The Partisan Pulpit - Word&Way

The Partisan Pulpit

Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for former President Donald Trump’s failed 2020 campaign, was outraged. The target of his ire was Vice President Kamala Harris. Specifically, a “get out the vote” video she recorded to play in Black churches in support of Terry McAuliffe’s 2021 gubernatorial bid in Virginia. In saying “I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment,” Murtaugh believed Harris crossed a line. He tweeted the ad “is expressly illegal according to federal law.”

Others agreed. Conservative Christian pundit Todd Starnes argued if churches showed the video it would be “illegal” and “desecrate their sanctuaries.”

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor with a record of coming to Trump’s defense, wrote a lengthy post detailing how the video violated the IRS’s political campaign activity ban (also called the “Johnson Amendment”) that prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofits like houses of worship from supporting or opposing a candidate in an election.

There’s some irony in the complaints about Harris. Trump inaccurately bragged he’d “got rid of the Johnson Amendment,” and Christian Right leaders have long sought its repeal. Still, the statute remains on the books and even progressive groups chastised the Harris video.

Screengrab of Kamala Harris speaking in an ad produced for Black churches to play.

What went ignored (except by us) in the Virginia governor’s race was the way both candidates — McAuliffe and now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin — inappropriately politicked in churches. While no follow-up reports demonstrated that any church actually used the Harris video, a North Carolina church on Sunday (March 20) played a campaign ad during its worship service to anoint a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. Yet, that service, which also featured a “sermon” by the candidate, has thus far avoided scrutiny by reporters or criticism from the pundits.

In this edition of A Public Witness we’ll consider the church politics going on in the Tar Heel state, detail how one Baptist-preacher-turned-candidate is taking the Lord’s name in vain, and analyze why campaigns are corrupting congregational life. This is the first installment of what we fear will be a regular series this election year on “The Partisan Pulpit.”

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Any Given Sunday

Across the nation, campaigns are heating up for 35 U.S. Senate seats, 36 gubernatorial races, all U.S. House positions, and hundreds of other state and local elections. Amid this flurry of activity, on any given Sunday one can find politicians giving campaign speeches during church services. But it might be difficult to find someone hitting the partisan revival circuit as hard as former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican U.S. Senate hopeful in North Carolina.

After three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, Walker didn’t seek reelection in 2020 after a long legal battle over gerrymandering resulted in a redrawn congressional map that turned his seat blue. Instead, he soon focused on the 2022 U.S. Senate race to replace the retiring Richard Burr.

Since June of 2021, polls have consistently shown Walker running third behind former Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Rep. Ted Budd. He’s garnered endorsements bolstering his conservative credentials, like from U.S. Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma and Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina.

Although Walker bills himself as close to Trump, the candidate who lost the 2020 presidential race instead endorsed Budd. But with Budd still running behind McCrory, Trump in December urged Walker to drop out and seek a U.S. House seat with Trump’s endorsement. Walker refused that overture.

Walker’s Hail Mary campaign strategy includes stumping from pulpits during worship services. And not just on Sunday mornings. Like an old-fashioned preacher, he still holds services on Sunday night as well. Which is quite fitting since Walker was a preacher before running for Congress.

The son of an independent Baptist pastor, Walker served as a Southern Baptist minister for 16 years. Now, Walker has a pattern — stretching back months — of showing up on stage during Sunday worship as he prays for votes. Consider where he spoke the three weeks prior to the most recent Sunday:

  • Feb. 27 morning service: Freedom House Church in Charlotte.
  • March 6 morning service: Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem along with Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican running for governor in 2024 who sparked national controversy last year for anti-LGBTQ comments he made during a service at a Baptist church.
  • March 13 morning service: Calvary Memorial Church Church in Southern Pines.
  • March 13 evening service: Prospect Baptist Church in Albemarle, again with Robinson.

Screengrab as Mark Walker speaks during a Sunday morning service at Calvary Memorial Church in Southern Pines on March 13, 2022.

Meanwhile, we didn’t see examples of Walker’s two main GOP opponents speaking during Sunday services yet in 2022. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Cheri Beasley, spoke at a few but far behind Walker’s pace as she spoke at two Baptist churches on Jan. 30, two more Baptist churches on Feb. 6, and an AME church on Feb. 27.

Walker’s campaign stops in holy spaces extend beyond Sundays. For instance, in February he met with pastors in the building of the Carolina Baptist Association in Hendersonville, and at a “Kingdom Men’s Conference” with Robinson that was hosted by Temple Church in New Bern. And in March, he made appearances at a Christian political organizing event held at Friend Avenue Baptist Church in Greensboro, and at a breakfast with senior adults at Northside Baptist Church in Charlotte.

These events don’t receive much news coverage, but they could impact the race. Not only does Walker gain access to voters in a friendly forum, but he receives a divine stamp of approval from the pastors as they encourage congregants to support his candidacy. So, we watched and listened to multiple Walker church appearances (#OccupationalHazard). Many of the host pastors clearly violated IRS rules. But a church on Sunday went even further.

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Partisan Altar Call

The morning service at Winkler’s Grove Baptist Church in Hickory started like any other as Pastor Paul Deal welcomed those present. But then things quickly got political.

Just one minute into the service, Deal called on the mayor of the town to open the service in prayer. Deal said that Mayor Hank Guess was “a good one,” and Deal added that if he lived in town “I’d vote for you.”

After the congregants sang “To God be the glory” and spent some time greeting those around them, Deal returned to the pulpit to note some special guests, including a man running for county sheriff and one running for county commissioner. A soloist then sang “There’s something about that name,” followed by a couple others who belted out “The unseen hand.” Deal returned to the pulpit to introduce a video because “I appreciate all of our armed forces in America.”

“If you cut me, I’m so patriotic, I bleed red, white, and blue. Amen.” the pastor added to applause. “I love our country. Amen. I believe that we live in the greatest country on the face of the earth.”

The congregants then watched a video of uniformed U.S. Marines singing the praise song “Days of Elijah.” As it started, Deal shouted out his encouragement for people in the sanctuary to stand and sing along. In the video, the Marines at one point repeatedly chant, “There’s no God like Jehovah.” As the chant started, Deal interjected that he loved this part, adding, “This is what they were saying when they were going through Kuwait and the enemy was running away from them.” After the video, Deal returned to that moment as he offered a vision of militaristic Christian Nationalism: “Can you imagine the enemy on the run when our Marines are chasing after them or our Army and these others chasing after them saying, ‘Jehovah is our Lord’?”

Deal then acknowledged that some might wonder why he brought politicians into the service.

“I didn’t. We didn’t bring in no politicians,” Deal said. “We don’t have no politicians here this morning; they’re all statesmen.”

With that setup, the church played a Walker campaign ad on the big screen and over the livestream. The ad includes images of his campaign signs, a reference to Trump, a shot of him preaching in a church, and the claim that he was rated the “#1 America First candidate.” In the ad, Walker argued about his campaign, “This is much more about spiritual warfare than it is politics. We’ve turned our backs on the Bible and the Constitution, and our liberty is under attack.” His wife added, “We’re asking for your prayers and your vote.”

After the ad, Deal said “amen” as the congregation clapped. The pastor emphasized that the speaker that day was “Brother Mark” because “first of all, he’s a Christian, he’s a child of God.”

“He’s running for the seat of Sen. Richard Burr, and he’s going to make us a great senator in this United States. Amen?” Deal added. “I appreciate what he stands for. And I want to say that my name is Paul Deal and I approve this message.”

Walker then “preached.” His remarks largely followed a similar script he used in other church services as he tells the same stories and jokes about his dad as a pastor, his family growing up, running for Congress, and meeting with Trump. The only story that seems to change much is why he ended up in the church where he met the woman who is now his wife.

“What we’re facing in this country, it’s beyond politics. This is spiritual warfare. We’re battling evil,” Walker said from the pulpit, as he criticized President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi all by name.

Screengrab of Mark Walker speaking during a Sunday morning service at Winkler’s Grove Baptist Church in Hickory, North Carolina, on March 20, 2022.

The service that night at Calvary Baptist Church in King didn’t play an official Walker campaign ad, but like others we watched it essentially functioned as one. And Walker wasn’t the only politician there to help the church violate the IRS tax-exempt rules. This time a judge joined him.

After announcements about Easter and the singing of “In Christ Alone,” Pastor Kevin Broyhill complained that the “liberal Democrats” had “flipped” the state’s Supreme Court.

“We need to make a change,” the pastor added. “We need to elect good, godly people to our court system in North Carolina, especially right now with the redistricting going on. ”

Broyhill then introduced Judge April Wood, a candidate for the state’s highest court, as “the real deal” and “one of us.” She started and ended her remarks by declaring, “I am your Christian, constitutional conservative for the North Carolina Supreme Court.” She also outlined her Christian Nationalism agenda for the judiciary.

“My parents instilled in me certain values from which I have never strayed. They define who I am as a person and who I am as a judge. And it’s very simple. First and foremost is love for God and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Second is love for this great country,” she said before adding family and life as values. “We need to have Christian conservatives sitting on the North Carolina Supreme Court.”

Broyhill interviewed Walker as the main message for the service. The pastor praised the candidate for being a U.S. Representative who stood “for Christian principles,” adding, “It’s important that we send godly Christians to government.” The pastor and the candidate also both cast doubts on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. As the conversation started to wrap up, Broyhill gave an altar call.

“If you’re not registered [to vote], get registered. If you need to change your party affiliation so you can vote in this upcoming primary, change it. I don’t want to be a part of a party that doesn’t want God in their platform,” Broyhill said before adding that people should take election day off so they can help Walker’s campaign or drive people to the polls. “Let’s get involved. That’s the invitation.”

We reached out to the Walker campaign and both pastors of the churches Walker spoke at on Sunday, but none returned our requests for comment.

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Focus of Worship

Campaign speeches in church services aren’t always as egregious as what we saw during Walker’s partisan pulpit supply on Sunday. But even if someone files a complaint with the IRS, nothing would happen. Deprived of resources, the agency is struggling to fulfill even its basic duties (which only inspires us even more to fill out our taxes early). Moreover, there was substantial outcry when the IRS scrutinized the tax-exempt status of political organizations during the Obama administration. Past investigations of churches also generated controversies. The IRS even routinely ignores an annual protest where preachers violate the law in the hopes of overturning the political campaign activity ban. We presume Romans 13 is not the text of choice that week.

These dynamics suggest two theories, which are not mutually exclusive, as to why preachers and candidates are so nakedly campaigning in church. First, this idolatry is in high demand by the people in the pews. Rather than seeing their faith as challenging worldly power, they participate in a robust Christian Nationalism that conflates God and country. Expressing their avowed support for the “Christian” candidate in church is a logical outcome of that ideological worldview, secular law be damned. Second, the IRS appears to lack the financial resources and political will to enforce the prohibition on partisanship. Thus, the law is transformed into more of a norm that fewer are willing to respect and honor.

All this is made worse by the decline in local media. Hollowed out newsrooms mean fewer reporters covering federal races, let alone state and local contests. As a prominent campaign consultant once told us, “The referees have left the field.” The result is a game of political streetball where anything goes because nobody is holding campaigns accountable to the public for their fouls.

And what’s happening is clearly foul. We talked to Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Vickery about this. He’s a professor in the philosophy and religion department at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, and co-pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church. He emphasized that “politicians have the right to be religious” and that ministers — like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — can engage in the public square. But there’s a difference between “their public expression of faith and using religion as an endorsement for politics.”

“I think the problem is when the intention of a worship service is to endorse an individual or candidate, it automatically has moved the center focus away from the worship of God,” Vickery explained. “Politics will always dilute religion to its political ends. And it ends up that politics will use people of faith but not for faithful reasons.”

“The danger of having Mark Walker hop and skip from congregation to congregation as he’s campaigning is that it can tend to make congregations appear as though they’re not just the First Baptist Church, but they might be the First Republican Baptist Church,” Vickery added. “To so equate one’s ecclesiastical identity with one’s political ideology is excessively problematic. The last thing we need are Republican churches and Democratic churches. Because what that ends up doing is it gives politics power over the church in defining who is or not a member of that particular congregation or others.”

Screengrab of Olan Carder (second from right), a pastor at Freedom House Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, praying for Mark Walker and his Senate campaign during a Sunday morning service on Feb. 27, 2022.

That’s why we’re committed to talking about this issue. And unlike those who only criticize politicking in churches by the “other” side, we track violations by both parties. This campaign season and beyond, we’ll be doing our best to watch what candidates say when they walk onto holy ground. It’s one thing we can do to bolster a democracy where tax-exempt organizations, religious or not, shouldn’t be using their privileged status (and extra resources) for partisan ends. And it’s also part of our calling as pastors to protect the Body of Christ from having its witness corrupted in pursuit of profane purposes.

Stay tuned. We regret there’s more to come.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

Read earlier reports in “The Partisan Pulpit” series from A Public Witness: