The Family Research Council hosted a conference call with conservative pastors last Friday featuring Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana to provide details and answer questions about provisions in the recent coronavirus relief legislation that allow churches to obtain grants from the federal government to pay salaries, rent, and other operating costs. Joining them on the call were White House aide and evangelical Trump cheerleader-in-chief to conservative evangelicals Paula White, former Rep. Michele Bachmann, who now chairs FRC’s board, California megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs, and Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
As Right Wing Watch noted last week, religious-right groups have spent decades working to reshape federal court interpretations of the First Amendment to allow religious organizations greater access to government funding while simultaneously arguing for special treatment in the form of exemptions from anti-discrimination requirements placed on other nonprofits. On Friday’s call, speakers assured pastors that religious-right activists were successful in getting churches access to federal funds while exempting them from nondiscrimination requirements normally applied to Small Business Administration programs.
On the call, Cotton talked through details of the Paycheck Protection Program provisions in the recently passed CARES Act, assuring pastors that Congress had explicitly ensured that churches would qualify for loans that can be forgiven and turned into grants. Cotton bragged that that Senate Republicans had held the line against efforts by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make Planned Parenthood eligible for funds under the program.
Cotton was followed by Johnson, who chairs the right-wing Republican Study Committee. Johnson described the loan-turned-grant as effectively “a gift from the federal government.” And he addressed the incongruities of someone like him promoting something like that:
Now, many of us are small or limited government conservatives, and some of this runs against our sort of our principled beliefs, you would think. But the rationale behind this is that the government created this situation. It wasn’t—everyone who’s suffering by this is doing it at no fault of their own. Frankly, really, as the president rightfully said, we’re in a war against an unseen and unforeseen enemy, and that’s a virus. But it’s the government that made the reluctant and difficult decision effectively to shut down the economy and impose social distancing. So, we can rationalize that maybe the government ought to step in and try to help everybody bridge this gap. And that’s what’s the idea behind this.
Johnson told pastors that the $349 billion set aside for the program is “not an infinite amount,” so he encouraged them to “go and start that process immediately if you haven’t already.”
Johnson acknowledged that some people on the call might have religious liberty concerns about taking money from the federal government. He said groups like FRC, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and First Liberty Institute were working hard to make sure churches’ concerns were addressed, and “talked directly” to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. He said that language in the official guidance invokes the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act and specifically says that nondiscrimination rules would not apply to churches.
“You don’t need to worry about a big government encroachment on your religious freedom if you participate in this program,” Johnson said.
Perkins chimed in, saying that Johnson had answered a lot of questions from pastors that were in the queue, “one being the sexual orientation provisions that were in the SBA—that now has been addressed. That was a big issue that many of us have been working on, and the clarity … is now in that guidance that came out last night. So that is no longer an issue. So those of you who had that question, that has been addressed.”
Busby said, “We are so relieved that the religious liberty issue is off the table.”
Carson, a member of the White House COVID-19 task force, offered a bit of good news on the call, saying that the task force is monitoring more than 100 different trials of treatments and potential vaccines. “And, you know, as the president said, a couple of weeks ago, you know, if we get something really good to treat this with, it’ll be a gift from God,” Carson said. “I think the president is acknowledging that the president doesn’t have all the power and who in fact does have that power.”
As Right Wing Watch has reported, some conservative pastors have resisted and defied social distancing guidelines. But Carson called on pastors to emphasize their importance, saying that “everyone can have an impact on how long this plague continues to torture us by observing the recommendations” made by the CDC, including physical distancing and the use of face masks.
And he urged pastors to pray for those in authority:
Praying for our leaders is so important because, you know, things can change so rapidly in our country. Things change virtually overnight. And you look at how we went from, you know, just a incredible juggernaut economy to, you know, this–overnight. Think about how the Soviet Union dissolved overnight. I mean, we just need to recognize that we live in a environment where the only thing that is the same, that we can always depend upon is God. God is love, compassion, mercy, goodness. And that’s the reason that we need not fear coronavirus or anything else. As long as we put our faith and trust in God. And this is America, this is America where our money says, ‘In God we trust.’ We need to make sure that we emphasize that. Never take a backseat to those who try to ridicule and diminish our faith. Our faith is what has made us strong. Our faith is what will allow us to recover from this, and it is our faith that will make us stronger when this is all over.
Perkins noted that the administration’s current social distancing guidelines are in place until the end of April and asked Carson, “Can you give us some sense of when you think it’s going to be safe again for churches to gather?” Carson’s answer was likely not what pastors on the call were hoping to hear:
Well, you know, we haven’t really seen the curve bend down in a way that we can say for sure that it’s happening. We’ve seen some early indication that it’s starting to bend down, but my severe hope is that if people take this seriously, that, you know, that we’ll be talking a couple of months rather than several months. That’s what I’m hoping and praying. I think there’s some evidence that that may be the case, particularly given the fact that the medical profession is learning more about the usage of some of these new modalities that have presented themselves. So, I’m actually quite encouraged and recognize that what we have to do is we have to bridge the gap. You know, this too will pass. This is not a permanent situation by any stretch of the imagination. We have to make sure that all other infrastructure in our country remains intact and ready to start up as soon as this is over.
Like other religious-right figures, Perkins said that the crisis gave churches a “tremendous” opportunity for evangelism, and he encouraged pastors to ask God, “What is he saying to us as a nation?” Perkins added, “I’ve watched in the last 20 years how these natural disasters and these events have increased with intensity with every successive event. And I don’t want to just say we’re going to rebuild, we’re going to be a better nation. We’re going to be stronger. What is God trying to communicate to us in this, and how can we be a more godly nation on the other side of this?”
Hibbs, a close associate of Christian nationalist political operative David Lane, was one of the pastors Perkins enlisted to pray for the public officials on the call. “God, we just pray that the America that comes out of this does not go back to normal. Lord, I don’t think anybody on this call would want our ministries, our homes, our families, or our congregants, or even our government to go back to normal,” Hibbs prayed. “Lord, may you establish the new normal where we as a nation are wholly dependent upon you.”
Hibbs prayed that God would manifest even more clearly “the ability that you have to control and to intervene in a nation that would repent of its sins, and turn its face toward you.” Hibbs said that what has “completely blown the doors off” of concerns about the spread of the virus is “us watching and being part of church history where we’re seeing the gospel spread and become viral like never before.”
Hibbs closed his prayer asking God to “remind us all again, that you’re the founder of this nation, and you brought it forth by your decree.”
Earlier in the call, White said in a prayer, “We believe that skillful and godly wisdom has entered into the heart of Dr. Ben Carson and our president and our vice president,” and she prayed against the administration’s opponents, saying, “Let all wickedness, let all division and strife, let all that would operate in a spirit of wickedness be cut off, and let their voices not be permeated right now.”