View from
Interview

Former Congressman Jody Hice: “Sacred Trust”

Obviously elections are political in terms of who wins and loses, but the process should not be political.” 

On May 3rd, former Georgia Congressman Jody Hice joined Merion West editor-in-chief Erich Prince to discuss his new book Sacred Trust, Election Integrity and the Will of the People. The following is a transcript of their conversation.

Today, I’m joined by former Georgia Congressman Jody Hice, who is currently a senior vice president at the Family Research Council. He represented Georgia’s 10th congressional district from 2015 to 2023, and notably challenged incumbent Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the 2022 primary for that office. This interview is in response to his new book, Sacred Trust, Election Integrity and the Will of the People, which was released last month, and I see a copy is right behind you in your office. Congressman, thank you for speaking with me today. 

What a great honor to be with you. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it. 

So this is actually the second time—as some readers may recall that we’ve spoken—but the first time over Zoom, and last time it was while you were still in office. That conversation was more focused on some of the issues and legislation. So it was interesting in the book to get a little more sense of your background, as well as your time in Congress. You generally paint a fairly negative picture of Washington, D.C. in your book, but you talk about a few positives. A couple of years now out of office, is there anything you miss about Congress? 

Congress is one of these places that has the good, the bad, and the ugly all wrapped up in one. So it depends on what you want to focus on. 

It’s all there, but there are absolutely some spectacular people who are there. As you know, I was an original member of the House Freedom Caucus, which started the year that I went into Congress: January of 2015. And so my entire eight years there were heavily involved in the Freedom Caucus. And I just grew to have deep love and respect for those men and women who are in the trenches, and their focus is not about reelection. Their focus is trying to do what’s in the best interest of our country. 

And they’re willing to take a lot of hits, so to speak, to accomplish that. And so I miss that. I miss being in the trenches. I miss some of the wonderful people. And it’s not just the Freedom Caucus people. There are some wonderful people there. Of course, there’s some others that are not so wonderful, but I do miss relationships. I miss the hearings. I miss the Oversight Committee. So there’s a lot that I miss, but there’s a lot that I don’t miss. 

I saw a number of your former colleagues wrote blurbs for the book. Do you keep in touch with a lot of those folks? 

Oh, yeah, I do. I’m in D.C. a good bit. So as often as I can, I’ll go by Capitol Hill and in the offices and spend some time with them, have a meal with them, and so forth along the way. They’re dear, and you don’t go through the experiences of Congress like that without building some real, lasting friendships. And, yes, I was very honored to have a number of them willing to come on board and write a word about the book. 

Before I get into some of the specifics of your book, for readers who aren’t as familiar with your background, I’m going to read a passage from your book. And I’m hoping you can talk about some of your life before you go to Congress. You write:

“People often ask me, ‘How does a pastor transition into becoming a politician?’ Jokingly, I like to respond, ‘Well, you have obviously not been part of a Baptist church!’ The similarities between the two, particularly as it relates to public speaking and dealing with people, are striking. Beyond that, members of Congress are only elected every two years, but as a pastor, it felt like I was up for ‘re-election’ every week!”

[Laughs] Yes, just a humorous little response—I was a pastor for almost 30 years in a Baptist church, Southern Baptist. And, as you know, Southern Baptist churches are autonomous. So every church does its own thing. We all agree on biblical truth and so forth, but how the churches operate and that type of thing…it’s up to the individual churches. So, humorously, I would say, “I felt like I was up for reelection every week.” As you know, a church can decide at any time if they want to look for another pastor. 

It doesn’t usually work that way. But I did learn a great deal about serving people, working with people, working with volunteers, moving the ball forward, casting vision, all of us moving in the right direction. In fact, I still consider myself a pastor. And many people in Congress all throughout my time referred to me as “pastor” as well. There were some valuable lessons there—there’s no doubt. And those lessons prepared me for my time in Congress. 

One of the things I learned about you that I didn’t know was your 2008 back and forth with the IRS over endorsing then Senator John McCain [for President in 2008].

That was an interesting thing. As a pastor, we had a couple of battles, both of which took on national attention. And that’s really how I ended up in Congress. 

I never dreamed that I would not be a pastor, but we had one battle with the ACLU and another battle that you just referenced with the IRS. And that one specifically was dealing with the Johnson Amendment, which goes all the way back to the days of LBJ, where he narrowly, barely won his race for the Senate from Texas. But when he got to office, one of the first things he did was behind closed doors. He put forth what has come to be known as the Johnson Amendment, which basically says that nonprofits, which of course include churches, cannot address political issues without potentially losing their tax-exempt status. The First Amendment does not go to sleep just because you have an opinion in church. In fact, religious liberties, the epicenter of that, is in church. 

And the centerpiece of that is the pulpit. And the Johnson Amendment basically is saying that a pastor cannot address certain political issues without potentially being sued personally or the church losing its tax-exempt status. So, that particular battle you’re talking about…I was one of 33 pastors across the country who challenged that IRS code. And ADF, Alliance Defending Freedom, was our legal backdrop. And we endorsed a candidate from the pulpit. Each of us did that. And I know our church was packed with media on that particular day. But the next day, I sent that sermon to the IRS along with a letter. 

That was sort of a bold move, wasn’t it? 

Yeah. Because, look, you can’t change this if the IRS didn’t come after you. And I just believe that the whole Johnson Amendment is wrong. So I sent a letter along with the sermon to the IRS and said, “Look, here it is: I’m not trying to hide, but I don’t believe I’ve broken the law. I believe your IRS code is unconstitutional. I challenge you to come after me.”

And I did that. The other pastors did something similar. And, of course, the IRS did nothing. So, we all got together and decided to do it again. That turned into a national movement called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and literally thousands of churches participated. But that was one of my big agendas when I got to Congress: to repeal the Johnson Amendment. And that’s one of my biggest disappointments, frankly, in leaving Congress, is that never happened. We did get it to pass the House on two different occasions, but both times it failed in the Senate. It failed to move forward.  

One of the themes in the account you provide of Congress is the disconnect between what a lot of members want, particularly when they’re in their districts and sort of the sausage making that, so to speak, goes on, especially with potentially leadership being out of step with what a lot of their members are hoping for or wanting. 

Yes, that’s always a challenge. You know, in my district, George’s 10th congressional district, everyone elected me and sent me there to make a difference and to change Washington, so to speak. And it did not take very long of being there that I began to realize that it is extremely difficult to move the needle in Washington, D.C. As a single member of Congress, I was less than one quarter of 1%. And yet everybody expects you to go up there and change Washington and change the tide. And you just come to find out pretty quickly that it’s an extremely difficult thing to do. You’ve got 435 members, you have two parties, and even within your own party, differences of opinion on virtually every issue and a leadership trying to push one direction, others trying to push another. And it’s difficult to get the ball past the needle. So, that was one of the eye-opening experiences I had while there. 

Turning our attention now to some of the arguments you’re making in the book [about elections], can you talk about some of your initial reactions to H.R. 1, also known as “For the People Act” and how that got your gears turning about the whole election issue and how a lot of your Democratic House colleagues were trying to see things?

Sure. I did not go to Washington—to be honest with you—with election integrity on my radar. It was nowhere even close. But I did end up becoming a senior member on the Oversight Committee. And literally, we had COVID—the first case of COVID in Washington State. So, the very next week, we had Oversight Committee hearings from the Democratic Party that began a series of hearings. Basically, they were saying that we need to change our election laws and federalize elections across the country because we have this big epidemic coming. 

People are going to be sick; they’re not going to be able to go to the polls; perhaps we need to send ballots to them. All sorts of things like this. There was one hearing after another on the need to reform nationally election laws. And that raised a great deal of concern for me. They went from there, by the way, to start saying voter suppression likewise was a major issue. And they basically held up Georgia as their exhibit A on the need to change election laws because of alleged voter suppression. 

And, of course, being from Georgia, I knew that was not an accurate depiction of Georgia’s voting process. So, I started pushing back. A number of others started pushing back. And they kept pushing forward. Their signature bill was H.R. 1, as you referred to. And it just had all sorts of things in it that were extremely concerning: from the sending ballots out to the voter registration files to mail in balloting etc. There were a host of things in that piece of legislation—the drop off boxes out of which came ballot harvesting—that I thought were extremely detrimental to the integrity of our voting system. The rest of the country was beginning—at that time—to wonder: “What is COVID going to mean to me, to my family, to my loved ones, to our country?” And the Democrats were pushing for election reform, and I found that to be very strange. I remember thinking, “Why are they doing this?” Everyone is concerned about COVID, and here they are pushing for election reform. And, now, looking back, sometimes you wish you knew then what you know now. But I recall feeling oddly concerned about what they were doing during that time. 

I remember that first COVID index case in the United States in Everett, Washington. How soon after that became public would you say that there was this talk of if COVID, then H.R. 1? 

It was the very next week. We had our first case documented in Washington, and the very next week after that first documented case, they started this series of hearings. And that was very strange. And I can’t say anything; I can just tell you how I felt. 

I felt as though they knew something the rest of us didn’t know. And while the rest of the country was beginning to look towards the meaning of COVID from a health perspective, the Democrats were in full force pushing for election reform. 

One of the points you emphasize in your book is the idea—with a fair amount of constitutional scholarship or historical basis,—of elections being held at the state level rather than at the federal level. Can you reiterate some of the arguments of why it’s best—in your view—for federal elections to be [administered] at the state level and why they shouldn’t be federalized no matter which party hypothetically were demanding it?

Yes, it’s all for election security. Our Founders were very wise in not federalizing and centralizing the place of elections in the capital of the United States. In fact, our Constitution very clearly says that the time, place, and manner of elections are to be left to the states. And so all of that was given. [When] you look at it back then, [the Founders] were concerned, among other things, with foreign interference. What if a foreign country or any other nefarious movement, for that matter…but suppose a foreign country were to come to the United States and through bribery start bribing those who were counting ballots in the heart of our nation’s capital? Then, all of a sudden, elections could be swayed one way or the other. 

And of our Founders thought it would be safest if the centralized idea of elections were spread out, to all the states. It would be much more difficult for shenanigans of that type to take place when it’s spread out across the entire country. It’s that kind of mindset [with which] they said that every state is going to be responsible for the integrity of elections and how they go about the process of doing elections. And we’re going to get it out of the capital of the U.S. for security reasons. And I think that’s a valuable lesson for us to take to heart today: that it was a grave concern from our Founders that they did not want election interference. They wanted it to be as secure as they could in the voice of the people to be heard. 

In an ideal world, and obviously you enumerate them toward the end of your book, but what do you think are the most important ways [to make] elections [as secure as possible]? For example, if you were the advisor to a governor of a state, and [that governor] said, “We want to make elections as secure as possible,” what are the several things that you would [most] emphasize? 

That’s a great question. And, keep in mind, like we just talked about, every state has different processes they go through. So it’s hard to throw a blanket over every state [about] what they should do. 

Every state has different rules and regulations, procedures that they adhere to. But, given that, I think there are more or less some universal principles that can widely and largely be embraced to secure election integrity regardless of what state it may be. For example, the voter registration files: These need to be as accurate as they possibly can be. I read an article—I believe it was the week before last—that was claiming that the average state is somewhere between 8% and 18% inaccurate on its voter files. So, let’s round that off. If we are wrong, 10% to 20% as to who is even able or legal to vote before we even have an election, that is problematic. 

And it’s not rocket science to clean our election rolls. Look, Amazon knows who you are. They follow you wherever you go. The post office knows where you used to live. They know your forwarding address or where you live now—as do the local school district and the utility companies, your Visa card company, on and on and on. There’s massive ways of keeping track of who’s who and where people live and determining whether or not they are a legal citizen of the community, the state, and a legally registered voter. Let’s start with having accurate files. But then you add on top of that things like the mail-in ballots. These are very problematic. [There’s] ballot harvesting. [How about] having voter photo identification to prove that you are who you say you are before you receive a ballot?

These are just a few of the things that come off the top of my mind right now that are relatively easy lifts, but they would go a long way in securing our election processes. 

One of the things that strikes me, and I think it’s also similar with the Southern border, which is something you obviously talk about in the book as well. You’ve been down there. At one time in the past, as you’re aware in the early 2000s, there was some sort of a consensus, and you could look at the voting record of even Chuck Schumer on [the Secure Fence Act of 2006], that you want to have some sort of barrier or something like that on the Southern border. But, then, that issue became very politicized during the Trump administration to the point that it became a partisan litmus test. And I think much the same has happened about how we talk about voting; it’s become an extremely partisan issue. And as you point out in the book, it’s almost taboo even to talk about in certain quarters nowadays because I guess a lot of the plans that you’re outlining…I would think that if you’re a Democratic governor of a state, you would say, well, that sort of makes sense. But it seems as though—and correct me if I’m wrong—increasingly difficult to get a bipartisan consensus on some of these things. Obviously, [this is true] at the federal level, but as you know, as you argue, we don’t want that at the federal level, but in a state with divided government like Pennsylvania here, where I am now, I would imagine it’d be very difficult for political reasons to make some of these compromises. 

You’re exactly right. It is increasingly becoming difficult. While you were talking, I was reminded, I believe it was in 2004, Jimmy Carter and James Baker had their blue-ribbon commission. Out of that study, their report actually says that mail-in ballots are problematic and that they pose a tremendous opportunity for fraud. And that was their word. It wasn’t that many years ago that both sides of the aisle were in agreement that things like mail-in ballots were not a good idea. 

COVID was the springboard. COVID became the excuse to put forward frequently decisions that were unilaterally made by secretaries of state or others like that, totally bypassing the legislatures of the various states and just unilaterally changing election laws. 

And, oftentimes, these were coming out of ideas that were presented from H.R. 1—some of these other things that we dealt with in the oversight committee, pieces of legislation that never would have been accepted or passed through legislation in the states. But they were unilaterally forced upon the people by decisions of one or a small group of people. So, now in the partisan environment in which we now live, it’s extremely difficult in certain states—Pennsylvania, as you mentioned, and others— to change this. It’s going to be up to the people to continue putting pressure on their elected representatives—first and foremost—to secure our elections. At the end of the day, elections are not about who wins or loses. Elections are about whether or not the will of the people was heard and accurately counted. That’s what elections are all about. And that needs to be protected at all costs. 

That’s something you talk about a fair amount in the book. You actually quote Rahm Emanuel multiple times about not letting a “crisis go to waste.” And you write, “There was too much political debris swirling around that seemed to create an environment for opportunism rather than a rational reply to a healthcare emergency.” Obviously you were a member of the House Freedom Caucus. What do you think were some of the most startling ways that certain people took advantage of COVID? 

Oh goodness—I’m sure there are multiple ways. Let me answer it this way: One of the most dangerous things I think that came out of COVID as it relates to this specific aspect of what we’re talking about was the emergency declarations. It was like COVID became a reason for emergency declarations to be made to change elections. 

Well, that seemed to work, and so out of COVID has come all sorts of emergency declarations. In North Carolina, there was an attempt there to declare the education system an emergency because Republicans at that time were trying to push school choice, if I remember correctly. And so the governor says, “No, no, we can’t do that. It’s an emergency.” And they take on emergency powers.

Climate as well. 

Climate is another great example. So I think COVID really brought forth this whole bypassing of legislatures for the purpose of advancing an agenda through the means of declaring an emergency. 

One point you raise that I thought was pretty interesting because we see polling on this, and the polls vary, and I haven’t committed them all to memory, but a sizable percentage of Republicans, especially, have a lot of discomfort with the 2020 election. So, to this point, you write, “If only Democrats had done the same in 2020, if they’d worked with Republicans to reform and restore our elections, they could have restored faith to millions of people,” which is sort of an interesting take. As in, “Okay, we have a sizable percentage of the population that is uncomfortable with the election.” And maybe they say, “though we personally disagree with that,” you’re sort of making the case that they could have met with their colleagues and said, “Okay, it’s a major problem that so many people aren’t comfortable with this election. Let’s do something about that.” So what do you think some of the things they could have done to sort of restore faith? 

It all starts with conversation. Like I’ve alluded to even in our time together, everything in Washington now has become so partisan. It’s extremely difficult for the two sides to come together and have authentic discussion. 

Everything is: If you’re for it, I’m against it, period. Without the discussion. So there would have been a great opportunity had we just had an honest discussion about all of this, but instead the [Democrats] were in the majority at the time, and they were pushing H.R. 1. 

And there was not going to be a discussion about it. And interestingly in the polls that I mentioned there, even a sizable number of Democrats had some serious questions as to the outcome of the 2020 election. So this was not just a Republican issue. It went across the lines, from Republicans to Democrats, as well as independents, who were concerned with the accuracy of our election processes. And that is the issue that we must protect: It’s the voice of the people, not political parties. 

Are you surprised that your home state of Georgia now has two Democratic senators? 

That’s part of the process that came as a result of what I believe were some very poor decisions from our Secretary of State. And that’s why I ran to challenge him. I ended up not winning that challenge. But, yeah, there again is one of the examples where unilaterally he made some decisions to change the way elections are done in this state. For example, we, as a general rule, would have a couple of hundred thousand mail-in ballots pre-COVID. But, all of a sudden, the Secretary of State just decides we’re going to send absentee ballot requests to everyone on the voter file. And we went from a couple of hundred thousand to somewhere in the ballpark of 1.4 million mail-in ballots. It totally overwhelmed the system. 

We weren’t prepared for that. As a result, there was virtually no way to check the signature verifications, let alone, are these authentic registered legal voters? We just had this mass number of mail-in ballots coming in. That’s just one example of the decision made by our Secretary of State. Georgia has come back around. The legislature has made some significant changes. And I believe they’ve dealt pretty thoroughly with all the gaping holes, at least in my opinion, that were created. And I think we are moving toward a much more secure election in this state in this upcoming election cycle than we’ve had in the past. 

Because it’s sort of an interesting question [about the state’s Democratic shift]. And I’ve asked people in Georgia; I’ve interviewed Governor Kemp a couple times and talked to other people sort of off the record too. When I first visited Georgia to conduct interviews in 2019, everyone was Republican, both senators, the governor, etc. And there are different theories, right? Some people say more people have been moving from the Northeast or there are some other theories as well that people have shared with me. Do you think it’s a combination of some of these variables, or do you think some of this election integrity is the number one or even sole reason? 

I think it’s all of the above. I think there are issues. Georgia was a bright red state. And then, all of a sudden, in one election, everything turned. 

I think George W. Bush won Georgia by sixteen-and-a-half points in 2004. 

Right, and it’s hard to just say overnight the whole state just went blue—for no apparent reason. So I think you have to take into account all of the above. There’s no doubt Georgia has been one of the top states in the country as it relates to business opportunities. So we have a lot of people moving to the state. It is a growing state, but I also think there were some issues in the way elections were done. And I think that has impacted the outcome we had: as you mentioned, a couple of senators you wouldn’t think of coming out of the state of Georgia.

I believe this upcoming election is probably going to take Georgia back to being the red state that I believe it was and—that it still—is. 

Do you think that Georgia’s legislature and governor did a good job with the election reforms that they made a couple of years ago? 

I think they’ve made some very significant steps. As I said, I think we’re going to have a much more secure election. I believe the people in this state are going to have much more confidence going to the voting booth now than they did a couple of years ago. 

Starting to wrap, I know obviously that election integrity is very important for you, and you’ve discussed [at length] in the book, but sort of zooming out, your book sort of presents the United States in rather dire times, including as it pertains to the people who are in office. You write, to this effect, “Good or bad, the individuals who represent us, be it local, state, or federal, are but a reflection of the people who voted them into office.” You have this cocktail of various issues you describe [that are challenging] the United States. Are you optimistic that the course can be corrected, or are you increasingly frustrated by what you’re seeing out of Washington and at the state level? 

I’m certainly frustrated with what I see coming out of Washington—there’s no doubt. 

And I don’t mean just Georgia, specifically of course. 

Yes, [I know], I’m talking on a national scale. Yeah, there’s a lot to be upset about. Look at what’s coming across our border, who knows who, but obviously we’ve had a significant number of likely terrorists and human traffickers and drugs and who knows what all coming across the border, and [there’s] just basically no attempt whatsoever to secure that. We have high crime across the country; we’ve got protests going on all over the place right now; we’re weakened on the global front. There’s a lot to be concerned about.

I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but, if you were still in Congress, do you think you would have voted for this anti-Semitism bill that recently passed

I probably would have supported it, but I’d have to see all the language. I would have more than likely supported it.

But, yes, there are a lot of problems taking place in our state, but what gives me optimism is: if we can have secure elections. And I’m not saying that it’s all a scam. I’m not trying to imply that, but the necessity of this issue—sacred trust—is that we can’t drop the ball on secure elections. As long as we have that, the voice of the people will be heard, and the consent of the governed will give direction to where our national government is going. And I think a lot of these issues can—and will—be addressed, but what must be a priority above all is that we secure and make sure that the election process is an accurate depiction of the voice of the people and an accurate accounting thereof. 

Do you think that there are certain voices within the Republican Party that throw the baby out with the bathwater and say [elections altogether are] a sham and that prevents actual, constructive proposals? 

Sure, there are all kinds of voices. There are people all over the map on all sorts of things. And my attempt is not to get into supporting this camp or that camp or this voice or that voice. My thing is election integrity. This is something both sides of the aisle ought to agree on, that we want to secure, like we want the voice of the people to be heard. We need to get politics out of the election process. Obviously elections are political in terms of who wins and loses, but the process should not be political. 

It should be a sacred trust. It should be an attempt by both sides of the aisle that we’re going to hear what the people have to say. That is my focus in the book, not an attempt to jump into one camp or another or one voice or another that’s being spoken. It’s all about let’s secure elections. 

Congressman Jody Hice, thanks so much for talking with me. The book once again is Sacred Trust

Thank you so much. Great to be with you. Thanks so much.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.