When GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia came to Southern California in July, three secular venues canceled her planned political rally over her support for far-right policies. So Pastor Tim Thompson handed Greene the microphone during a Sunday service at his 412 Church in Murrietta.
Consider also Phil Hotsenpiller, pastor of Influence Church in Anaheim Hills, who has launched a news network called American Faith. He told his congregation his journalists are “soldiers” and called for waging war against everything from big technology to mandated coronavirus safety measures to social justice — an idea that he said is “becoming our downfall.”
Then there’s Joe Pedick, pastor of Calvary Chapel of the Harbour in Huntington Beach. Four days after some of the rioters at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol were seen carrying “Jesus Saves” signs, Pedick told his congregation that he’d been assured by trusted sources that “a lot of things” would happen before Joe Biden was sworn in as president on Jan. 20.
“There is a plan, there is (sic) things in place that are trying to turn this around,” Pedick said. “Justice is coming.”
American churches have always been political, taking stands on issues such as abortion rights or marriage equality. Churches also have openly supported political figures on both sides of the aisle, from George W. Bush to Barrack Obama.
But in a deeply divided nation, Sunday sermons are turning increasingly partisan.
That’s given way to a new brand of right-wing religious activism.
Leaders of some nondenominational churches in Southern California are using their pulpits to push hard for Trump-brand Republicanism. Some also are promoting conspiracy theories, such as false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. And some pastors are embracing the broad theory of Christian nationalism, which says America is defined as a Christian nation and must return to those roots.
“I am a Christian and we are a nation,” said Hotsenpiller, who regularly preaches in front of a large projected image of the American flag. “So, to be anything other than nationalist, I don’t understand.”
That alarms some area believers.
“My allegiance as a Christian is not ‘America first,’” said Nancy Brink, an ordained minister and director of church relations at Chapman University in Orange. “God is not the God of Americans. God is God of all.”
Local support for Christian nationalism also raises flags for scholars who study extremism, since the political theology can overlap with white supremacy and other violent movements.
“When houses of worship start to normalize conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies that marginalize other groups, that’s problematic,” said Peter Levi, a former rabbi and now regional director for the Orange County chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.
Christian leaders involved in such efforts insist they have a moral obligation to speak out, no matter what federal tax law or folks on the other side of the “culture war” have to say.
“The radical left has figured out that if they make these issues political pastors will keep quiet about it,” said Thompson, who has hosted far-right figures on his weekly podcast “Our Watch with Tim Thompson.”
“To me, a lot of these things dressed up as political issues are actually Biblical,” he said. “Issues like sexuality, marriage, gender — these are all Biblical issues.”
The culture war, Thompson and others say, is a holy war. And they’re not backing down.
Churches get political
In recent years, America has seen a surge of political activism from the pulpit.
A 2020 study by Duke University found that over the past two decades churches have stepped up everything from voter registration drives and political lobbying to letting candidates speak directly to the congregation.
This trend is not limited to one side of the political spectrum. The Duke study found Black churches, which tend to lean liberal, have grown more politically active than their conservative counterparts, with a surge around opposition to Trump’s anti-immigration laws.
A number of Southern California churches have a strong social justice focus. Many local pastors spoke out and even took to the streets in protest during last summer’s racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Religion and politics are so intertwined today that it is nearly impossible not to discuss politics in church, said Rev. Ralph E. Williamson, senior pastor of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly Black congregation in Irvine.
“It’s hard to separate religion and politics because you have to keep your congregation informed so they can make the right decisions on who they want to represent them,” Williamson said.
Where it gets tricky, he said, is when pastors take political stands. So Williamson said it’s important to distinguish between discussing political issues — such as Black Lives Matter, which his congregation would 100% support — and representing a political party or candidate.
“I’m passionate about issues, but I’m also careful about how I address them,” Williamson said. “I try to be very clear about my positions so people become aware and can make their own decisions.”
But Thompson, of 412 Church, says pastors should not shy away from talking about politics or even endorsing candidates.
As California gears up for a recall election that could potentially oust Gov. Gavin Newsom, Thompson has no problem acknowledging where he stands.
“What matters in this election is how we vote on the first question. I believe we should vote ‘yes’ on recalling (Newsom). And I’ve made that very clear to my congregation. Getting Newsom out should be our top priority.”
Thompson’s words might reflect the ire felt by some people frustrated with California’s aggressive moves to mandate masks and vaccines, and to limit public gatherings — including church gatherings — during peak times of the pandemic. White evangelical churches in particular battled the state to let church doors open.
Since the Bible does tell believers to “meet together,” conservative congregations mobilized around the idea that a Democratic leader, Newsom, was trying to force them to violate God’s word. That’s morphed into a battle by some churches to fight a variety of efforts to mitigate the virus.
But Brink, of Chapman, sees a clear difference between issues such as immigration and equality, and public health. In fact, she argues, refusing to take steps to reduce the spread of a sometimes fatal disease is not in line with scripture, which directs Christians to care for their neighbors and “submit… to the governing authorities.”
But during a sermon he gave at the start of the pandemic, Hotsenpiller — who is among a minority of religious leaders refusing to get vaccinated — equated anti-virus efforts with giving into fear. He talked about walking into a store while not wearing a mask and told his congregation that “corona” comes from the Latin word for “crown” and that fear of the virus means giving allegiance to “corona instead of God.”
Other right-leaning churches have pushed back against the Black Lives Matter movement and spoken out in opposition of public schools teaching students about systemic racism.
That racial element alarms Robert Jones, founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of a new book, “White Too Long,” which looks at the legacy of White supremacy in Christian churches.
In Jones’ view, pastors who push against equal rights for people of color under the guise of patriotism are promoting a mythical idea that true Americans are White and Christian. He said it’s not a coincidence that White Christian nationalism is taking off during a period when evangelical power is waning. White Christians, in fact, have become a minority, shrinking from 54% of the U.S. population in 2008 to 44% today.
Trump was able to capture that sense of “White grievance” in a way that blends conservative Christian faith with patriotism, said Brink, of Chapman. She pointed out how speakers at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference made a gold statue of Trump and how others have spoken about his return to office as a Christ-like second coming.
“They’ve adopted the symbols of Christianity but not the theory of Christianity, which is about humility and care of the poor and the marginalized,” Brink said.
Jones said he has seen signs of change, noting that dozens of predominantly White evangelical churches have asked him to come speak about how they can reckon with Christianity’s long links to racism and support social justice going forward.
But Hotsenpiller called the BLM movement “black supremacy” and denied that the church has anything to reckon with in terms of race issues.
“We have black congregation members. We have a black person on staff,” he said. “It’s not like we’re a lily white Orange County church.”
Extremism on display
Data suggests that White evangelical Christians account for a disproportionately high share of Trump’s political supporters. It’s the inverse of Black church support for Obama.
But White evangelicals also are more likely than others to believe QAnon conspiracy theories, polls show, including the false theory that Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles who operate a global child-trafficking ring.
And Jones, among others, said it’s not hard to see a link between Christians who hold such views and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
One Orange County man arrested for allegedly playing a role in the Capitol attack has clear church ties: Glenn Allen Brooks. His arrest came after a member of a prayer group from his Huntington Beach church tipped off the FBI. Brooks and his attorney didn’t respond to requests to comment.
One driver of the Jan. 6 attack was the false claim — launched by Trump and his supporters — that he actually won the 2020 election. Some area pastors have helped to spread that falsehood.
Pedick, senior pastor at Calvary Chapel of the Harbour, was a scheduled speaker during a December “Stop the Steal” rally put on by O.C. residents Alan Hostetter and Russ Taylor, both of whom have since been indicted for their alleged roles on Jan. 6. During the December rally, Hostetter made claims about a rigged presidential election. He also said “execution is the just punishment for the ringleaders of this coup.”
Pedick declined repeated requests to comment.
Last month, Hotsenpiller’s church hosted a Reawaken America Tour that featured a speech from My Pillow founder Mike Lindell, an outspoken Trump supporter who insists God will help overturn Biden’s election.
It’s common for some local pastors to invoke military language and suggest violence as they discuss these issues.
Last year, during a speech outside the Riverside County Administrative Center, Thompson told pastors to “man up” and “get back to what we saw in the Revolutionary War.” He referenced the Black Robe Regiment, which he describes as pro-independence pastors who, after giving a sermon, would fold their black robes back to show that “their gun belts were on underneath, ready to go to work.”
Thompson also holds up three fingers as he references the “3%,” repeating a false claim that only 3% of the population fought the British during the Revolutionary War. He’s been seen on social media sporting a patch affiliated with the “Three Percenters,” a known anti-government extremist group
However, when asked about that speech, Thompson said he’s not a member of the Three Percenters. He wore their patch, he said, because he considers himself among the 3% of pastors in the country “who actually has the courage to preach the Gospel.”
Few legal limits
Much of this activity speaks to a bigger movement that’s been afoot in White evangelical circles: to give churches the power to preach politics from the pulpit.
During a church service on Oct. 25 — about a week before the General Election — video shows Pedick inviting then-candidate and church member Michelle Steel on stage. Before handing Steel a microphone to discuss her campaign, and then praying for her to get to Congress, Pedick said:
“I’m voting for Michelle Steel. I would encourage everybody to vote for Michelle Steel.”
Pastors have First Amendment rights just like everyone else, noted Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who specializes in separation of church and state. But some political activism by local churches might violate the Johnson Amendment, an unevenly enforced 67-year-old provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits religious organizations and all other nonprofits from using their resources to endorse or oppose political candidates.
Opponents of the Johnson Amendment claim the restrictions have a chilling effect on religious organizations’ right to free speech. But Gregory Magarian, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, said it serves as an important dividing line between religious institutions and core, candidate-focused political activity.
“There has been a lot of mixing between religion and political advocacy,” Magarian said. “The Johnson Amendment serves as a boundary, which prevents that from going further. It also prevents candidates from putting pressure on religious institutions to endorse them.”
Trump famously claimed during his 2016 campaign and after taking office that he’d “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. He later signed an executive order directing the Treasury Department to not take “adverse action” against churches for engaging in political speech. But any changes to the tax code would have to come from Congress, and an IRS spokesman said this month that the agency continues to “administer the law as written.”
That said, the Johnson Amendment has never been consistently enforced. And when it is, the result can be problematic for both the church and the IRS.
The IRS doesn’t release data on churches that have been audited or had their tax-exempt status revoked, but one of the few high profile cases involved All Saints Episcopal Church, a liberal-leaning church in Pasadena.
The IRS investigated the church after pastors spoke out against the Iraq War two days before the 2004 presidential election, which pitted then-President George W. Bush against Democratic candidate John Kerry. Though the church eventually kept its tax-exempt status, pastors said they spent thousands of dollars on court costs. And they worried about future action against churches that preached about war, poverty or other social issues relating to governmental policies.
Some churches have formed congregations under new names after their tax exemptions were revoked, according to Ellen Aprill, the John E. Anderson Chair in Tax Law at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. But for the IRS to pursue an investigation against a church, Aprill said the violation has to be “pretty blatant.”
Volokh suspects the Johnson Amendment isn’t enforced more often due to a combination of a lack of IRS resources and a lack of willpower.
“The IRS isn’t eager to have the news story be: ‘IRS goes after church for its political views,’” he said.
When pastors do openly violate the law, Magarian said, it’s often intentional.
“It is a kind of civil disobedience,” he said. “They are violating this law because of their political beliefs and they want to dramatize their position.”
While Volokh said some enforcement of the Johnson Amendment is needed, he thinks it’s generally healthier from a First Amendment perspective for the IRS to err on the side of too little rather than too much intervention.
“I don’t think anybody is terribly eager to see the government, especially the federal government, monitor what churches are saying,” he said.
“That’s something that could be seen as pretty intrusive on religious freedom, even if under the rules it’s permissible.”
Source: Orange County Register