likely, that there’s not going to be agreement on everything. And that’s just with Baptists,” Leatherwood said.

“But personally, in meeting with [Johnson] and interacting with him last year, I got the sense that this is a faithful Christian who has a history of being engaged in Baptist life and who believes, like I do, that our faith can inform and guide us to good policy that ends up actually serving and benefiting every American.”

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