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Mark Ronchetti, the Republican running to become governor of New Mexico, appears to be telling powerful Christian pastor Steve Smotherman that he wants to end abortion entirely within the state… while pretending to be less extreme on the matter whenever he speaks to a different audience. We know this because the pastor keeps telling his Legacy Church congregation that Ronchetti’s goal is to prohibit the procedure entirely no matter what else he says publicly.

This has been an ongoing bit of controversy for months now because at least one of the two Christian sides is lying.

Ronchetti began shifting his positions after winning the GOP primary. In a campaign ad, he said incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was an abortion extremist (because she supports women controlling their own bodies) and that he was the reasonable one because he only wanted to ban the procedure after 15 weeks, with “exceptions for rape, incest, and [the] life of [the] mother.”

But it didn’t take long for Smotherman to chime in. He told his congregation in July that they shouldn’t worry about Ronchetti’s stated position and that the candidate had his endorsement. After dismissing the church/state separation crowd and claiming the Johnson Amendment proponents who say he’s violating his 501(c)(3) status are “so stupid you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Smotherman explained what his audience didn’t know:

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… Here’s what he said. He said, “Listen, I just want to start with getting rid of partial birth abortion in the whole state,” which we should be happy with. And he said, “But I can’t just go in and do it all 100% because we won’t ever get elected.”

He said, “I just want to start,” but his goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico, just so you know.

You say, “How did I know that?” Because I talked to him for hours.

So what was Ronchetti’s goal? Eliminating abortion access entirely with no exceptions? Or taking the (also extremist) position that it ought to be legal but only until an arbitrary 15-week deadline with some exceptions?

Planned Parenthood’s political arm pointed out that Ronchetti’s past statements suggested the pastor was being honest:

Gov. Lujan Grisham even brought up his flip-flopping in a debate, saying of him, “Mark Ronchetti wants to ban abortion. If you don’t believe me, ask his pastor, Pastor Smothermon.” Ronchetti responded by claiming he didn’t want to ban abortion and he said the same thing to everyone.

Either Ronchetti or Smotherman is lying… or they’re both liars.

A couple of weeks ago, on October 19, Smotherman responded to that controversy by insisting during a sermon that he was telling the truth: Ronchetti definitely wanted to ban abortion.

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… And, by the way, don’t listen to any of the commercials. I want to say this publicly, because I’m sick of it. I never betrayed Mark Ronchetti. I know there’s a commercial out there… never have.

I was in a meeting with three other people and him, and we vetted him, and when we vet people, it’s never private. It’s never confidential. The reason we vet them is so we know what they believe.

Folks, I assure you, he told me exactly what I said. Exactly. But he got on TV and said he didn’t. I’m telling you, folks, it doesn’t matter what we say we believe, it matters what we do, and that determines what we believe.

Once again, Ronchetti’s public stance is at odds with what he’s allegedly told the evangelical Christian base whose support he’s relying on to win, and Smotherman is attempting to do the dirty work on his behalf, urging conservative Christians to ignore Ronchetti’s public statements because voting for the religious extremist will eventually ban abortion in the state, with no exceptions, from the moment of conception.

If Smotherman is lying about Ronchetti’s position, the candidate could always distance himself from the pastor or issue a statement denouncing the pastor’s lies. He won’t do that though. Ronchetti has a lot more to gain by lying about his abortion stance publicly, in order to dupe voters, while reminding Christian pastors in private that he’s just as much of an extremist as they are.

While Lujan Grisham’s side is hammering that point, Ronchetti’s campaign is just trying to avoid the subject:

Delaney Corcoran, spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham’s campaign, asked in an email whether Ronchetti is “lying to the voters or lying to the pastor? The only thing we know for certain is that Mark Ronchetti is a liar.” At the same time, she said Lujan Grisham’s stance on the issue has been consistent.

Ryan Sabel, a spokesman for the Ronchetti campaign, wrote in an email Tuesday the campaign has no further comment on the issue.

If there was anything to clarify, Ronchetti’s campaign could always do it. But upsetting evangelical Christians by publicly claiming he cares about women’s rights isn’t worth it for him.

He wants to get elected so Christians like him can punish women as much as their power will permit. Even his more recent ads have suggested the decision should be left to the voters via a constitutional amendment… but that’s both a way to pass the buck and an admission that he wouldn’t block an abortion ban that arises through other methods.

Smotherman, by the way, has a long history of playing politics. In 2014, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the IRS to investigate his church after Smotherman endorsed candidates from the pulpit and handed out sample ballots at church with certain conservatives highlighted for them. In April of 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Smotherman filed a lawsuit against a statewide ban on large in-person gatherings saying that he couldn’t even livestream his Easter service until there were 30 people in the building with him.

It was completely disingenuous but none of that matters for Christian nationalists like him who believe church is all about electing Republicans and owning the libs, not emulating some version of Jesus.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.