CeCe Winans sings at the dedication ceremony of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 17, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
By Adelle M. Banks

(RNS) — Gospel singing star CeCe Winans said the planned public service announcement in which she discussed the coronavirus pandemic with the U.S. surgeon general was “not political” and did not mention President Donald Trump.

The singer, who co-pastors a Nashville, Tennessee church with her husband, told the Rev. A.R. Bernard in an Instagram Live interview on Tuesday (Sept. 29) that her managers had told her the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sought her out. She said the Zoom conversation with Surgeon General Jerome Adams occurred a couple of weeks ago.

“We have a diverse congregation so you have some people who want to wear a mask, some people who don’t,” she said. “To get a chance to sit down with the surgeon general and to get solid information was going to be, I thought, a win-win situation.”

Winans spoke about her role in the ad campaign — which created controversy she was not expecting — in the half-hour Instagram Live conversation with Bernard, senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in New York City.

Politico published a Sept. 25 article describing the overall ad campaign as one costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and designed to “defeat despair” about the pandemic. Its story noted that Winans and actor Dennis Quaid were part of the campaign that would air before Election Day. In an earlier article, Politico reported Democratic House leaders sent HHS Secretary Alex Azar a Sept. 10 letter questioning the use of “taxpayer money to fund what appears to be a political propaganda campaign just two months before a presidential election.”

Winans, who has performed at the invitation of the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told Bernard her role was apolitical.

“It was nothing political about it; President Trump’s name didn’t come up or any other political figure came up in our conversation,” she said, adding that Adams said he was not interested in having a politically polarizing conversation because, he told her, “people are still dying from this disease and we need to educate ourselves.”

Both Winans and Bernard have personal connections with the pandemic. Winans’ brother Marvin Winans has recovered from COVID-19. Bernard, who also has recovered from COVID-19, resigned in 2017 from Trump’s evangelical advisory board — a group that continued after his 2016 campaign but with no formal status.

CeCe Winans said she asked Adams questions about why people should wear masks, what to do when a family member gets sick, how to handle kids’ playdates, and whether people should use the expected vaccine when it becomes available.

“It was just very informative,” she said. “It was a really good interview that I don’t think people are going to get a chance to hear.”

Asked by Bernard about the ad’s status, she said, “It’s been pulled.”

HHS did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Religion News Service about the status of the ad or the overall campaign.

Winans also told Bernard she was not paid for her participation.

“I was never paid for anything,” she said. “No. Nothing. Absolutely not.”

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Winans, who acknowledged “I’m educated now to ask more questions,” said she was surprised to learn the fallout of her participation after she exited a singing engagement Friday in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Of course, my phone had just blew up,” she said. “I’m like, what is going on? I was already called I don’t know how many names.”

She said she saw Politico’s coverage and another article that said she was connected to an effort to re-elect Trump. “I’m like, what campaign? What are they talking about?”

Winans declined to say who she planned to vote for in the presidential election but she did say “absolutely not” when Bernard asked if she celebrates or campaigns for the president.

“He is our president,” she said. “And the Bible tells us to honor those in leadership, to pray for those in leadership. They didn’t say pray for him if he’s doing good or if he’s nice or if he’s kind or if he’s godly. But that’s what I’m supposed to do. It doesn’t tell me that I have to support him.”