The head of the Federal Election Commission chastised Catholic bishops during a pair of interviews this week, accusing church hierarchy of “hiding behind” their nonprofit status and declaring that this year’s election amounts to a “spiritual war” that threatens the country’s “Christian moral principles.”

FEC Chairman James E. “Trey” Trainor III made the remarks during an interview released Wednesday by Church Militant, a controversial conservative Catholic media outlet, and repeated them in a separate phone interview with Religion News Service.

Trainor, who is Catholic and attends Mass weekly, was asked by Church Militant founder Michael Voris about a priest who recently published a video in which he declares that no Catholic can be a Democrat. The video went viral.

Voris questioned Trainor about news that, in response to the video, a bishop plans to attempt “fraternal correction” of the priest, who church leaders say inflicted a “wound” upon the church because of the video.

“I don’t think a bishop has the right to tell a priest that they can’t come out and speak,” the FEC chairman said.

Trainor suggested the bishops try to avoid speaking on politics because they, like many faith-based groups that offer social services, receive funds from the federal government. He described the arrangement as “almost a payoff” by the government to encourage faith groups to stay silent or neutral.

When RNS followed up with the chairman to ask whether he believed Catholic bishops shy away from endorsing candidates because of financial ties with the federal government, he responded, “I do — I believe that to be the case.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment on Trainor’s remarks.

Trainor, a Republican lawyer who was nominated to the FEC by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate in May, also told Voris that a 2017 executive order signed by Trump frees churches to endorse political candidates.

But FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub disputed Trainor’s claim that Trump’s executive order allows faith groups to ignore the “Johnson Amendment,” a provision of U.S. tax law that bars nonprofits from endorsing political candidates.

“My colleague is not correct,” Weintraub, a Democrat who has chaired the commission three times since joining it in 2002, said in a statement.

“Though the president’s executive order directs law enforcement authorities to not enforce the Johnson Amendment, that statute remains the law of the land and cannot be undone with an executive order,” she said. “Anyone tempted to violate the statute should keep in mind that a future administration could well decide to enforce the law as Congress wrote it.”

In his interview, Trainor clarified that his remarks to Church Militant were meant to highlight the reality that the law is likely to be unenforced.

He pointed to examples of when church leaders have gotten political, such as when Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark remarked earlier this week that “I think that a person in good conscience could vote for Mr. [Joe] Biden.” Tobin then added, “I, frankly, in my own way of thinking have a more difficult time with the other option.”

Tobin has since insisted his remark was not an endorsement, but Trainor argued otherwise, saying it’s “fantastic” that a cardinal would publicly back a candidate.

Trainor contended the separation of church and state is “a fallacy,” because “every person who comes to the public square has to have an informed conscience in one way or another, and it’s either informed by their religion, their tradition or something.”

The chairman also agreed with Voris that this year’s election amounts to a “spiritual war.” Trainor expanded on that position in his interview, describing the largely peaceful social justice protests going on around the country as “complete anarchy in places where the rule of law has been completely abrogated.”

“So it is a spiritual war in that it is striking at the underlying foundations of our constitutional republic,” he said. “It’s getting rid of the Christian moral principles that are the basis of the foundation of the country” he said.

Weintraub again rejected her colleague’s assertion.

“Our elections are not spiritual wars,” she said. “They are not wars at all. Wars have enemies; elections have opponents. We’re all Americans and we’re all in this together.”

When RNS asked Trainor whether he believed the United States should be a Christian nation, the chairman clarified that “obviously the country is open to all faiths.”

“I think it’s the teachings of Christianity that are important and those same teachings are found in Judaism,” he said. “Those same teachings are found in Islam. Those same teachings are found in most monotheistic religions.”

Trainor insisted to Voris that he was speaking “privately” and not as FEC chairman, but he also answered several questions about the upcoming election. For example, he said he does not expect a protracted legal debate similar to what happened in the 2000 election, saying, “I don’t think that this election is going to be that close.”

— Religion News Service