"A kind of Stepford wife": It's more than a prayer keeping Mike Johnson's wife suddenly out of view

Mike Johnson Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Mike Johnson Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., was elected Speaker of the House, he made a remark about his wife that was both so odd and so gross that it immediately went viral: "She’s spent the last couple of weeks on her knees in prayer to the Lord. And, um, she’s a little worn out."

The "joke" was that he was explaining why she wasn't present when he took his new office. Of course, the actual joke was a double entendre equating oral sex and prayer. It's in line with one of the most nauseating trends in evangelical culture: The "smokin' hot wife" trope. As famously mocked in the movie "Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," evangelical men are expected to gush, at length, about how f*ckable their wives are. The husband is curiously cast in the position of being worshipped like a god, which is an implication that evangelicals usually try to deny: the ideology of wifely submission. Until they're joking about it, of course.

It was also odd because no one would have noticed Kelly Johnson's absence if her husband hadn't drawn attention to it. Classic Streisand effect. It's a move that really suggests that the new speaker was feeling rather defensive about the choice to keep his wife out of the spotlight during this period of intense media scrutiny. Johnson's entire strategy from the second the GOP conference voted for him as their leader has been to do whatever he can to conceal his past and his views from the public eye, because he knows the more voters learn about him, the more they will reject him.

Keeping his wife out of the spotlight is likely part of that strategy. As I previously argued, Johnson is a viscerally creepy dude, which helpfully illustrates for people why he's so determined to use state power to police other people's sex lives. One thing that's really jumped out at folks is that he and his wife have a "covenant marriage," a special marriage license that makes it nearly impossible to divorce. (Almost no couples opt into this, because treating your wedding like a bear trap is anti-romance.) This factoid, along with the gross "on her knees" joke, quickly drew a great deal of attention to the Johnsons' marriage — prompting what appears to be a swiftly moving effort by the couple to scrub the record as quickly as possible.

The Johnsons have recorded a podcast since 2022, in which they talk about their far-right, fundamentalist beliefs. The website that hosted all 69 episodes has suddenly been taken down. Kelly Johnson runs a "counseling" service, called Onward Christian Counseling Services, and that site was also swiftly taken down. Unfortunately for the Johnsons, the internet is forever and the stuff they're trying to hide was still salvaged by journalists. Why they didn't want people to see this stuff is immediately evident.

"There's a strong 700 Club vibe" to the Johnson podcast, as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo said on his podcast. "If you were of a mind to have a stereotypical vision of Johnson's wife, as a kind of Stepford wife," he continued, "the way she presents in the podcast is going to help you stereotype her in that way." Marshall notes that, in the episodes he listened to, Mike Johnson did most of the talking and his wife existed mostly as an amen-chorus.

On Kelly Johnson's own website, language that was scrubbed involved comparing anyone who has sex outside of marriage to people who rape farm animals: "We believe and the Bible teaches that any form of sexual immorality, such as 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."

The last in-depth study of the commonality of "fornication" — the loaded term for people who have sex outside of marriage — only documented behavior through 2003. Even two decades ago, however, researchers at the Guttmacher Institute found that premarital sex was "nearly universal," to the point where 95% of adults participate before age 44. Likely the number has just grown since then. Nearly three-quarters of Americans, according to Gallup, believe it's morallly acceptable for unmarried people to have sex. And most of the rest, as the Guttmacher statistics show, are liars and/or hypocrites. Needless to say, comparing LGBTQ people to sex criminals is especially hateful and the sort of rhetoric that contributes to violence.

Further reporting on Kelly Johnson's "counseling" services from Business Insider reveals even more alarming details. She is "trained" through the National Christian Counselor's Association, which rejects state licensing of therapists. They claim it's because, "The state licensed professional counselor in certain states is forbidden to pray, read or refer to the Holy Scriptures, counsel against things such as homosexuality, abortion, etc."

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All of which is a euphemistic way of saying they would rather engage in spiritual abuse of clients than actually try to help them. Especially when it comes to telling clients that their sexual identity or orientation is sinful and the equivalent of bestiality. As the American Psychological Association notes, these practices "commonly use an array of psychosocially harmful techniques, including public shaming or inducing adverse physiological reactions."

To make it weirder, the association that trained Johnson bases their ideas on the teachings of the Greek physician Hippocrates, who died in 370 B.C., and believed that women's wombs could "wander" through their bodies. As Brent Griffiths at Business Insider explains, the "approach breaks people down into five types: Melancholy, Choleric, Sanguine, Supine, and Phlegmatic." In other words, it's a bunch of outdated and unscientific ideas from before the germ theory of disease. These are famously the ideas that led medieval doctors to believe blood-letting would help cure illness. "Counselors" from this association often practice exorcism, as well, believing literal demons cause mental health issues.

As I wrote on Tuesday, a lot of the "beliefs" in evangelical circles should be understood more as functional than literal. Sincerity isn't the point — justifying their will to dominate others is. So it's not a big surprise that the Johnsons are busy trying to throw dirt over years of hateful rhetoric. Talk about demonic possession, bestiality and Noah's ark was all well and good when the goal was gaining power within the heavily evangelical environment of Louisiana politics. Now that he's on a national stage, Johnson's "deeply held" beliefs are being hastily memory-holed, because he knows full well that it's a bunch of indefensible nonsense.

There's an argument, of course, that it's crude and gossipy to focus on the Johnsons' marriage, even as he himself has loudly argued against the right to privacy. But they spent years marketing their marriage for political and financial gain, weaponizing their supposed moral superiority to deny the rest of us basic rights. Fair game to those who offer their marriages for public consumption. In realpolitik terms, it matters, as well. Abstract discussion of sexual freedom and separation of church often doesn't resonate emotionally without concrete, human examples to look to. The Johnsons want to hide who they are from the rest of us.

because they know if people get a good look at them, they will be repulsed by what they see.