When bad people do good things- the case of President Lyndon Johnson

Posted by Travis Threats on

Some of you reading this title no doubt flipped them in your mind.  You may have thought that you read “When good people do bad things” because that is certainly talked about and written about the most.  The thought goes that people are basically good but sometimes they get tempted by fame, jealousy, self-doubt, anger, power, or money and it turns them bad.

About ourselves, we like to think that we are “good people.”  Yes, we are not perfect and we slip sometimes, but “on the whole” we are good.  Often people try to put the ledger in their favor by doing positive acts.  “Yes, I am unkind to family members, have been an unfaithful spouse, lie and cheat on my income taxes, but I also tithe at church, serve in a soup kitchen, give generously to charities, and combat racism via my vote.”  Thus, I am more good than bad.  In fact, my bad can almost be excused because of “all the good” I do.

There are so many examples that I have decided to concentrate on just one example, President Lyndon Johnson.  Specifically, I am going to discuss the sin of racism, that which has people hate and/or mistreat “other” people who God loves, which in turn separates one from God. I will also address a few of his other decidedly non-Christian behaviors.

First, some historical background about President Johnson.

Lyndon Baines Johnson became president after the assassination of John Kennedy.  He had a long history of racism and racist remarks, including directly to Black people.  In the House and the Senate, he opposed most civil rights legislation bills. 

Now, he was not simply a man passively going along with those around him.


As Caro recalls, Johnson spent the late 1940s railing against the "hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves" in East Asia. Buying into the stereotype that blacks were afraid of snakes (who isn't afraid of snakes?) he'd drive to gas stations with one in his trunk and try to trick black attendants into opening it. Once, Caro writes, the stunt nearly ended with him being beaten with a tire iron.

In Flawed Giant, Johnson biographer Robert Dallek writes that Johnson explained his decision to nominate Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court rather than a less famous black judge by saying, "when I appoint a nigger to the bench, I want everybody to know he's a nigger."

According to Caro, Robert Parker, Johnson's sometime chauffer, described in his memoir Capitol Hill in Black and White a moment when Johnson asked Parker whether he'd prefer to be referred to by his name rather than "boy," "nigger" or "chief." When Parker said he would, Johnson grew angry and said, "As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, nigger, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture."

 His personal behavior was replete with what we call “sins of the flesh” as well insecurities.  This is from an article in the Atlantic-


Johnson had "an unfillable hole in his ego," Moyers says. Feelings of emptiness spurred him to eat, drink, and smoke to excess. Sexual conquests also helped to fill the void. He was a competitive womanizer. When people mentioned Kennedy's many affairs, Johnson would bang the table and declare that he had more women by accident than Kennedy ever had on purpose.

On his behavior and decisions concerning the Vietnam War, it states

Moyers described Johnson to me as "paranoid" and "depressed," and never more so than in 1965. Moyers attributes this dark passage to "the realization about which he was clearer than anyone -- that [Vietnam] was a road from which there was no turning back." Johnson saw the decision to send troops as potentially marking the end of his presidency. "It was a pronounced, prolonged depression," Moyers adds. "He would just go within himself, just disappear -- morose, self-pitying, angry.... He was a tormented man," who described himself to Moyers as being in a Louisiana swamp that was "pulling me down." "When he said it," Moyers remembers, "he was lying in bed with the covers almost above his head."

Johnson was raised in the Christian faith and often reached out to evangelist Billy Graham


Johnson and Christianity- But Johnson’s memory of a mother who had hoped he would be a preacher, to follow in the steps of her own grandfather, also burdened the president’s complex soul. “He wanted to live up to his mother’s goals,” observed Graham, whose own upbringing had taught him something of what that could mean. “I think he had a conflict within himself about religion. He wanted to go all the way in his commitment to Christ. He knew what it meant to be ‘saved’ or ‘lost,’ using our terminology, and he knew what it was to be ‘born again.’ And yet he somehow felt that he never quite had that experience. I think he tried to make up for it by having many of the outward forms of religion, in the sense of going to church almost fanatically, even while he was president.

And yet history remembers him the most for his landmark passages of civil rights legislation and healthcare.


His ambitious legislative agenda created the Medicare and Medicaid programs to provide federal health insurance for elderly and poor Americans. It also included measures aimed at improving education, preventing crime and reducing air and water pollution.
Johnson also made great strides in attacking racial discrimination by signing the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His wide-reaching achievements improved the lives of millions of Americans and contributed to economic growth and prosperity.


And this from Britannica,


The Civil Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law on July 2, 1964, was the most comprehensive and far-reaching legislation of its kind in American history. Among its provisions were a prohibition of racial segregation and discrimination in places of public accommodation, a prohibition of discrimination by race or sex in employment and union membership, and new guarantees of equal voting rights. The law also authorized the Department of Justice to bring suit against local school boards to end allegedly discriminatory practices, thereby speeding up school desegregation. The constitutionality of the law was immediately challenged but was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1964.

Lyndon Johnson did not run for a second full term.  He died two years after ending his presidency. There are reports about him in his last days.


On Jan. 12, 1973, ten days before his death, Johnson summoned Walter Cronkite to the LBJ Ranch and, before CBS cameras, recalled his own transformation from a Senate candidate who had virtually endorsed white supremacy into the second greatest civil rights President of all time.
After Johnson’s first heart attack in 1955, doctors had told him that if he ever started smoking again, he would kill himself. But almost as soon as he left the presidency, he resumed fierce chain smoking, overeating, and, sometimes, overdrinking. Some of his aides privately muttered that the boss was committing slow motion suicide. But when one of his horrified daughters begged him to stop the cigarettes, Johnson shook his head and exclaimed, “No, I’ve raised you girls, I’ve been president, and now it’s my time!”

Thus, no one would globally call President Johnson “a good person” and by typical accounts he could, by some, be considered the opposite.  His leadership as president also had flaws, many programs that proved to be poorly conceived, a war effort that floundered under conflicting leadership.

Yet, despite his other failings as president, his past racist thoughts deeds and words, excesses in all sins of the flesh, and decidedly uncertain relationship with Christ, this man rose to the occasion when it came to racial justice.    

Did he have some sort of conversion? -  A literal “seeing of the Light” I do not know and nothing I read makes me think either way about what was in his heart.  I watched an interview that he did with Walter Cronkite just 10 days before he died.  He lamented his past actions about racial justice but clearly was sugarcoating his past behavior.  He talked about ALWAYS believing in racial equality but that he was not vocal enough when others around him were not.  In short, he blamed his culture that he did not stand up to until later when he became president.  However, he did seem proud of his civil rights legislation.

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit entered people for a while and enabled them to do great actions and feats.  These are the great things they are remembered for to this day.  However, these same people who often do very wicked acts such as David sending Bathsheba’s husband to war for him to be killed to take her as his wife, after already making her pregnant. Thus, the Holy Spirit was in action during the times of the Old Testament, but the Holy Spirit never transformed them into new people, they could not be born again.  Even Moses failed and was not able to go to the promised land.  Before Jesus there was not a way for the Holy Spirit to always stay within a person.

There is great debate among Christian writers and theologians on the role and actions of the Holy Spirit in those who do not profess Jesus as their savior and dedicated their lives to strive to be Christians.  The thought by many is that Jesus is now available to all and none of us have any excuse not to embrace Him.

There are many schools of thought about the Holy Spirit in this very large population. Some talk of “common grace” versus “special grace”.  Here is just one person’s perspective-


Common grace includes all undeserved blessings that natural man receives from the hand of God: rain, sun, prosperity, health, happiness, natural capacities and gifts, sin being restrained from complete dominion, etc. The doctrine of common grace explains how a man can be totally depraved and yet still commit acts that are, in some sense, “good.”

Another explains common and special grace this way-


The Noahic covenant of common grace is very different from the covenant of special grace. By contrasting the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9) with the covenant of grace (Genesis to Revelation), we recognize key differences of each covenant:
  • The Noahic covenant is universal, whereas the covenant of grace is particular.
  • The Noahic covenant is temporary, whereas the covenant of grace is eternal.
  • The Noahic covenant is preservative, whereas the covenant of grace is redemptive.

Some authors talk of spiritual gifts being given to everyone and others say that only believers have spiritual gifts.  The more restrictive authors admit that there are specialized skills in the non-believers but these are “natural skills”, not spiritual ones.  Here are some thoughts from the magazine Christianity Today by J Warren Wallace.


Even before I started to look at the differences between “gifts” and “talents,” I recognized they all came from the same source. If we accept the premise that an all-powerful God is the creator of all matter and life, it is reasonable to conclude our abilities (even if we are inclined to attribute them to genetics or environment) must ultimately come from the source of genetics and environment: the God who created everything in the first place. We can squabble over whether something is a talent or a gift, but we need to be careful, as thoughtful Christians, not to exchange the two words as if they had identical meanings. They don’t.
Natural talents result from our genetic inheritance and the training from our family environment. Both believers and non-believers possess them, which can be used to serve God or ourselves. Spiritual gifts are given to us by the Spirit of God once we have been saved. They blossom as we mature in our faith, and they are used to glorify God as we serve others and build the family of God.

Natural gifts include more than your genetics.  It also is broader than overt skills such as being a gifted musician.  Your brain is a combination of what you are born with and what you are exposed to in your life, especially your childhood.  Unlike your heart or liver, the brain is the organ that is the most unformed at birth.  This flexibility is what makes humans able to speak over 8000 languages and live in all sorts of climates.  For all things of the body, your brain controls.  If you are raised in a home with love and witnessing your parents doing service for others, your brain will most likely also have you be kind to others.  These observed and learned behaviors are part of your brain, no different than being born with exceptional ability to learn math or have excellent sense of smell.  Thus, if raised in such an environment many nonbelievers do act in a warm and kind way towards others; they may have no overt vices.

As a health care professional, I know that some people are more patient than others, can sense emotional distress better, and know how to comfort people.  In my department there are students who take to doing therapy rapidly.  We sometimes say that they are “natural” clinicians.  These natural skills are a gift from God, whether people realize them or not.

There is a group of people who go by various names, humanists being one of them.  Most do not believe in God and are in fact quite proud that they “do good without God.”  In fact, they think that they are superior to Christians because they only do good from fear of punishment.   Some atheist organizations even make sure to participate in charities just to show the world how good they are.  I maintain that these groups are “filled with pride about how good they are.”  As stated before, this can often be a trap by Satan who is saying “you do not need God because you are complete already, full of goodness, better than ANY Christian.”  Flattery is an effective method to slowly, very slowly, take control of you. Satan’s initial ask will be small, but it will grow in a way the person does not even realize it.  Just as with Christians, any group that is obsessed with their own goodness develop a blind spot for honestly analyzing their behavior and their thoughts. Perhaps more importantly, pride itself is a sin, the ultimate original one that lead Satan to revolt against God.

Jesus spoke about people who were at the time considered not as holy as others.  He spoke of the Good Samaritan who showed more compassion than even the religious leaders of the day.  He was stating that at that moment the Samaritan showed more of the love and spirit of God than those who were supposed to represent such.  We know nothing about this Samaritan other than this act.  We do not know if he lived a “holy life.”  That is not, I purpose, Jesus’ point.  It was any can be moved by the Holy Spirit for an act if he or she so chooses to do the holy behavior.

One advantage of me not being a theologian is that no one expects exalted wisdom and insight from me. But this is my blog, so it is, my opinion!!

President Lyndon Johnson had a natural talent for negotiation.  He even had a “natural talent” for blackmail to get what he wanted.  He was persuasive and knew what would appeal to a given person to get them to vote for or against something.  He was highly ambitious, which is a kind of talent in that it drove him to compete to win.

He made highly positive decisions and acts that proved for the common good, moving the United States closer to its idealistic founders.  Much more importantly, it advanced God’s goal of us seeing Him in each other, equal before God.  It limited certain forms of racist behavior, which is an affront to God for it harms any of His creations.

I propose that the Holy Spirit entered President Johnson to make the decisions on civil rights and health rights that he did.  As with those in the Old Testament, I believe that the Holy Spirit can entered people who have not fully accepted Christ as their savior to do God’s will. That God can use a person’s natural talents (which remember come from God) to advance His work here on earth.  As with those in the Old Testament, it did not necessarily stay there.  The wonder of accepting Jesus as one’s savior is that He dwells within you all the time.  This does not make you perfect, and it does not make you “good.”  However, good can come from you because of the Holy Spirit within you.  There is not always happiness, but there can be a level of joy of peace in your heart. 

The relationship between natural and spiritual gifts are discussed in the same above Christianity Today article:

Let’s say you are a talented leader and then become a Christian. If God decides to use you in some role of leadership, you just may find your talent is greatly multiplied when God also gives you the spiritual gift of leadership. You may now discover your leadership skills are above and beyond anything you were capable of doing prior to being saved. God has a tendency to surprise us in this way. We can all develop our natural talents with hard work and perseverance; we practice and train and along the way we can achieve the expected results. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, are increased as we mature in our relationship with God.

President Johnson did groundbreaking work to make this country better.  Yet, at the end, as with his life before, he was restless, insecure.  He did not show signs that he was at peace with God, and thus not at peace with himself.  He did great things as president, but he could have done more, made better decisions on the areas where he felt he failed.  He could have turned more of his natural gifts into full spiritual gifts. Now, I was not there at the very end of his life.  I do not know if he had a truthful confessional conversation with God, a true peaceful conversion to following Jesus.  I, of course, hope he did.  That he realized the privilege of being used for God’s purposes, while recognizing and more importantly accepting his shortcomings.

This has been a long blog and you probably think I made my historical and hopefully faithful Christian discussion of this man.

But, in fact, this has been a set up.  I wanted to draw you into one man’s life and think “Yes, this was a man full of flaws and sin who occasionally rose to God’s calling.  I guess “bad” people can be used for God’s good purposes.”  I wanted you to think about someone else and reflect on him.

Now comes the hard part.  The truth.  That is that all of us are “bad” people, full of sin.  Now, you may not have Johnson’s classic “sins of the flesh”, racism, or ego.  That might have you feeling superior to Johnson.  However, you must look in the mirror and be honest.  We must not excuse our own sinfulness as “I am a good person who sometimes does bad things.”  That makes us feel better about ourselves.  Unfortunately, it allows us to rack up a lot of “bad things” without self-reflection because after all “I am a good person.”  It is amazing the math tricks we can do to concerning ourselves.  How does doing in a week 10 bad things and 4 good things make us “Good people who sometimes do bad things”?

Some quotes from the Bible about how Satan has his influence over earth.

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19 ESV)
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV)
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44 ESV)
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7 ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)
The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” (Job 1:7 ESV)
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. (Matthew 13:19 ESV)
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. (Colossians 1:13 ESV)
So that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs (2 Corinthians 2:11 ESV)

We are fallen, we want to follow the ways of this world, we are prone toward wrong.  Satan is walking freely among us and constantly testing us.  For most of the world’s institutions, he is “winning.”

To state AGAIN, we all like to think that we are good people.  I maintain that we are not.  Satan has his power over this earthly world and that is why we have so much evil, often even within the Christian church.  However, when the Holy Spirit is within us, we have more power to resist our sinful natures.  As is said, we do not become “sinless” but we do “sin less.” The key is the Holy Spirit, this is what can reveal our better selves.  The Holy Spirit is “the good” in us.  We either follow this direction or we fall into more sin.

To non-Christians, this sounds depressing.  It goes against the modern notion that we must always have high self-esteem, and that this type of thinking of yourself ever in the negative leads to depression and self-hatred.  No, Satan wants us to have depression and self-hatred and he can use our desire for high self-esteem to trick us via flattery so that he may control us.

The joy of being a Christian is to know, to fully know and fully trust, that we are loved by God.  That we are special to Him, even with our flaws.  There can be no greater joy and peace than to know that you are loved, cared for, helped, counseled.  That others will be brought into our lives in times of sorrow to help us through.  And that others will be brought into our lives to help us reach our highest version of ourselves.  To know that we can be “bad” but we are not condemned which is perhaps the greatest sense of happiness for it takes off the pressure to be good via being perfect, to constantly, as I believe President Johnson did, worried about whether we “did enough” “did our good outweigh our bad.”

I purpose that thinking you are “not enough” is more the cause of low self-esteem, not the act of admitting that you are a sinner.   Are you good looking enough?  Are you rich enough?  Are you liked by others enough?  Does our boss think you are doing a good enough job?  Are your family members and friends doing so much better than you? Do you get enough “likes” on our social media posts?  Are your clothes good enough?  Are you thin enough?  Are you popular enough? Are you smart enough?  Are you good enough at this sport?  Are you good enough to sing in the church choir?  “Are you good enough to be chosen a deacon?”  Are you advancing in your career enough?  Are you looking young enough? Do you have enough friends?  Are you good enough to be desired romantically or to find a spouse that loves you? Are you good enough for your spouse or significant other not leave you? “Are you faithful enough?”

We are all “bad people.” The Holy Spirit is what makes us good.  The more that we fully accept and follow the Holy Spirit, the better we will be.  We can reach “good” (okay relative good) but not by ourselves. In addition to the Holy Spirit, we need to be in fellowship with other believers to strengthen and maintain our faith.  The Holy Spirit is stronger in us all when together.  Just as a wolf tries to pick off the lone lost sheep, Satan wants us to ignore or fight the Holy Spirit within us. As stated earlier in the article, the goal is to take your natural gifts and appreciate them enough to work on them, and at the same time invite the Holy Spirit in to enhance these natural gifts in your life.  The advantage of having Jesus in your life is that He can also help you deal with and compensate for your natural limitations such as being quick tempered.  You do not have to be perfect; you can give praise for your gifts and not despair over your limitations.  Together, enhancing your natural gifts and accepting your limitations can lead to better relationships with others, your internal sense of accomplishment, your health, your finances, your career success, your world outlook, your happiness.

We are sinful but we are loved. Nothing can bring more peace.


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