“An army of Jesus”: Inside Mike Johnson’s come-to-Jesus moment ahead of Ukraine reversal

Johnson met evangelical leader of Ukraine’s National Prayer Breakfast before last week's press conference

Published April 22, 2024 4:30PM (EDT)

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., prepares to make a statement in the U.S. Capitol on the mass shooting in Lewiston, Me., on Thursday, October 26, 2023.  (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., prepares to make a statement in the U.S. Capitol on the mass shooting in Lewiston, Me., on Thursday, October 26, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on TFN.

In the hours before Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) said he was willing to lose his speakership to help Ukraine, he met with the evangelical leader of Ukraine’s National Prayer Breakfast, who says he told Johnson they could create “an army of Jesus.”

It was Pavlo Unguryan’s third reported meeting with Johnson this year. As one Christian Republican insider asserted after Saturday’s House approval of $61 billion for Ukraine aid, evangelical messaging “definitely tipped” Johnson and House Republicans.

U.S. reporting has focused on national-security briefings cracking Johnson’s months of paralysis. But the intel messaging has been consistently dire since Russia invaded. Only in the past several months has “religious freedom” gained momentum as a casus belli, appearing in Ukrainian and U.S. religious media and now embraced by evangelical Republicans.

And the religious and intel motivations complement each other. National-security warnings that Ukraine will fall without U.S. aid would take on heightened urgency if Johnson started to see Ukraine as an evangelical redoubt and potential wellspring of missionary action in a godless Europe.

One week before Johnson’s dramatic turnaround, I wrote, “If you see evangelical House Republicans softening their opposition to military aid for Ukraine, don’t assume it’s divine intervention.” Here’s what’s happened since then.

“Pavlo Is The Hero”

Steven Moore used to be a top aide to the House Republican chief deputy whip, then-Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), himself a former aide to Rapture-believing Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), who sired the Hyde Amendment ending federal funding for abortions.

These days, Moore has been on the ground in Ukraine, distributing humanitarian aid and, still politically connected, working the phones to keep aid coming.

In a LinkedIn comment yesterday, Moore discussed Johnson’s change of heart.

“[T]he evangelical Christian message definitely tipped the Speaker and Republicans,” Moore wrote. “Pavlo is the hero. He met with the Speaker after the SOTU [State of the Union]. … The Speaker was deeply moved.”

It’s not clear what meeting Moore is referring to, but according to the Christian Post, Unguryan was on Capitol Hill the week of Pres. Joe Biden’s March 7 speech. The Christian Post report includes a photo of Unguryan meeting Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Also in the picture is Karl Ahlgren, a top official in Moore’s group.

Unguryan’s meeting with Johnson last Wednesday came in the hours leading up to Johnson’s news conference, according to the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Right-wing religious conservative Marc Thiessen on Friday asserted that Wednesday’s meeting didn’t change Johnson’s mind, he was always going to push Ukraine aid through. But, reportedly, Johnson was still praying about what to do on Tuesday. So what happened?

CBN spoke to Unguryan about his Wednesday meeting with Johnson. This time, Unguryan had brought along evangelical Baptist Serhii Haidarzhy, whose wife Anna (a pastor’s daughter) and four-month-old son Tymofii were killed by a Russian drone strike last month.

A Ukrainian government photo showing two of their arms extending out from under a single blanket after the blast reportedly has become a widely circulated symbol of Ukraine’s civilian toll. Their deaths have also served as an evangelical rallying cry.

The personal touch of meeting Haidarzhy may have made the difference for Johnson. Ukrainian American House Chair Roman Sheremeta, a Case Western Reserve University professor who’s co-authored a paper with Unguryan, posted that “a large group” of Ukrainians were in Washington last week, and he singled out Johnson’s discussion with Unguryan and Haidarzhy.

“Personal meetings like these can have a profound impact on a person,” Sheremeta wrote, “and I believe that it made an impact on Mike Johnson.”

Unguryan has discussed the meeting publicly, using language with religious outlets that differs from his rhetoric for America’s general audiences. While Unguryan in a January press release from Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) discussed working with “US brothers and sisters within the democratic world,” to CBN he called Johnson “a brother in Christ.”

Similarly, Unguryan described his first known meeting with Johnson, Jan. 31, as an “informal [meeting] among brothers in faith.” On Jan. 10, Ukrainian evangelicals had signed off on a letter that Unguryan and others would hand-deliver to Johnson. Johnson took the meeting despite the fact that evangelicals make up only 2% of Ukraine’s population and Johnson refused to meet with an ecumenical delegation in late 2023.

During last Wednesday’s meeting, Unguryan told CBN, he framed the war to Johnson as a spiritual battle. "For us, it's a call to action to unite together — to unite together an army of Jesus."

Johnson hugged Haidarzhy and prayed for him. Then, later that day, Johnson gave his news conference saying helping Ukraine was the right thing to do, and worth sacrificing the speakership.

Prior to Saturday’s House vote, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Iryna Gerashchenko called Unguryan’s meeting with Johnson “a very good move.” 

She added, “Pavlo Unguryan, thank you for arranging this gathering.”

But the Wednesday meeting was also arranged by Gary Marx, president of Defenders of Faith and Religious Freedom in Ukraine, CBN reported. It was also Marx who organized a letter to Johnson from religious leaders last week seeking help for Ukraine.

Marx told CBN that Johnson “is a thoughtful Christian leader who I think understands that religious freedom is in jeopardy.”

Marx’s notion of “religious freedom” is suggested by his affiliations with far-right and theocratic organizations. He’s a senior advisor to the Judicial Crisis Network, which he founded, and advised both the Scott Walker and Marco Rubio presidential campaigns.

According to CBN, Marx “asked Johnson to view support for Ukraine, long considered the Bible Belt of Europe, through the lens of fighting for religious liberty.”

How Johnson understands religious freedom was hinted at by Marx, who noted that Johnson has “worked on those issues as an attorney for decades.” In fact, Johnson’s legal career included work for the Alliance Defending Freedom, advocating for anti-LGBTQ+ laws including a sodomy ban and criminalizing gay sex.

Unguryan had floated the idea of Ukraine as a European Bible Belt earlier in the week. On Thursday I wrote about Unguryan telling Family Research Council President Tony Perkins that Ukraine is “to be the Bible Belt” for Europe, “such a liberal continent.”

Perkins underscored the point: “So you see the vision of Ukraine as being kind of a Bible Belt?” Unguryan said, “Absolutely yes … we are like the Bible Belt for the liberal, European continent,” touting “pro-family [and] pro-life issues.”

Unguryan told Perkins he envisioned a “strategic partnership between Christians, evangelicals, conservatives in U.S. and Christians and conservatives in Ukraine to do our missionary ministry, global missionary ministry, and to protect our values.”

Perkins asked how his viewers could help. Unguryan said, “Ask your congressmen to help us.”

But Unguryan got to solicit at least one member of Congress, other than Johnson, in person last week.

The same day as Johnson’s news conference, Unguryan met with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), who doesn’t just co-chair the Congressional Ukraine Caucus with Kaptur, he’s a veteran of Unguryan’s prayer breakfasts.

Breakfasts and Jesus Are Served

In 2021, I revealed that Unguryan was the main Ukraine liaison for the organization behind the original U.S. prayer breakfast, the Fellowship Foundation, the secretive Christian group also known as The Family.

Unguryan and others in The Family — including Doug Burleigh, the Donald Trump supporter who brought Russian operatives Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina to the breakfast — invited a number of Ukrainian crusaders against LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights, according to Family documents I obtained.

For years, Unguryan has been the principal organizer of the Ukrainian National Prayer Breakfast, which spun off from The Family’s U.S. model.

Today, Unguryan says, he’s backed by an array of conservative Christian organizations. He told CBN that “many organizations from America help us, like Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Baptist World Alliance, Southern Baptist Convention.”

Samaritan’s Purse is a relief organization, but also proselytizes its vision of evangelical Christianity. More specifically, the vision of its president, Franklin Graham. It was Graham — a global leader against LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights — who for years was the sole financial backer of the U.S. prayer breakfast.

And Unguryan’s parliamentary group, a Family spinoff, paid to fly powerful Americans to Kyiv to boost Unguryan and his efforts. As I reported, both Fitzpatrick and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA), attended Unguryan’s 2021 prayer breakfast on Unguryan’s dime. As a member of the far-right Polish group Ordo Iuris posted, after the main event, “we had the opportunity to share our experiences in defending of conservative values."

At the time, Unguryan’s group had a page on the Ukrainian parliamentary website saying that its central missions included “organizing the National Prayer Breakfast in Ukraine; [and] protection of the institution of family and marriage as the basis of society.”

Their events reflected that mission. In 2019, the Ukrainian prayer breakfast organizers paid to fly in Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) due to his positions on “sanctity of life, marriage, freedom and prayer.” (Last year, The Family flew Walberg to urge Uganda’s prayer breakfast to “stand firm” behind a new LGBTQ+ death penalty. The Family declined a request by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) to weigh in on Walberg’s remarks or the new law.)

A 2021 report on LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights by European parliamentarians singled out Unguryan and Ukraine’s prayer breakfasts specifically. The report cited European prayer breakfasts as part of an effort “to form cross-party alliances on Christian values.”

The report also said that an international Christian group to which Unguryan belongs “socialises politicians onto regressive agendas through parliamentary prayer breakfasts.”

Earlier this month, Unguryan and other evangelicals were among a group of religious leaders who met with Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelenskyy. As I reported on April 10, Zelenskyy was acutely conscious of the message they could send overseas.

The religious leaders had one ask of Zelenskyy: Resume Ukraine’s National Prayer Breakfast. He agreed.

Full-Court Press

In the days leading up to Johnson’s announcement, the campaign intensified.

Another longtime Family insider, former Rep. Bob McEwen (R-OH), was involved. McEwen, too, attended Unguryan’s 2021 prayer breakfast, and before yesterday’s vote, joined dozens of conservative individuals and institutions to defend Johnson. With House conservatives threatening to oust Johnson for aiding Ukraine, the conservative leaders urged them to keep Johnson as speaker.

Signatories of their letter included far-right religious leaders and groups, not just McEwen and Perkins but also the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Concerned Women for America, and more. (One Concerned Women for America board member is Caroline Aderholt, who now helps run The Family’s smaller-scale prayer breakfast on Capitol Hill.)

On Thursday, former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also a Rapture believer, co-signed a letter calling on House Republicans to support Ukraine.

His audience was mainstream, and his message non-religious. But Pompeo reportedly had begun pressing Johnson privately on Ukraine “almost immediately” after Johnson got his gavel on Oct. 25.

And Moore’s group, the Ukraine Freedom Project, last year launched a campaign called Russia Tortures Christians, with paid posts and videos on Facebook and Instagram.

The ad campaign appears to have begun in late December. Ads started running as early as Dec. 22. In early March, the ads started naming Johnson. Respectfully.

One paid post that started running March 1 quotes The Bible to appeal to Johnson.

The campaign bought ads specifically targeting Facebook and Instagram users in Louisiana, Johnson’s state. “We ran digital ads for Russia Tortures Christians in Louisiana, building grassroots support,” Moore said.

The ads followed message testing at the end of summer in 2023, Moore wrote. “Telling Republican evangelicals that Russia tortures and murders Ukrainian evangelicals for their faith makes 70% of them … more likely to support Ukraine aid.”

In the fall, he said, “we talked to ~100 Congressional offices about this message.”

One ad, earlier this month, thanked Graham for his support.

Eventually, it wasn’t just advocacy groups and Christian leaders. Right-wing media increasingly picked up on the narrative, and gave Unguryan a platform.

On April 10, the same day I reported on Unguryan’s meetings with Johnson and Zelenskyy, Newsmax cited Russia’s persecution of Christians as a reason to support aid. Their source was Unguryan.

Then, the day before their meeting with Johnson, Unguryan and Haidarzhy both appeared on Newsmax. Unguryan offered Newsmax a modest prophecy: “These next days we will tell people truth on the Capitol Hill.”

By Jonathan Larsen

Jonathan Larsen is the creator of The F**king News.

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