The three Republican candidates for Hamilton County mayor will visit Calvary Chapel on Sunday to discuss where they stand on issues and for a chance to appeal to people at the Southside megachurch.
The church is hosting Weston Wamp, Matt Hullander and Sabrena Smedley for its "Conservative Conversations" event at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. The gathering is part of its ongoing "Civics + Culture" series. The church has previously hosted speakers such as nationally known conservatives Dennis Prager, Eric Metaxas and Charlie Kirk.
The mayoral forum advertises that each candidate will respond to six questions, and attendees are being asked to submit questions for consideration. The conversation will not be livestreamed but will be recorded and posted on the church's social media sites later in the week.
"Our heart is to provide an event for our church and community to hear directly from the candidates in order to help them make the best decision at the polls, as we head to the primary election on May 3," said Anne Lowery, civics and cultural engagement and women's ministry assistant at Calvary Chapel, in an email to the Times Free Press.
The prospect of a Chattanooga church hosting a political event may strike some as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, although experts say the issue exists in a mostly gray area of law and churches can engage in politics to some degree.
David Callaway, religious freedom specialist at the Freedom Forum, said American history is marked with many examples of churches blurring the line with politics, from abolitionist Protestant churches in the North in the 19th century to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to the growth of the religious right of the 1980s and onward.
The separation of church and state can be found in the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" to explain the scope and effect of the clause was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 and written into a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1879.
One of the clause's main manifestations today has to do with the tax-exempt status of churches, and whether political involvement could nullify that status.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press and Local 3 News will host a debate with the Republican candidates for Hamilton County mayor at 5 p.m. on April 11.Local 3 News will broadcast the debate live, and the Times Free Press and Local 3 will livestream the event on their respective websites.The three Republican candidates — Matt Hullander, Sabrena Smedley and Weston Wamp — will take part in the debate moderated by David Carroll of Local 3 and Dave Flessner of the Times Free Press. Independent and Democratic candidates are not taking part because they do not have a contested primary race on May 3.The public can submit questions for consideration for the debate at bit.ly/mayorQs.
The separation of church and state appears in the U.S. tax code under what is called the "Johnson Amendment," which was added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1954 by Congress in legislation carried by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson.
Under the rule, tax-exempt organizations like churches and nonprofits could lose their exemption if they take part in political campaigns or advocate for a particular candidate.
In 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order attempting to limit the federal government's enforcement of the rule, although the underlying law remained in place.
Callaway said churches can encourage members to vote or support certain issues, but they cannot support a particular candidate or a particular piece of legislation.
Calvary Chapel hosting only Republican mayoral candidates pushes the event into more of a gray area with the Johnson Amendment, Callaway said, but only if someone was taking a very strict reading of the tax code.
"The main thing you would want to see, in the spirit of the Johnson Amendment, would be the lack of bias by the megachurch as an institution," he said. "Are they giving all the candidates the same amount of time? Are they not endorsing a particular candidate or nodding toward endorsing a particular candidate?"
Conservative Christian voters, particularly evangelicals, are finding increasing influence in the Republican party as the GOP more closely aligns itself with this religious voting bloc and the Democratic Party courts more religiously unaffiliated voters, said Chris Acuff, assistant professor of public administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
People who vote in primary elections tend to be older and of a higher socioeconomic status, Acuff said.
In a place like Hamilton County, where winning the Republican primary is essentially winning the election, events at churches like the Sunday forum can push a campaign over the finish line, he said.
"Let's say 10- to 15,000, people vote and choose essentially our next county mayor, via the Republican primary," Acuff said. "In a three-way race, if a few hundred members show up to this, that could potentially swing an election. The candidates don't have to get a majority, they just have to get a plurality."
Phillis Sheppard, associate professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, said religious leaders play a role in forming citizens and drawing connections between the underlying values of their faith and the lived experiences of daily life.
"We definitely need spaces where we are focused on what political figures stand for and that we have an opportunity to speak with them about the trajectory of what they're saying they stand for, looking for markers along the way," Sheppard said.
But it is important for religious leaders to help their congregations understand the nuances of issues or the various views people can bring to a situation, Sheppard said. The religious discourse works to hold the public discourse accountable, and the public discourse holds the religious one accountable, too, she said.