I just saw the news that Mike Johnson from Louisiana was elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives. As he became the leading contender some of my friends began a group chat about it. You see, we all have a connection to Mike Johnson. We all spent time at Louisiana College (LC), now called Louisiana Christian University. Some of us were students, some were faculty but the trauma we experienced from that situation created a strong bond between us all.
The tragedy of Louisiana Christian University
The history of LC/LCU is a sordid tale of corruption and incompetence which has been detailed extensively here on Faith on View and which still resides in the FoV archive.
The environment at Louisiana College
In 2007, I moved to Louisiana from California to head the college’s art department. I actually turned down a better-paying job in California because the vision expressed to me during the interview process was so compelling. There is no need to go into all the details here, as we have the archive for that, but the reality I experienced was far different from what I had been told. It was an oppressive environment. In the four years I was there, the institution went through three different Chief Academic Officers. After he left, the one who hired me actually apologized… for hiring me. He got me a job offer at his next university, which I foolishly turned down because I did not yet fully understand the sheer toxicity of the environment.
Going bad quickly
Eventually, the utter brokenness of the institution became painfully clear. In my fourth year at the school, the President, Joe Aguillard, decided not to renew my contract because I “wasn’t happy.” I had previously determined that when I left the institution, I would write an open letter addressing the general unhealth of the institution. I felt the Christian values the institution claimed were truly important and that the institution needed to reflect those values.
My letter was not well received. I was banned from campus mid-semester and locked out of my office. There was a small class that had met around the conference table in my office. Without access to that space, the class finished the semester sitting on the floor of the office suite foyer. In the coming weeks, there were multiple violations of the college’s policies as the administration took a punitive posture toward me. Eventually, I was forced to obtain a restraining order against the “College and all its agents.”
That is a painfully brief glossing of a terrible time in my life. There are stories to tell… so many stories.
So what does this have to do with Mike Johnson? A little more patience, please.
LCU a canary in the mine
I often lament with a Louisiana College friend and colleague of mine about how the situation with the Louisiana Baptists (the problems were much larger than just the college) was a glimpse into what America would be like under Trump: the corruption, the gaslighting, the lies, the blind loyalty, the profound evil while claiming to be an agent of good, and the conflation of religion, politics, and power. The early years of Trump triggered the PTSD of those of us who had lived through that time in Louisiana. The Executive Director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention had once said that Aguillard would stay president of the college “unless he is caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.” In context, this is a lot like Trump’s comment “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
As a Christian, I have been dismayed as I witnessed the blind support, even praise, directed toward such a man as Trump. But I had seen it before, in Louisiana. I’m also dismayed by how people in the Trump era stay quiet. But I’ve also seen that before. We hear reports of the terrible things lawmakers say about Trump in private which they never seem to have the strength to say publicly. I’ve often thought about the quote which is disputably attributed to Edmond Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Doing something is scary. It can have consequences. In my case, it led to the President of the college targeting me, a legal battle, and ultimately unemployment. It took eight years to get another tenure-track position.
Interestingly, last week a past student from Louisiana College drove through my current town. We met for dinner. It so happened that a former professor, at another university, was passing through and having dinner at the same restaurant. The last time I saw him was when I had an exhibition at his university almost 15 years ago, shortly before everything fell apart in Louisiana. He introduced me to his wife as having heroically stood against a corrupt administration.
I remember giving a presentation at the Conference of Faith and History when it met at Pepperdine University a few years ago. Several other academics came up to me and expressed how they had followed my writings on the situation at LC. They spoke glowingly about my bravery and expressed gratitude that I had landed on my feet.
They call me heroic
Landing on one’s feet is a funny thing. After the end of my position as department head at Louisiana College, I spent a year teaching adjunctively for a state university and then returned to school to work on a Ph.D. So, in this case, landing on my feet meant working on a second terminal degree, I already had an MFA, while my father helped support my family rather than heading a department at a college.
When I first wrote my open letter to Louisiana Baptists, I had people from across the country reach out to me. They also praised my bravery. Some called me a hero and hyperbolically, in my estimation, compared me to civil rights greats. That always struck me as odd. I and my family were paying a price. At that point, I did not realize just how high the price would be. I truly felt it was nothing compared to what the civil rights heroes had done, and it was in such a small pond with seemingly little broader impact. It did not seem worthy of such a comparison.
A true hero
My father, Cruz Reynoso, was a legitimate civil rights hero. He was presented with both the National Hispanic Hero Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I’ve often thought about how he lived at just the right time in history. It was a time when change was possible. I often think of the great religious Reformation sparked by Martin Luther. How many reformers were simply killed before the ones who we know today by name? I wonder what sort of attention the LC situation would have gotten today in this time of deconstruction and greater awareness of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) corruption. Who knows? It just makes me think, especially when I see the prosperity of those who stayed quiet. People such as Mike Johnson.
Silence is complicity
Job wondered “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 21:7) I also wonder that. Additionally, I wonder “Why do those who stay quiet about wickedness increase in power?”
When life erupted in Louisiana, there was a small group who were amazingly supportive. Ironically, it was not the theologians nor my SBC pastor who recognized the ethical issues. It was not those working to found a law school for the college who saw the legal issues. It was an assortment of historians, librarians, scientists, and members of the community.
Will the theologians take a stand?
The theologians and lawyers stayed quiet and it has paid off. One theologian now has an endowed chair at a Southern Baptist Seminary. Another theologian is now a Research Professor, Chair of Biblical Theology, and former Director of the Ph.D. program at a different SBC seminary. Yet another moved to a better-situated university while another is now the Dean of Theology at one of the largest Christian universities in the country. Not one spoke up… until they were targeted.
During this time, a faculty member made a revealing comment to me. She said, “Even if what you say is true, why would I want to know?” The only reason to know is if truth is, in fact, important. If you know, you may feel compelled to say something. Often silence is more comfortable and more beneficial.
Will Mike Johnson take a stand?
This is where we get to Mike Johnson. He worked at Louisiana College when all this was happening. He was hired as the Dean of the Pressler School of Law which Louisiana College was seeking to found. The school was never fully realized. Financial mismanagement and accreditation issues led to the failure of the law school project and Johnson left after two years. He stayed quiet. He never spoke out.
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”
I do not consider myself a hero. I think the stands I took in relation to Louisiana College, both while working for the college and after, were the actions any moral actor should have taken. Sadly, the theologians and legal minds chose complicity.
The benefit of silence
By staying quiet, Mike Johnson further ingratiated himself with the religious structures in Louisiana which are also closely linked to the political structures. Three years after leaving Louisiana College Johnson ran unopposed for a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives which he parlayed the next year into a seat in the United States House of Representatives. It seems that Johnson’s greatest qualification for becoming Speaker is that no one really knew him or hated him. Staying quiet produces few enemies.
Of all those who opposed my stand in Louisiana, one stands out to me. Scot Loyd. He is the only one who later reached out to me and apologized, admitting that he just didn’t see it at the time. I respect that. You may recognize his name since he is now a popular Essayist on this site. He was at Louisiana College the entire time Mike Johnson was there. So, I thought his perspective on today’s news could be illuminating. He said, “Mike Johnson’s time serving Louisiana College closely resembles his rather meteoric rise in the GOP. As he and the leadership of LC did then, he is doing now. By wrapping himself in the fabric of mild-mannered conservatism disguising the increasing threat of Christian Nationalism to democracy in the United States.”
Speaking up has a cost. That said, I would do it again. I could not imagine living with myself if I chose complicity. Character, when such a thing has become woefully unpopular, is not often rewarded. So be it.