Mike Johnson's Satanic panic: How evangelical delusions trained Republicans to love Trump's lies

If you believe Noah's ark was real and demons come out of the TV, it's just a small jump to embrace the Big Lie

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 31, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Mike Johnson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Mike Johnson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Ours is an age where once-hoary clichés have been given new life by the rise of right wing authoritarianism: "The banality of evil." "First they came for the [fill in the blank]." "2+2=5." Then there is the famous quote, translated from Voltaire: "Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities." That's the one that popped into my mind when I read that newly-elected Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., believed demons were attacking his family through the TV set.

Johnson largely managed to keep his name out of the national news before his ascendance as the highest-ranking Republican on Capitol Hill. That's why he won, as Republicans hoped to conceal his far-right radicalism under the veil of ignorance. But prior to the current unearthing of Johnson's long history of creepy and fascistic behavior, he did get a small amount of national attention in September 2022 for posting an '80s-style Satanic panic about a cartoon show on FX. 

"Devilish Danny DeVito Cartoon Sparks GOP Satanic Panic," read a Daily Beast headline in September of last year. "Disney and FX have decided to embrace and market what is clearly evil," Johnson said of a series called "Little Demon," which, ironically, is a comedy show about how the devil's daughter has declined to become the Antichrist. Johnson describes sprinting to change the channel from the trailer, lest the tendrils of hell emanating from this show, which also stars Aubrey Plaza, somehow snag his children. 

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Despite being roundly mocked on social media for these hysterics, he doubled down on his podcast, insisting, "This is not frivolous, light-hearted entertainment," but "serious, eternal business." Yes, he argued people are literally going to hell for laughing at Danny DeVito playing a satirical version of the Prince of Darkness. 

Because they are so comfortable "believing" that which they know not to be true, it was a breeze for Republicans to go along with Trump's Big Lie.

This is, after all, the same politician who once fought to secure taxpayer funding for a Noah's Ark-based theme park. Yes, he did so out of conviction that a literal flood wiped out all life on Earth except an old man, his family and a boatful of animals around 2300 B.C. Never mind that there are historical records of thriving, well-documented civilizations like Mesopotamia and Egypt at the time, and they did not disappear into a flood. The Noah exhibit even claimed dinosaurs were on the boat, which did not stop Johnson from arguing that "what we read in the Bible are actual historical events." 

"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” Johnson wrote on Facebook, quoting the Bible to justify his belief that a cartoon show is literally demon-possessed. 

I was reminded of a quote from Carl Sagan's classic defense of science, "The Demon-Haunted World": "The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes—from incest, slavery, and mass murder to the most refined love, courage, and self-sacrifice." As I argued on Monday, Johnson's career is a perfect example. Johnson's starting position is clearly a desire to prop up a patriarchal system that oppresses women and LGBTQ people. The Bible is backfill — there as rationalization, not reason.

It's important to understand that most fundamentalists like Johnson "believe" that Noah's ark was real or Satan controls Disney in a very different way than most people understand the word "believe." It's not an assertion about reality in the same sense as saying, for instance, that October 31 is Halloween. An assertion is valued for how it makes them feel or whether it helps them get power. Evangelical culture is full of these quasi-beliefs, from creationism to urban legends about everyday encounters with angels. 

We can know they don't really believe half the crap they say because they don't act like people who believe it. When they get sick, most creationists go running to medical doctors, whose practice only works because the theory of evolution is true. Johnson wasn't really afraid his TV was a portal for demonic possession, or he would have thrown the whole machine out. And certainly, no one literally believes Donald Trump is a Bible-believing Christian, but since it suits their purposes to claim he is, they will "believe" he is saved by the cleansing powers of Jesus Christ. 

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"Belief" is less about actual views on the nature of reality, and more about claims that serve their personal or political purposes. I often refer to an illuminating 2008 Patheos blog post by Fred Clark, regarding his efforts, when he was with the church, to dissuade people from spreading the lie that a Satanic cult secretly ran Proctor & Gamble. As he wrote, "no one is stupid enough to really believe such a story." When they were presented with evidence that P&G is not a Satanic cult, they did not express relief, which is what a person sincerely misled would do. They got defensive and angry. That's because it felt good to them to claim P&G is a Satanic cult. It allowed them to feel self-righteous and titillated at the same time, an intoxicating combination that no fact can compete with. 

This is why Trump has done so well with evangelicals, despite his utter contempt for their faith and his lifetime of unrepentant philandering. His life philosophy, where what is "true" is whatever he wants to believe, fits nicely within the demon-haunted rhetoric of the Christian right, where Noah's ark is real but science is not. The "belief" that the election was stolen from Trump isn't a statement of fact but of loyalty to the tribe. That's why most Republicans now claim Trump didn't try to steal the election, as if they simply didn't see the months of loud, showy efforts to do so. They know in their hearts it's not true, but the false thing feels better to say. 

That's why it's not a mere sideshow when Christian politicians like Johnson sign off on goofy beliefs in Satanic TV shows or ark-riding dinosaurs. This is not a minor eccentricity. It's a whole worldview, one where there is no "belief" too silly or impossible, so long as it serves the political goals of the Christian right. As Voltaire noted, it's not just about the absurdity, but the atrocity. Because they are so comfortable "believing" that which they know not to be true, it was a breeze for Republicans to go along with Trump's Big Lie — and therefore the atrocities that were committed in service of it, such as the Capitol riot. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Creationism Mike Johnson Noah's Ark Satanic Panic