He seems a more nuanced man than his sermon on the day of defiance, which ran for one hour and five minutes, a ranting, rambling speech in front of a big projected slide reading, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” He declared then, “I truly believe that it should be the pastors and the church leaders that decide what is preached in the pulpit, not the IRS. OK?” He waved a Bible. He preached against abortion. Two members of his congregation had told him they wouldn’t attend, “because they felt I was going to talk politics. I’m not doing that ... What we’re facing in our country right now is not Republican, Democrat, Independent. It’s none of that. It’s good or it’s evil. It’s righteousness and unrighteousness.”
But he only danced close to the line, not across it. He stuck to issues and didn’t name candidates. “Churches and church leaders have to speak up,” he said. “We are in an election year. We are going to go down a very, very steep cliff that’s going to destroy ourselves and our country.” Then he declared, melodramatically, “I’m not supposed to preach against same-sex marriages according to the law from Washington, D.C. But this boy will do that. You may have to visit me in jail, and I hope that maybe some of you will be with me there.”
He left the brown wooden lectern and pranced around on the steps of the sanctuary. “I beg you, please vote. I’m not telling you who to vote for. I won’t do that. But I will tell you, vote for the candidate that’s closest to this book.” He held up the Bible. “On a local level, state level, national level. Let’s vote candidates in that are closest to this.” When he put the Bible in his left hand and put his right hand on the book as if being sworn in and said, “Do they uphold this? Will they sign in, putting their hand on the name of the Bible?” the congregation applauded. “I don’t vote parties,” he declared. “I vote what the candidate says about God’s word.”
Pastor Smith prayed that someday we would go past empty Planned Parenthood buildings and see them as relics of evil, “like the places where they burned up the Jews.” Then he added, “I’m not supposed to preach that, according to the federal government.”
A couple of weeks later, when I quoted back to him his line “You may have to visit me in jail,” he laughed out loud and put on a sheepish smile. Could he please explain? Did he think that was the penalty for speaking against same-sex marriage?
“It could be. It could be. It could be. I mean it could get to that. And again, that’s kind of the evangelistically—you know, you know.” He smiled broadly. “Pulpits throughout history have done those kinds of things.” He stopped, and I prodded him to finish the thought.
“That we sometimes, you know, we stretch things to try to—get across a point,” he finally admitted. “We push the envelope so far so we can at least bring someone midway. Almost like the pendulum thing.” So this was a kind of poetic license? “Poetic license, yeah. But I do believe that we as a country are losing our freedom of speech, and I believe at one point it might very well come to that. I believe that.”
He did not endorse a candidate, because, frankly, he did not want to risk his church’s tax-exempt status. “I don’t want to be a test case, no sir ... Let’s let somebody else—yes, I’m that much of a coward.” And he laughed, as he likes to do.
This article has been adapted from David Shipler's forthcoming book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier than the Sword.