Two days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, a little-known congressman named Mike Johnson took the stage at Christian Center Shreveport to celebrate.
“This is a day we’ve been waiting on for a half-century,” he told the ebullient congregation, adding that there was no place he would rather be than with them.
He beamed as he read portions of Louisiana’s new law punishing abortion providers with a minimum of one year in prison and a fine of at least $10,000. “They deserve it, brother,” he said with a chuckle. He closed with a prayer that cited scripture and Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Johnson’s sudden ascent last month to speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency, was a surprising turn in a career built quietly in courtrooms, as a lawyer representing socially conservative causes, and through the Louisiana Statehouse and the House of Representatives , to whom he was elected in 2017.
Mr. Johnson’s path also wounds through conservative evangelical churches and institutions where faith mingles almost inextricably with Republican politics. It is a world that sees him not as an occasional visitor or friendly supporter, but firmly as one of their own.
The pastor at the church in Shreveport, Tim Carscadden, had welcomed him to the stage with a joke: “We don’t allow them to go to church here unless they vote for you.”
Now, as Mr. Johnson becomes arguably the most powerful elected Republican politician in America, many in that world are celebrating the unexpected triumph of a leader with impeccable conservative evangelical bona fides.
“For Southern Baptists it’s like winning the lottery,” said Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Mr. Johnson and his family have deep ties in the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and often serves as a bellwether for American evangelicalism. He has attended Baptist churches for years, served in a national leadership role for the denomination, and his brother-in-law is the pastor of a large congregation in Shreveport.
The previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is also a Southern Baptist, but the denomination is less culturally dominant in his home state of California. Some Southern Baptists said they did not even realize that Mr. McCarthy is also a Baptist and those who did know viewed him as less tightly embedded in the denomination.
Mr. Mohler is among several Southern Baptists who emphasized in interviews how familiar — even ordinary — Mr. Johnson seemed to them, even as they recognized the extraordinary occasion of his election. Noting Mr. Johnson’s associations through the years with institutions like Focus on the Family, which opposes abortion and gay marriage, Mr. Mohler said he would describe Mr. Johnson as he would describe himself: “a conservative evangelical Southern Baptist deeply involved in these issues for decades,” and one who is “absolutely representative” of conservative evangelicalism.
Indeed, Mr. Johnson’s pedigree reads like a survey of conservative American evangelical institutions. He has strong ties to the socially conservative lobbying group Family Research Council. As a former lawyer for the conservative legal group now known as Alliance Defending Freedom, he worked with clients including Exodus Internationala now-defunct organization promoting the discredited practice of conversion therapy, aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation.
The Southern Baptist Convention is theologically and politically conservative, and it has undergone a similar roiling over its values and identity since the election of Donald Trump as the Republican Party has in recent years. Last summer, delegates at the group’s annual meeting voted to expel two churches with female pastors, and to amend their constitution to expand restrictions on women in church leadership.
Mr. Johnson served as a trustee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, his denomination’s public policy arm, between 2004 and 2012 under Richard Land, a patriarch of the religious right known for his opposition to gay marriage and abortion, among other issues.
Mr. Johnson’s family belonged for many years to First Bossier, a Baptist church near Shreveport. Its pastor, Brad Jurkovich, is the spokesperson for the Conservative Baptist Network, an organization founded in 2020 on the premise that the denomination is drifting leftward. Mr. Johnson’s specific views on the denomination’s trajectory are unclear, although he has been publicly supportive of the ultraconservatives’ events and leaders.
A representative for Mr. Johnson did not respond to a request for an interview.
Mr. Johnson invited Mr. Jurkovich to open the House of Representatives in prayer in 2018. He also recorded a video greeting for attendees at Conservative Baptist Network’s “Pastor, Prophet, Patriot” event, held in Georgia a week before the 2020 election.
For some observers, both Mr. Johnson’s résumé, however mainstream, and his rhetoric, however mildly delivered, represent the alarming rise of a new Christian right that fuses traditional social conservatism and authoritarian instincts. Mr. Johnson has said that the popular self-styled historian David Barton, who has questioned the constitutionality of the separation of church and state, has had a “profound influence” on him.
Mr. Johnson played a central role in attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
“He was uncomfortable with the violence of Jan. 6, but the goals are aligned,” said Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Mr. Whitehead, who has written about the rise of Christian nationalism, calls Mr. Johnson a “near-perfect example” of the phenomena.
Mr. Johnson and his wife, Kelly, often share a platform in professional settings, a practice more common in Christian ministry than in national politics. They record a podcast on politics and culture, “Truth Be Told.” They have also conducted seminars together at churches, addressing questions like, “Can our heritage as a Christian nation be preserved?” according to a cached version of her website, which has since been taken down.
The couple and their four children are now members of Cypress Baptist Church, a large church in Benton, La., where Ms. Johnson sees clients in her Christian counseling business.
John Fream, the pastor at Cypress Baptist, said he first got to know Mr. Johnson when he invited the congressman to speak at his church at a Sunday service celebrating the Fourth of July and honoring the congregation’s military members and veterans.
“You talk about a patriot, I don’t know that you could find a more patriotic man than Mike Johnson,” Mr. Fream said.
Like many of Mr. Johnson’s supporters within Southern Baptist communities, Mr. Fream said he was hopeful that the new speaker’s even-keeled temperament will bring a change to a political scene fraught with open hostilities and incivility. “He can agree to disagree and walk out of the room and still be cordial,” he said.
Andrew Walker, a professor of Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Mr. Johnson “seems like a very strong spokesperson for what Christians would want to see presented in the public square.”
Mr. Johnson’s demeanor, which many Southern Baptists raised as positive, is a departure from Mr. Trump’s brash and aggressive style. But Mr. Johnson has also ridden along with the party’s turn to Trumpism, which saw many conservative evangelicals embracing their candidate’s election denial and tolerating his crude rhetoric and actions toward women.
For Mr. Walker, Mr. Johnson’s election as speaker indicates that even in an increasingly secular country, people who share his views and speak his language have a place in the highest echelons in power.
“He represents a sizable constituency for whom his views are very much in the mainstream,” Mr. Walker said. “No matter what secular America wants to say, we aren’t going anywhere.”