As American as apple pie: ‘The Pope’s Long Con’

As American as apple pie: ‘The Pope’s Long Con’ December 13, 2017

Here is a remarkable sentence:

Johnson, who is known as “the Pope” and pastor of Heart of Fire Church in Louisville’s Fern Creek neighborhood, has previously drawn attention for posting racist comments and images on Facebook.

The Rev. Johnson is also state Rep. Dan Johnson, first-term Republican of Bullitt County. The sentence above, tersely summarizing the pastor/lawmaker’s previous woes due to his racist social media posts, comes from a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting piece summarizing his current woes: “Rep. Dan Johnson Accused Of Molestation. Both State Political Parties Call For Resignation.”

That’s a follow-up story to the center’s long, tour-de-force profile of Johnson, written by R.G. Dunlop and Jacob Ryan, “The Pope’s Long Con: A Kentucky preacher-turned-politician’s web of lies.” I recently referred to this story from Oklahoma as “the Elmore Leonard/Frank Peretti mash-up I didn’t even realize I’d been waiting for,” but it turns out I was wrong. This is that story.


It is, start-to-finish, a remarkable read.

Long ago, Johnson fashioned an identity as a modern-day American patriot. Pro-gun, pro-God, pro-life. He talked in 2013 about making America great again. He lamented the lack of God in everyone’s lives. He wept over the country’s future.

But behind this persona — cultivated, built up and fine-tuned over decades — is a web of lies and deception. A mysterious fire. Attempted arson and false testimony. Alleged molestation in his church.

In Johnson’s wake lies a trail of police records and court files, shattered lives and a flagrant disregard for truth.

The most recent allegations against Johnson are what finally seems to have caught up with him. He’s accused of molesting a teenager after a church New Year’s Eve party in 2013. (She and her parents took went to the Louisville police who … did very little. The current investigation of Johnson has also prompted an investigation of how and why the Louisville Metro PD dropped the ball back in ’13.)

Johnson’s whole life is thick with lies — constant, often outrageously self-aggrandizing lies. He restored hearing to a deaf woman and raised another from the dead. He personally set up the morgue as a happenstance volunteer first-responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. He served as “White House chaplain” in three administrations.

Dan Johnson may be the only person ever to lie about being endorsed by Ted Nugent at a concert-rally featuring the aging ammophilic rocker. (“Spokeswomen for Nugent and the airport said they had no record of such an event.”)

The guy seems very much like a small-town, Pentecostal/charismatic version of Donald Trump. He’s got the long history of criminal allegations for fraud and financial shenanigans, which somehow managed to have no lasting effect on his career or his insatiable craving for attention. He managed the same trick of leveraging racist, offensive statements into free publicity for his political campaign. And he’s built the same kind of utterly devoted following of people who have chosen to participate in his perpetual lying, vicariously enjoying for themselves some smaller share of the glory for the grandiose absurdities that Johnson constantly miscredits himself for.

If I were running a Hollywood studio, I’d be writing a big check to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting to secure the movie rights to this story. I don’t mean a Dan Johnson biopic — the world doesn’t need or deserve that. I want a story that explores the life of this church.

People go to church at Johnson’s Heart of Fire. They go there looking for whatever it is that people are looking for when they go to church, and many people who attend Heart of Fire think they’ve found it. What do they know about their pastor? What have they heard and what have they tried to believe? In the wake of this KyCIR investigation, the Republican Party of Kentucky is calling for Johnson to step down and resign his seat in the state legislature. That’d be impressive if it were clearer that they didn’t know any of this about him until after this report. But how are the members of this congregation responding? There’s a story there. There are many stories there.

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