When Americans United reported Greg Locke to the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year for violating the Johnson Amendment, it was far from the first time the Tennessee pastor made the news for his inflammatory actions and Christian nationalist rhetoric.
“If you vote Democrat, I don’t even want you around this church. You can get out. You can get out, you demon,” Locke shouted that May Sunday from the pulpit of Global Vision Bible Church’s large tent where Locke holds revival-style services.
“You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation,” he said. “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. Somebody say, ‘Amen.’ The rest of you get out. Get out! Get out in the name of Jesus!”
Americans United urged the IRS to investigate Locke for violating the Johnson Amendment, the nearly 70-year-old federal law that prevents nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates or parties. Because government tax exemption is meant as a benefit for organizations that serve the public good, the law protects the charitable mission of nonprofits and ensures they aren’t sullied by getting embroiled in partisan political battles.
“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,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United.
But it wasn’t Locke’s illegal politicking from the pulpit that raised the most red flags during that Sunday sermon. Nor was it his references to Donald Trump’s “big lie” that Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 presidential election; the doubts Locke cast on the racial motivation of a mass shooting the day before in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y.; his disparaging remarks about LGBTQ people; his conspiracy theory that “Obama is behind all of” America’s problems; or his repeated warnings about demons and witchcraft.
While disturbing, all of that rhetoric is pretty par for the course from Locke, whose past controversies have included protesting outside a public middle school because it included discussion of Islam along with other religions in world history classes; protesting outside abortion clinics; calling a Republican governor of Tennessee a “major disappointment” for refusing to designate the Bible the state book; castigating Target for offering gender-neutral bathrooms; and holding a large bonfire to burn books he deemed “demonic,” including the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series.
In 2019, Locke made news by burning a signed copy of a book on Christian nationalism written by Andrew L. Seidel, now vice president of strategic communications at Americans United. “An atheist writing the history of America is like Planned Parenthood writing a manual on how to take care of infants,” Locke said. “There is no history of America without God.”
Needless to say, Locke is known for being inflammatory. But what really rang the alarm bells during his May sermon was his reference to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“Everyone wanna talk about the insurrection?” Locke said before pointing into the camera filming a live video stream of his sermon. To the growing cheers from congregants in the tent, he proclaimed: “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. Because we ain’t playing your garbage. We ain’t playing your mess. My Bible says the church of the living God is an institution, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it and the Bible says that we’ll take it by force. That’s what the Bible says. That’s what the Bible says. It’s going to get worse.”
They were alarming words coming from a pastor who was at the Capitol while Trump supporters ransacked the seat of American democracy a year earlier. As Seidel detailed in the report “Christian Nationalism at the January 6, 2021, Insurrection” that was produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Locke was in Washington, D.C., for events leading up to the Capitol attack; the night before, he preached to the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group.
“God is on our side. America is the last bastion of Christian freedom. It’s the last bastion of capitalism,” Locke prayed. “I declare unto you that President Donald Trump is gonna stay for four more years in the White House … We’re a mighty army. They’ve gotta listen. They can’t ignore us. Our churches have been backed into a corner…”
Later that night, Locke tweeted, “God is about to dethrone some wicked people that have been in power. Very soon Twitter will be trending the unthinkable. Remember this Tweet. God will not be mocked.” (Locke was banned from Twitter later in 2021 for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Throughout the pandemic, Locke refused to stop holding indoor worship services, mocked people who wore masks and said mask-wearers would not be allowed in his church, and warned congregants not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.)
CNN highlighted the influence Locke and pastors like him had on participants of the insurrection. In a June 2021 project called “Assault on Democracy: Paths to Insurrection,” the network took a deep dive into some of the people who attacked the Capitol, the interconnected web of philosophies of participants, and the role of influencers in spurring people from rhetoric to riotous, deadly action.
Two pastors are featured in the CNN series – Locke and Ken Peters of Patriot Church, also in Tennessee. Under the headline “They preach the Bible — and the big lie. With it, Pastors Ken Peters and Greg Locke are tapping into the pro-Trump vein of Christian nationalism,” CNN compiled a series of videos and interviews of both pastors speaking before, during and after the Capitol attack.
It includes Jan. 4 video of Locke walking the streets of Washington, D.C., while urging clergy to join him in the “Black Robe Regiment,” a group inspired by colonial pastors who supported the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War. “Be part of what we’re calling the Black Robe Regiment,” he said. “Quit being a yellow robe preacher, you coward, and start being a black robe preacher and stand up and be willing to lead your people into battle. We are in a battle for the soul of our family and for this nation.”
Locke told CNN he and other pastors were supposed to speak from the same stage near the White House shortly before Trump gave his now infamous call to action that led to an impeachment charge for inciting insurrection. Because Trump was running late, the plans for the pastors to speak was scrapped. Instead, Locke said he walked to the Capitol grounds after the building had been breached and grabbed a bullhorn to preach to Trump supporters outside.
The following Sunday, back at the pulpit of his church tent, Locke promoted the lie that imposters, not Trump supporters, had attacked the Capitol: “I was there, I watched the whole thing go down. There was no redneck MAGA insurrection; it was infiltration from the word go and you listen to me: These people have been bought and paid for. They have been bought and paid for. Every last one of them.”
In a Washington Post report earlier this year about how Locke and his church have created a schism amongst the residents of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., Samuel Perry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma who studies Christian nationalism, said, “Greg Locke has tapped into what is currently selling within that group at the moment, angry White evangelicals responding to talk of persecution, talk of political chaos and the need to rise up, get organized and be militant. That’s what’s working, so he’s going to give that message.”
In an email message to AU members shortly after Locke’s threats of another insurrection, AU’s Laser reflected on the impact charged words like Locke’s can have on a divided country: “Once upon a time we all might have shrugged off Locke’s bombastic sermon as empty threats. But coming hours after the deaths in Buffalo, and with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol still fresh in our minds, we can’t ignore the connection between inflammatory rhetoric that disparages groups of people and the violence that sometimes follows. That’s stochastic terrorism – the probability that hateful speech of influential people will incite impressionable followers to violent action.”
The week after AU reported Locke to the IRS, Locke mysteriously claimed from the pulpit that he’d “dissolved” and “revoked” his church’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status: “So put me in the news again. Get mad again. … I ain’t stoppin’. I ain’t quittin’. I ain’t gonna back up, pack up, slack up or shut up until I’ve been taken up by the glory of God. As a matter of fact, I’m just getting started. So you and all your compromisin’ communism 501(c)(3) can get out. The state and the government ain’t tellin’ this church how we can operate. You call that what that is: When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes biblical.”