The wife of Mike Johnson, the new speaker, has rallied opposition to abortion rights and used her pastoral counseling business to condemn homosexuality.
- Share full article
As Speaker Mike Johnson likes to tell it, it was love at first sight when he first met Kelly Lary, the sunny, blonde former Kappa Delta who caught his eye in a red dress at the wedding of a mutual friend.
On their first date, they discovered they both wanted to name their first daughter Hannah and their first son Jack. Three weeks later, Mr. Johnson confessed his love. They were engaged after six months and exactly 364 days later, Ms. Lary became Mrs. Johnson.
It’s an uncomplicated origin story about a marriage that Mr. Johnson, an evangelical Christian who has put his faith at the center of his political life and policy decisions, has made a focal point of his biography. That has thrust Mrs. Johnson, who has been very vocal about her deeply held conservative views — many of which are at odds with mainstream public opinion in the United States — into an unusual spotlight for the spouse of a speaker of the House.
Mrs. Johnson, who turned 50 last month, is also an evangelical Christian and a licensed pastoral counselor, and has co-hosted Mr. Johnson’s podcast about religion and politics. In her professional capacity, she has opposed homosexuality and same-sex marriage, both of which she views as sins. In her work as an activist, as a leader in her church and in her counseling, she has proselytized her hard-line anti-abortion views. As a wife, she has championed more legally binding marriages that make it difficult to divorce.
Like her husband, she attributes all of her beliefs to a biblical worldview. Her views are not far outside the mainstream for evangelical Christians, even if they are out of step with public opinion. Same-sex marriage has become widely accepted by members of both parties, and polls show that more than 70 percent of voters support it.
But they are unusual for high-profile figures in Washington, roles she and her husband are still acclimating to.
Her friends describe Mrs. Johnson as someone with a set of deeply held religious beliefs that guide her life — but also someone who is exceedingly polite to everyone she meets, regardless of their background or sexual orientation.
“People who don’t subscribe to those same beliefs vilify her for believing that,” said Amy Noles, a close friend and former neighbor. “Because you believe something doesn’t mean that you hate the person who does whatever it is you’ve spoken out against. You love the sinner and not the sin.”
The public performance of the Johnsons’ marital partnership has served as a way for Mr. Johnson to model his own Christian family values throughout his career, from his start as an attorney representing socially conservative causes to his rise in the Louisiana Statehouse to Congress, where he is now second in line to the presidency.
ImageMrs. Johnson accompanied her husband to file paperwork for his reelection campaign in 2018. Mr. Johnson has held up their marital partnership as a model of his Christian family values.Credit…Melinda Deslatte/Associated Press
For decades, the Johnsons haven’t just been a married couple; they have acted as self-appointed spokespeople for heterosexual marriage, which they believe forms the backbone of a functional society.
They have a covenant marriage, a kind of legally binding union that is more difficult to dissolve. Divorce is allowed only under certain circumstances including adultery, abandonment, physical or substance abuse, or the commission of a felony. Mrs. Johnson, in a 2005 interview with Diane Sawyer, referred to any other form of marriage as “marriage lite.”
In a page on her counseling website, which she deleted days after Mr. Johnson was elected speaker last month, Mrs. Johnson said she believed any form of sexual activity outside of marriage, including “adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography or any attempt to change one’s sex, or disagreement with one’s biological sex, is sinful and offensive to God.” All employees of her company were required to abide by and agree to the statement, according to the operating agreement.
In the agreement, signed by Mrs. Johnson and reviewed by The New York Times, she stated that the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, so she would not provide counseling for any marriages or “intimate relationships outside those parameters.” The content of the operating agreement was reported earlier by HuffPost.
Mrs. Johnson took down her site because she felt the statement had been misinterpreted and become the subject of scorn, according to a person familiar with her thinking who described it on the condition of anonymity. The section in question, that person said, followed guidance sent out by the National Christian Counseling Association, which warned biblical counselors that they could be open to legal action if they did not include a disclaimer such as the one on Mrs. Johnson’s site. She could be sued, the association said, for refusing to counsel gay people if she did not post it.
The intention, the person said, was not to compare bestiality with homosexuality, but simply to state that according to biblical scripture, any sex outside of a heterosexual marriage is considered sinful in God’s eyes.
The Bible does not explicitly condemn all sex outside heterosexual marriage, but the New Testament instructs believers to “flee from sexual immorality” and the apostle Paul refers to same-sex acts as unnatural and “shameful.” Christians interpret these passages differently, with some theologians saying the Bible’s negative references to homosexuality do not apply to committed partnerships.
Mrs. Johnson declined to comment for this article. But she has often expressed her views on “Truth Be Told,” the religious podcast she co-hosted with her husband until his election as speaker last month. The podcast served primarily as a vehicle for Mr. Johnson to talk about the political issues of the day and his evangelical faith. But his wife also weighs in at key moments.
Mrs. Johnson talked in the program of her deep concern about a “woke agenda” in schools across the country and the rising rates of students who identify as L.G.B.T.Q.+. She cited a study that attributed that rise to “indoctrination in schools,” and concluded, herself: “These are clearly unprecedented, unsettled and very dangerous times for our children.”
Friends said she was still making a difficult adjustment to her husband’s new role, and was mostly concerned with protecting her family’s privacy and getting used to a new level of scrutiny. She is still spending a great deal of time at home in Shreveport, even as Mr. Johnson’s new job keeps in him in Washington for longer stretches.
ImageMrs. Johnson at the Capitol this month. She still spends most of her time in Shreveport, even as Mr. Johnson spends more time in Washington.Credit…Francis Chung/POLITICO, via Associated Press
The Johnsons have defended their previously stated views about same-sex marriage by insisting that they have no hatred for gay people.
Mrs. Johnson’s closest friends in Shreveport say she has come under unfair criticism for simply stating her beliefs, including the now-removed statement about the opposition to sex outside of heterosexual marriage. The comedian Stephen Colbert, for instance, claimed that Mrs. Johnson was, “if possible, just as weird as her husband” and that her counseling company “offensively and outrageously” equated being gay with bestiality.
Nancy Victory, a longtime friend whose husband served as a judge on the Louisiana State Supreme Court for two decades, said Mrs. Johnson had strongly held beliefs against gay marriage and abortion — and she was proud of her friend.
“In this country, we have a right to have our own beliefs — and they do, too,” Ms. Victory said of the Johnsons. “They are central to their identity.”
Mrs. Johnson has long viewed herself as someone at the forefront of what she describes as the country’s “culture wars.” In 2018, when she worked for Louisiana Right to Life, she opened an anti-abortion booth called “Eyes for Life” at the Louisiana State Fair where she gave out tiny models of a fetus to drive home her message.
“Among the most effective outreach tools we have is the lifelike 3-inch model of an unborn baby at 12 weeks,” she wrote that year of the booth’s success. “As we give them a model to hold and keep, virtually everyone reacts with a sense of awe about the development of the unborn baby.”
(In Congress, Mr. Johnson has co-sponsored legislation to ban abortions starting from the time a fetal heartbeat is detected, as well as a 15-week abortion ban, earning him an A-plus rating from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.)
Mrs. Johnson has echoed her husband’s assertions that his position in Congress was divinely ordained.
“I believe that God has placed him here; that’s biblical,” Mrs. Johnson told Fox News host Kayleigh McEnany in the sole interview she has conducted since her husband’s unexpected rise. “I believe God has him here for just this time.”
ImageMike and Kelly Johnson have asserted that his elevation to speaker of the House was divinely ordained.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times
Seated next to her, Mr. Johnson said that he was prepared to “take any arrows — that’s fine —but don’t talk about my wife, for goodness’ sake,” giving her a pat on the knee.
But if Mrs. Johnson has become a target, it is because Mr. Johnson has helped put her there, by holding up their partnership as the embodiment of his belief that heterosexual marriage is “the building block of society.”
In his first speech in the House chamber after winning the gavel, he said that his wife had “spent the last couple weeks on her knees in prayer to the Lord, and she’s a little worn out.”
Long before Mr. Johnson ever ran for office, he and his wife became a poster couple for the benefits of a covenant marriage, appearing together on “Good Morning America” in 2005 to talk about why they had chosen the more legally binding arrangement.
“I think that it would be a pretty big red flag if you asked your mate or your fiancé, ‘Let’s do a covenant marriage,’ and they said they don’t really want to do that,” Mrs. Johnson told Diane Sawyer.
Covenant marriage, which is available in Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas, was designed to prevent quick marriages and quick divorces; couples who enter into the arrangement cannot get a divorce for two years, and only under certain circumstances.
It has worked out for the Johnsons. “They are one of these couples that enjoys each other’s company very much,” said Laura Seabaugh, another longtime friend whose husband served in the state legislature with Mr. Johnson. “They look toward each other, they lean on each other. They are definitely a partnership.”
Together, the Johnsons have led marriage retreats for their church, Cypress Baptist. For their work in promoting heterosexual marriage, they received the “Champions of the Faith” award from the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 2019, Mr. Johnson commemorated his 20th wedding anniversary on Facebook with a 565-word post proclaiming Mrs. Johnson to be his muse and the great joy of his life.
“We came to realize many years ago that we were called to serve together in what a mentor once described as ‘a sometimes rocky corner of the Lord’s vineyard,’” he wrote. “King Solomon wrote with the wisdom of God, and proclaimed in the Proverbs that ‘an excellent wife is the crown of her husband.’”
Mrs. Johnson grew up in Louisiana with modest means. Her father sold old tractor supply parts and her mother taught gym at the local high school. After marrying Mr. Johnson, she taught elementary school at Providence Classical Academy, an evangelical school that advertises its “Christ-centered discipleship,” while he served as the board president. They taught Sunday school together at their church.
Friends describe Mrs. Johnson as a traditional spouse who has taken the lead role in raising the couple’s four children while Mr. Johnson has been working in Washington.
“He’s been in D.C. for several years now, and she’s been taking care of the four kids at home,” Ms. Noles said. “She has to do that so he can go to D.C. and do what he needs to do. He supports her as much as he can.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research and Ruth Graham contributed reporting.
Annie Karni is a congressional correspondent. She was previously a White House correspondent. Before joining The Times, she covered the White House and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign for Politico, and spent a decade covering local politics for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. More about Annie Karni
- Share full article