By most measures, Greg Locke was already a controversial Christian pastor. The Washington Post recently published a profile on him, his church in Tennessee, and his millions of online followers.
As the Post put it, Locke’s critics make the case that he’s “spreading a dangerous message of hate that is taking root in some conservative churches.” The same report noted that his ministry has also divided his community outside Nashville, especially after Locke held a book-burning event where he and followers threw copies of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series and Disney merchandise into a giant bonfire.
Locke was also on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, a day after speaking at a pro-Trump rally where he reportedly delivered “one of the clearest and most violent prayers of the day.” The Post added that the pastor has also blessed the members of the right-wing Proud Boys from his pulpit, and relied on its members to provide “security.”
It was against this backdrop that Newsweek took note of an especially memorable sermon Locke delivered earlier this week, which might make him even more controversial.
Ahead of a Monday anti-abortion rally in front of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., right-wing Pastor Greg Locke told his Tennessee congregation “you ain’t seen an insurrection yet” ... The Global Vision Bible Church pastor made the provocative statement during a sermon in Mt. Juliet, near Nashville, on Sunday. During the sermon, the pro-Trump pastor railed against Democrats who he said could not be Christians if they supported abortion rights.
A video of Locke’s tirade has made the rounds via social media — as of this morning, it’s been viewed on Twitter 2 million times — and it’s worth watching if only to appreciate just how enthusiastic the pastor is about his message.
“If you vote Democrat, I don’t even want you around this church. You can get out. You can get out, you demon,” Locke declared. “You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation. I don’t care how mad that makes you. You can get as pissed off as you want to. You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation.... You cannot be a Democrat and a Christian. You cannot. Somebody say, ‘Amen.’ The rest of you get out! Get out!”
As part of the same rant, the pastor added, “I ain’t playin’ your stupid games.... I’m sick of it. Everyone wanna talk about the insurrection? Mmmm. Let me tell you something: You ain’t seen the insurrection yet. You keep on pushing our buttons, you low-down, sorry compromisers, you God-hating communists, maybe you’ll find out what an insurrection is.”
Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack with a message like this, raising questions about theology, Christian nationalism, and the prospect of religio-political violence. But there’s also a legal question.
As regular readers may recall, under federal tax law, tax-exempt houses of worship are not allowed to intervene in partisan politics. Ministries can obviously speak out on moral and spiritual issues of the day, and they can get involved in ballot referenda related to various policies, but churches and other houses of worship can’t take steps to help (or hurt) candidates or political parties.
This law was created in 1954, thanks to the efforts of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, and for the most part, it wasn’t especially controversial — that is, until the religious right political movement started pushing for the law’s repeal, as part of a larger effort to further politicize faith communities.
In fact, Donald Trump was so eager to curry favor with social conservatives that he repeatedly boasted that he’d repealed the law, despite the fact that this never actually happened.
All of which leaves us with a question: Did Locke go too far when he delivered a partisan sermon? Can the pastor of a tax-exempt church tell his followers that Democratic voters are demons who are unwelcome in his congregation?
The folks at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, whom I know well, this week urged the IRS to launch an investigation. Rachel Laser, the group’s president, wrote in a complaint to the agency, “Now, when our democracy is threatened by white Christian nationalism like never before, the IRS must investigate blatant Johnson Amendment violations like Locke’s remarks and enforce the federal law that protects the integrity of both our elections and our houses of worship by ensuring nonprofits don’t engage in partisan politics.”
Whether the IRS will take an interest in the matter remains to be seen. Watch this space.