Since its 2019 launch, leaders of Mercy Culture Church in northeast Fort Worth have not shied away from the political spotlight. A church elder ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year, and another leader is running to represent parts of Fort Worth, Arlington and Haslet in the Texas legislature.
Now, amid allegations that the church is violating federal tax law by publicly endorsing candidates in local and state races, Mercy Culture is doubling down on political activities in Tarrant County with a new candidate training program.
A political action committee with ties to a Mercy Culture leader also donated hundreds of thousands to Republican candidates, including county judge candidate Tim O’Hare, this election cycle.
Republican Nate Schatzline, who works for an anti-human trafficking organization and a political organizing group associated with Mercy Culture, is likely to win the House District 93 race – the seat that is being vacated by Republican Matt Krause.
As founder of the political group For Liberty and Justice, Schatzline recently kicked off an inaugural eight-week “Candidate University” course. The program’s goal is to train candidates, campaign staffers and activists who “will stand for righteousness” and “make an impact for the kingdom in government,” according to the organization’s website.
For Liberty and Justice is partnered with The Justice Reform, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit run by Mercy Culture senior pastor Heather Schott, the wife of fellow senior pastor Landon Schott. The Schotts refer to both groups as “housed visions” of Mercy Culture.
Schatzline, who did not return interview requests, advertised the $100 course during a Sept. 4 Mercy Culture service. Participation in the program does not guarantee any future paid campaign positions or endorsements from For Liberty and Justice, according to the Candidate University page.
“We will be equipping you on how to hear the voice of God, how to walk with the Lord through campaigns, all of the practical steps,” Schatzline told churchgoers.
Religious organizations, including churches, have always promoted certain morals or policies from the pulpit, said Matthew Wilson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor specializing in religious voters.
Different denominations have varying traditions, he said: African-American Protestant denominations have a long history of supporting clergy in their political ambitions, while Catholic priests are forbidden from seeking office. Christian organizations like The Moral Majority have served as major political forces in the past.
But an evangelical church directly engaging with politics through training candidates to run for public office is unusual, Wilson said.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but it is something that typically we have not seen in the past,” Wilson said. “It clearly stems from their perception that just talking about the church’s values, just trying to shape and form the consciences and sensibilities of their church members, is not enough. Clearly they feel like their involvement to transform law and culture needs to be much more direct.”
Representatives for Mercy Culture did not return requests for comment. Landon Schott has spent the past week refuting criticism that the church is too politically active and could lose its tax-exempt nonprofit status for violating the Johnson Amendment, a federal tax law banning churches and nonprofits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns.
Tax law experts told the Texas Tribune and ProPublica that at least 18 churches, including Mercy Culture, appear to have violated IRS law by endorsing candidates in local and statewide races over the past two years.
With O’Hare and Republican district attorney candidate Phil Sorrells in the audience, Schott delivered an Oct. 30 sermon detailing how the media and liberal activists sought to “intimidate” Christians away from political involvement. From the stage, Schott asked the candidates to stand and offered his support, citing his right as a private citizen.
“As long as the church stays afraid in their churches or, during COVID, on their online streams, they got no problem,” Schott said. “But the moment you start stepping outside the four walls of the church and expanding territory, and taking back territory, wicked people don’t like it.”
We Can Keep It PAC is among top donors to O’Hare, Schatzline
Beyond candidate training efforts, Schatzline’s campaign manager, Asher Gillaspie, is listed as treasurer on the website for the political action committee We Can Keep It PAC.
The PAC, formed Jan. 17, is one of the largest donors to the O’Hare campaign and one of the top 10 to Schatzline. Krause, who lost his campaign for Tarrant County district attorney to Sorrells, also accepted funds from the PAC.
Gillaspie previously served as campaign manager to Mercy Culture Church elder and former Fort Worth mayoral candidate Steve Penate, according to 2021 campaign finance records. Gillaspie did not respond to a Facebook message or email to Schatzline’s campaign requesting comment.
During the Republican primaries this spring, Schott and other church leaders threw their support behind O’Hare and Krause. This fall, Mercy Culture has promoted a “friends and family list” of candidates – all Republicans – that share 12 core traits, including Christian values, which the group describes as the pursuit of purity, daily personal encounters with God, trust and generosity, among others. The list includes O’Hare and Schatzline, among other statewide and local candidates.
The graphic came with a disclaimer: “This is not an endorsement. Each candidate listed has built a relationship with the For Liberty & Justice team and has proven through their public life and achievements that they align with our 12 core values. In every case, we encourage you to take the time to pray and research — then VOTE!”
The bulk of the PAC’s funding — about $203,000 – has gone to O’Hare. O’Hare’s campaign declined to further comment on the candidate’s appearances at Mercy Culture services or connections to the church.
“We Can Keep It PAC is a group of business leaders based out of Fort Worth. They support candidates with Biblical values,” O’Hare previously told the Report in February. “The Bible is the Holy Word of God, and I try to follow its teachings. I’m honored to have their support in this race.”
On its website, the PAC details support for candidates and other groups that share a common set of beliefs, including Christianity, religious liberty, pro-life values, heterosexual marriage, belief in a gender binary – referring to the belief that transgender people cannot transition to match their gender identity – and patriotism.
Religiously affiliated PACs often include a list of morals and beliefs for candidates they support, Wilson said. A church being associated with a PAC is not illegal, so long as church funds are not being used to fund its activities, he added.
“What distinguishes this PAC from the church is that they will certainly accept contributions from people who are not church members, and that they will support candidates who are not members of their church, presumably, as long as they share similar values,” Wilson said.
The PAC’s largest donor is Hollis Sullivan, who donated $210,500, according to campaign finance records. Sullivan, who did not respond to requests for comment, owns Veritas Energy, an oil and gas company based in Fort Worth and Wichita Falls.
Ken Eldred, the PAC’s second largest donor, is the CEO of Living Stones Foundation, which provides financial resources and grants to Christian ministries. The organization is incorporated in Southlake. Eldred donated an additional $10,000 to O’Hare during the Sept. 30 to Oct. 29 reporting period.
Eldred, who declined an interview request, donated a total of $10,000 to the PAC and previously endorsed Penate for mayor. His organization gave a $145,000 grant to Gateway Church in 2019. The Gateway Church Network installed Schott and his wife as leaders of Mercy Culture.
Other donors include business owners and lawyers. Many of the donors are actively involved in religious or politically conservative campaigns.
The origins of We Can Keep It PAC, like many political action committees, are not clear. The PAC’s domain for its website is private, which obscures who registered the domain and where the domain owner is based.
The PAC is registered to an address in Fort Worth near University Park Village. After a reporter visited the office building where the PAC is registered, a person associated with the PAC contacted the Report via text but declined to identify themselves or speak on the record.
Schatzline poised to be first Mercy Culture leader in office
This is not Mercy Culture’s first time in the headlines for political action. In 2021, Penate – a founding pastor of the church – led an unsuccessful campaign for Fort Worth mayor that attracted large numbers of evangelical supporters. As a result, Penate finished ahead of more established candidates.
Schott earned media attention at the time for displaying a campaign advertisement behind the church stage as he encouraged members to support Penate.
During the Oct. 30 sermon, Schott said the Gateway Church Network received complaints about his endorsement of Penate. Those complaints were referred to prominent religious liberties attorney Kelly Shackelford, who appeared alongside Schott on stage. Shackelford confirmed Schott’s right to endorse, Schott said.
“Nobody cared that we were feeding 25,000 families a week and all the things that we did in the community,” Schott said, referring to the church’s food bank. “But the moment we started getting involved and putting godly people in office, all of a sudden we started ruffling feathers.”
Now, Schatzline is poised to be the first leader associated with Mercy Culture to be elected to public office. This spring, Schatzline defeated former Fort Worth City Council member Cary Moon and former Southlake mayor Laura Hill to take the Republican nomination for House District 93.
As founder of Liberty and Justice, Schatzline hosts a podcast touching on hot political topics such as abortion, vaccines, education and LGBTQ issues. The organization has also led rallies against “the sexual and anti-America indoctrination” of students at Fort Worth ISD and Keller ISD school board meetings.
During a Sept. 4 service, Schatzline attributed his political success to the voter mobilization that Mercy Culture made possible, which has included voter registration drives on the church campus.
His win in the May primary race had the largest margin of victory of any Republican state representative runoff in Texas, defeating Hill with 65% of the vote. Only one other race, the Democratic primary in District 100, had a higher margin of victory, according to data collected by the Texas Tribune.
“Seventeen percent of (my) voters had never voted in an election before,” Schatzline said. “People in Texas are saying this must have been Mercy Culture that stepped up and started voting. Can we give it up for a church that is loud, for a church that is bold, for a church that goes all in and takes a stand not for the right or the left but for righteousness?”
Attorney: IRS unlikely to pursue cases against churches
Churches and clergy have been wary of direct political involvement for decades, Wilson said, in part because they didn’t want to invite scrutiny from the IRS. But they were also concerned about alienating members of their congregation who held different political beliefs.
Increasingly, churches are matching the rest of society: Members are sorting themselves along political lines, Wilson said.
“So it is less the case than it would have been a few decades ago, that a pastor would have to worry about a politically diverse congregation and alienating certain people,” he said. “He or she can be pretty sure that the overwhelming majority of the congregants are going to lean in one direction or the other.”
By law, a church entity cannot endorse one candidate over another and the church entity cannot give resources to one candidate over another, Shackelford told parishioners on Oct. 30.
Even if a church were to endorse a candidate as an entity, the IRS would be forced to test the Johnson Amendment against the powers of the First Amendment, said Shackelford, a religious liberties attorney. Through the First Liberty Institute, where he serves as president and chief executive, Shackelford declined an interview request.
“The IRS does not want that case,” Shackelford said. “And as a result, there’s been thousands of pastors who have given sermons. They have endorsed, on behalf of their church, in the pulpit.”
Mercy Culture’s accelerating political activity is a response to a perceived moral crisis, Wilson said. During his Sunday sermons and on social media, Schott describes the church as fighting for justice and righteousness.
“That, in their view, requires more direct and dramatic action than anything we’ve seen before,” Wilson said. “That requires action beyond just the preaching and teaching and outreach that the churches have traditionally done.”
At the end of the Oct. 30 service, Schott invited all candidates in attendance to the stage. Both Schott and his wife Heather prayed over O’Hare, Sorrells, Tarrant County GOP chair Rick Barnes and others included on the “friends and family” list.
The candidates stood with heads bowed and hands crossed. Schatzline stood with his hands open as Schott prayed.
“Would you stretch your hands to our friends and family list?” Landon Schott urged the audience. “We are committed to covering you in prayer. We just pray for a hedge of protection around you. I pray right now that the enemy’s attacks cannot land on you. I pray even now, Lord, that you would just lift every burden, every attack on their mind.”
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