It’s no secret that the Democratic Party cannot win national elections without the black vote. Less well understood by major Democratic candidates and donors is that black voters are not a monolith. Particularly in the black church, we fall along a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal social values. Our intersections related to race and gender are complex and nuanced.
When black people say that they are tired of our votes being taken for granted, we are referring in part to this lack of understanding. Gaining our vote requires gaining more than a cursory understanding of who we are as a people. Candidates will need to be able to speak to a full range of issues and concerns and, just as importantly, feel comfortable engaging directly with a range of African American people.
Three years ago, the Black Church PAC was formed to give our historically critical voting demographic a greater voice before we go to the polls. On Friday and Saturday (Aug. 16 and 17), the PAC held its first candidate forum, with an audience of 5,000 African American Christian millennials from 42 different states at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta.
Seven of the top-tier candidates were invited, and five attended: Secretary Julian Castro, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Black Church PAC forum during the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab
The forum not only gave candidates an opportunity to make their case for why black voters should entrust them with their vote; it tested the candidates’ ability to connect with young black churchgoers who lean in a socially conservative direction — a voting bloc that is not necessarily well acquainted with long-established Democratic politicians and that has not necessarily bought in to the traditional progressive talking points.
Candidates got a chance to address the full conference but also met with small groups of voters and engaged in spirited dialogue about critical issues ranging from gun violence and the criminal justice system to student loan debt, immigration, education, health care and reparations. These sessions tested candidates’ expertise on critical issues but also revealed how comfortable they were listening to and being challenged by those with experiences very different from their own.
During the meeting, we ran a survey of close to 800 conference attendees to gauge their opinions about the candidates and issues, in addition to gathering qualitative responses. We plan to have a briefing with candidates to share these results before we make them public, but some quick takeaways include:
Candidates who attended experienced a significant bump in their support; candidates who didn’t experienced a significant drop in their support.
Close to 10% of respondents are unfamiliar with the candidates who were listed.
The most important issues among those to take the survey: jobs/economy, gun violence, white nationalism.
A critical finding here is that most candidates have simply not broken through to young African American voters. This is alarming because, if this vital demographic is not actively engaged in selecting the eventual nominee, Democrats may end up with a nominee who fails to engage a significant voting bloc in the general election.
Sen. Cory Booker addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab
Compounding this problem is the fact that Democrats have a miserable record of investing in black grassroots organizers, black community-based organizations and black political consultants, who are often best equipped to mobilize black voters.
Steve Phillips, the civil rights lawyer and founder of the website Democracy in Color, has described at great length the billion-dollar blunders Democratic and Allied Progressive groups continue to make in their political spending. The lessons to take from these unforced errors, he has said, are clear: Political spending in the Democratic ecosystem must be early, often and targeted to groups who register; and we must educate and mobilize black and brown voters, especially for turnout on Election Day.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, left, takes questions from moderators the Rev. Leah Daughtry and the Rev. Michael McBride during the Black Church PAC forum at the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab
The same kind of results could be achieved in swing states throughout the country if, rather than centering their campaigns around convincing white “Reagan Democrats” to stay blue, candidates doubled down on turning out reliably blue African American voters in places like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia.
We suspect that when candidates and their teams forgo this approach, it is because they do not have either the cultural proficiency or the willingness to make the black grassroots investments required to pull off this type of strategy. No one expects large numbers of blacks to vote for President Trump; however, operating as if African American and other voters will come out in droves simply to vote against Trump — without giving them someone who is compelling to vote for — is a risky and reckless approach.
Even within the more conservative bloc of the black church, Trump’s message is repulsive to millennials and their black elders. Unlike white evangelicals, whose support for Trump still hovers above 80%, socially conservative-leaning black church members detected very clearly the racialized rhetoric and dangerous policies of Trump and overwhelmingly do not support him. With meaningful engagement, these voters can be activated to vote for a candidate who promotes a compelling vision of belonging, justice and opportunity for all.
Through this election cycle and beyond, we will continue to give candidates opportunities to make their case and truly listen to black voters.
Presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab
(The Rev. Michael McBride is pastor of The Way Church in Berkeley, California, and national director of Faith in Action’s urban strategies and LIVE FREE Project. The Rev. Leah Daughtry, former CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, is presiding prelate-elect of The House of the Lord Churches and a founding board member of the Black Church PAC. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith’s victory in Mississippi’s Senate election runoff was closer than usual in the GOP-dominated Deep South state. But she still was never really threatened by Democrat Mike Espy in Tuesday’s contest, which brought the state’s long history of racial politics into sharp relief.
Some takeaways as Hyde-Smith, who was initially appointed to succeed former Sen. Thad Cochran, returns to Washington as the first woman elected to represent Mississippi on Capitol Hill:
RACIAL POLITICS STILL DOMINANT
In the end, Hyde-Smith defeated Espy by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent — much closer than the cakewalk many predicted in a reliably red state that President Donald Trump won by 17 points in 2016. The contest was the latest reminder that race remains a potent factor in the region’s polarized partisan politics. Espy was seeking to become Mississippi’s first black senator since Reconstruction.
Ahead of the runoff, a video surfaced of Hyde-Smith praising a supporter by saying, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” For many black voters, the comment harkened back to the state’s dark past of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. They were galvanized by her remarks and saw their votes as a rejection of racism. Many whites dismissed accusations that Hyde-Smith’s comments were racist.
Her statement was widely seen as a dogwhistle, similar to comments made in Florida by then-Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, who warned voters not to “monkey up” the election by voting for Andrew Gillum, who lost his bid to become the state’s first black governor. It also echoed comments by President Donald Trump, who cast Gillum as incompetent and Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams as unqualified.
STRONG BLACK TURNOUT NOT ENOUGH
Black voters came out for Espy, but it wasn’t enough, given the overall makeup of Mississippi’s electorate and white voters’ overwhelming loyalty to Republicans, even among suburban whites who elsewhere nationally trended toward Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
Espy’s biggest challenge was simply that Mississippi doesn’t have a metro area comparable to Atlanta or Nashville, Tennessee, or Charlotte, North Carolina — growing population centers where white voters are considerably more likely to support Democrats than their counterparts in small towns.
Yet even in Mississippi counties that fit the suburban model — better educated, more affluent — voters stuck with Hyde-Smith. Her 71 percent in Rankin County and 54 percent in Madison County (both outside the Democratic stronghold of Jackson) put her just a few percentage points behind Trump’s 2016 marks in those counties.
That’s a contrast even to other recent Deep South elections.
In Georgia, Abrams lost the governor’s race by just 1.4 percentage points in no small part because she won large suburban counties like Cobb and Gwinnett in metro Atlanta. In Alabama’s 2017 Senate special election, Democratic Sen. Doug Jones capitalized on Republican Roy Moore’s weaknesses not by winning large suburban counties, but by vastly outperforming Democrats’ usual marks.
Espy’s almost 409,000 votes statewide was 84 percent of Hillary Clinton’s vote count against Trump in 2016. By comparison, Jones managed 92 percent of presidential turnout in his Alabama victory. In Georgia, Abrams actually exceeded Clinton’s 2016 mark. If Espy had managed that on Tuesday, he’d have won: Clinton got 485,131 votes. Unofficial returns show Hyde-Smith at 479,365.
SOME AFRICAN-AMERICAN GAINS
Despite the Democratic loss in the state’s marquee race, civil rights groups and grassroots organizers point to down-ballot gains, particularly in judicial contests. High black voter turnout elected two black women to the circuit court in Hinds County, giving the county an all-black bench for the first time ever, including three black women.
The wins mirror gains in Texas, where 19 black women were elected to judgeships earlier this month, and Alabama, where a record nine black women judges were elected in last year’s special election.
Down-ballot candidates and issues also benefitted from high black turnout this midterm cycle in Georgia — where Lucy McBath, a black woman, unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel, flipping a seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — and in Florida, where voters supported restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of former felons.
With an increased focus on issues of criminal justice and voting rights, such victories could have more of an impact on voters’ daily lives.
Mississippi isn’t used to having backbencher senators. From 1947 to 2007, the state sent just four senators to Washington. It wasn’t long ago that Mississippi’s Senate team consisted of Cochran as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Trent Lott as majority leader, both of them specializing in fast-tracking federal money back to their home state.
Now, the senior senator is Roger Wicker, who has been in office since Dec. 31, 2007, but will find himself behind more than a dozen Republican colleagues on the seniority list when Congress convenes in January. Hyde-Smith won’t be at the back of the line — her months as an appointed senator put her ahead of the GOP freshmen just elected in November — but she’s close.
Certainly, Washington is different than in Cochran’s prime, with budget earmarks no longer at the center of every negotiation. But for a small, economically disadvantaged state that’s long depended on federal influence, the 116th Congress will be new territory.
NO PERFECT FORMULA FOR SOUTHERN DEMOCRATS
Democrats have made key gains in recent elections in the South, but there’s no perfect formula for winning statewide.
Espy, a former Cabinet official under President Bill Clinton, ran as a moderate with experience reaching across the aisle. Georgia’s Abrams and Florida’s Gillum ran as unabashed liberals and nearly pulled out wins in governor’s races that would have been historic. Democrats in Alabama and South Carolina nominated white men — relatively young, relatively moderate — for governor.
All of them lost: Abrams and Gillum had narrow margins; Espy ran strong but wasn’t close; Alabama and South Carolina were the usual Republican routs.
The lesson: Candidates matter, but so does the electorate. The three closest races made the case that Democrats shoudn’t cede the South, and that tests of electability shouldn’t be limited to white men.
The next test comes in Georgia, where a Dec. 4 runoff for secretary of state pits Democrat John Barrow, a 63-year-old moderate former congressman, against a little-known Republican state lawmaker. After that, the focus shifts to Louisiana, where Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will seek re-election in 2019 four years after upsetting his Republican rival, then-Sen. David Vitter.
Motivated in part by President Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks about women and the numerous claims that he committed sexual assault, American women are running for state and national office in historic numbers.
Black rural voters living in red states are staunchly Democratic even as they’re surrounded by white voters who are almost all Republicans. And they’re often overlooked by big-name candidates from both parties.
A recent PRRI/The Atlantic 2018 Voter Engagement Survey found that 5 percent of Wisconsin residents surveyed said they or someone in their household was told they lacked the proper documentation to vote.
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Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, is in the midst of a closely watched race against Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former state House minority leader who’s trying to become the country’s first black, female governor.
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Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said he didn’t know a candidate for Chicago mayor planned to hand out $200,000 to churchgoers at a service where the governor also spoke, a scene that prompted opponents to accuse the Republican of trying to buy votes for his own re-election.
Last-minute legal decisions, a racist robocall and a protester wearing a giant chicken suit holding a sign that reads “too chicken to debate.”
These are the scenes playing out amid the final furious days of the hotly contested and historic race for Georgia governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.
A robocall apparently from a white supremacist group is injecting racism directly into the race, which has already been fraught with a race-laden debate over ballot access and voter suppression. Abrams would be the first black female governor in U.S. history. Kemp, who oversees elections as Georgia’s secretary of state, vehemently denies charges that he’s used his office to make it harder for minorities to vote.
Abrams and Kemp are both condemning an automated telephone call filled with racist and anti-Semitic statements. The call, sent to an unknown number of Georgians, impersonates Oprah Winfrey, the billionaire media titan who came to Georgia on Thursday to support Abrams.
The robocall says it was paid for by The Road to Power, a group organized by Scott Rhodes of Idaho. He has been linked to several other racist robocalls, including a recent effort in Florida, where Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum would become the first black governor in his state’s history.
Kemp issued a statement calling the tactic “vile” and “contrary to the highest ideals of our state and country,” and condemning “any person or organization that peddles this type of unbridled hate and unapologetic bigotry.”
The Abrams camp likewise blasted the move but took a shot at Kemp and his highest profile supporter, President Donald Trump, who is coming to Georgia to campaign Sunday. A top Abrams aide said both Kemp and Trump have contributed to a poisonous atmosphere, and that Kemp has been silent on previous racially loaded attacks on Abrams.
“These automated calls are being sent into homes just days before President Trump arrives, reminding voters exactly who is promoting a political climate that celebrates this kind of vile, poisonous thinking,” said Abrams’ spokeswoman Abigail Collazo.
Abrams sidestepped the issue Saturday in brief public remarks as she greeted voters at an Atlanta shopping complex along with her local congressman, civil rights icon John Lewis.
“Georgia has long been on a path of change and evolution,” Abrams said. But she also said the election is about issues like expanding Medicaid insurance and focusing state spending on public education, job training and small business startups.
“I’m the only candidate with a plan to get that done and to do that without vitriol, without vilifying people,” she added.
Lewis, the 78-year-old congressman who as a young man was severely beaten by police as he fought for voting rights in the Jim Crow South, put Georgia’s choice in the broadest context: “This young lady is playing a major role in helping liberate all of us, liberate the state of Georgia, liberate the South, liberate America.”
Kemp did not address the robocalls at his only scheduled campaign stop Saturday at a Cuban restaurant in a diverse north-Atlanta suburb.
Kemp told the packed crowd of supporters that the race for governor was a simple choice: one between continued economic prosperity under Republican leadership, or a turn to “socialism” under Democrats.
Kemp said the election was about “this generation and generations to come and the kind of state that we leave them.” He then blasted Abrams’ policy pitches on health care and education.
The Kemp event was also hit by a number of protesters. Two men protesting Kemp’s immigration policy while Kemp was onstage were forcibly removed from the restaurant.
As a TV crew from MSNBC tried to film the hecklers being removed, a Kemp supporter physically blocked their path and the view of their lens.
And someone out front was wearing a giant chicken suit holding a sign that reads “too chicken to debate,” alluding to Kemp withdrawing from a debate scheduled Sunday in favor of appearing in Macon with President Donald Trump.
Much of the final stretch of the race was consumed by a bitter battle over race and access to the polls.
Tensions grew after an Associated Press report in early October that more than 53,000 voter applications — nearly 70 percent of them from black applicants — were on hold with Kemp’s office ahead of the election.
Many of the applications were flagged for failing to pass the state’s “exact match” verification process, which requires that identification information on voter registration applications precisely match information already on file.
Kemp’s office says that eligible voters on the “pending” list can still vote if they bring a proper ID that substantially matches their registration information. He called the controversy “manufactured.”
But critics say county officials aren’t always trained to make the proper determination and the system can be particularly hard to navigate for recently naturalized citizens.
In response to a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups, a judge on Friday ruled the state unfairly burdens about 3,100 possible voters whose registration was flagged for citizenship issues.
She ruled that Georgia must immediately start allowing poll managers — not just deputy registrars — to clear flagged voters who show proof of citizenship.
In a statement, Kemp said the lawsuit forced the state “to waste time and taxpayer dollars for the judge to tell us to do something that we already do.”
In the final days in one of the nation’s hottest governor’s races, Oprah Winfrey and President Donald Trump, as well as former Presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter and Vice President Mike Pence, are trying to put their imprint on the Georgia election.
Winfrey joins Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams for two town hall-style events Thursday, the same day that Pence travels to the state for several rallies with Republican Brian Kemp.
Trump and Obama will follow with their party’s candidate over the next three days. Carter, an Abrams supporter and former Georgia governor, garnered significant attention already this week with a personal plea that Kemp resign as secretary of state, Georgia’s chief elections official, to ensure public confidence in the results of what’s expected to be a close race.
The blitz underscores the high stakes in one of the defining contests of next week’s midterms, as Abrams vies to become the first black female governor in American history, while Kemp tries to maintain the GOP’s dominance in a state Democrats believe is on the cusp of becoming a presidential battleground.
The appearance by Winfrey, among the world’s wealthiest and most famous black women, is a significant coup for Abrams, who needs to maximize her support from nonwhite voters but also from liberal white women. All of those demographics overlap with Winfrey’s fan base, and she will hit them all with events in Republican-leaning Cobb County and heavily Democratic DeKalb County, both within miles of downtown Atlanta.
Though sometimes mentioned as a 2020 presidential candidate, Winfrey has demurred on her intentions. Her most visible foray into electoral politics was as an outspoken supporter of Obama, her fellow Chicagoan, when he first won the White House in 2008.
Trump’s appearance may claim as a casualty the last debate scheduled between Kemp and Abrams.
The two campaigns had agreed weeks ago to a debate at 5 p.m. Sunday in the studios of Atlanta’s WSB-TV. But Kemp’s campaign said the president’s schedule takes precedence, and he’s coming to Macon, about 100 miles south of Atlanta, to hold a campaign rally with Kemp at 4 p.m.
Abrams’ campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, says the debate is off because Kemp backed out. Kemp adviser Ryan Mahoney says his candidate is willing to find another time slot, but Groh-Wargo says Abrams is booked through Tuesday’s election.
Multiple polls show a statistical dead heat between Kemp and Abrams, with a low percentage of undecided voters remaining. There’s a possibility of a December runoff, given that Libertarian Ted Metz also is on the ballot and Georgia’s requirement that the winner garner a majority of the votes.
That could mean that events that energize the base, like a rally with Trump or Obama, could carry more weight than a debate less than 48 hours before Election Day.
Both candidates have run consistent appeals to their respective bases. Kemp has embraced Trump and echoed the president’s hard-line policies on immigration, and he’s focused much of his campaigning in the state’s more conservative pockets beyond metro Atlanta.
Visits from Trump and Pence — and the location of those events — illustrate that strategy.
While Abrams has touted her experience working with Republicans as minority leader in the Georgia legislature, her positions on health care, education spending, criminal justice and gun regulations make her an unapologetic liberal. She’s openly courting Democratic-leaning voters who have largely sat out midterm elections in the past, arguing it’s a better path to victory than trying to coax crossover votes from older white voters who abandoned Democrats.
Obama will appear with Abrams on Friday at a cluster of historically black colleges near downtown Atlanta.
Cory Booker meets with demonstrators at a protest in Washington, D.C., on June 28, 2017. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
Questions about religion can paralyze some politicians, but not Cory Booker.
If anything, the topic seems to relax him. Sitting in his spacious but spartan office on Capitol Hill in early October, the senator propped his sneakered feet up on his desk and waxed poetic about spiritual matters, bouncing between discussions of Jesus’ disciples, housing policy and his own religious practices.
“When I get up in the morning, I meditate,” the New Jersey Democrat said, a practice he has often linked to his spiritual health. He paused for a moment, then quickly corrected himself: “Actually, I pray on my knees, and then I meditate.”
Booker’s comfort with his faith is unusual for Democrats in Washington, but it’s standard fare for the 49-year-old former mayor of Newark and has even become a mainstay of his blossoming political persona: Even the hyperbole-averse Associated Press recently compared him to an “evangelical minister” after Booker addressed a group of Democrats in Iowa.
AP had good cause: The decidedly progressive speech, which many speculated was a warmup for a 2020 presidential run, was peppered with talk about “faithfulness” and “grace.” Booker closed by citing Amos 5:24 (“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”) before shouting “Amen!” over the roaring crowd.
Asked about his tendency to fuse the political with the spiritual, Booker shrugged.
“I don’t know how many speeches of mine you can listen to and not have me bring up faith,” he said. He noted he had just come from a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting where he had lifted a line from his stump speech: “Before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people.”
The sentiment, along with a message of unity that he brands as a “new civic gospel,” is generating buzz among Democrats. But Booker’s brand of public religiosity is especially attractive to an oft-forgotten but increasingly powerful group: the amorphous subset of religious Americans sometimes known as the religious left.
If he does run for president, as many expect, Booker may be one of the first Democratic candidates in decades to actively cultivate support from religious progressives.
A favorite of lefty faithful
Raised in an African Methodist Episcopal church and now a member of a National Baptist church in Newark, Booker has become a fixture at left-leaning religious gatherings as far back as 2014, when he showed up at a summit hosted by Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization. He “basically preached a sermon at the opening reception,” tweeted one organizer of the event.
In 2017, Booker attended a protest outside the U.S. Capitol hosted by the Rev. William Barber II, a prominent religious progressive who was there to denounce the Republican-led effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Earlier this year, Booker spoke at the Festival of Homiletics, a preaching conference attended by primarily white, liberal mainline clergy.
His appearance at these events has often resulted in standing ovations, and near endorsements.
“I don’t hope to move to New Jersey, but I do hope to vote for you someday, if you catch my drift,” the Rev. David Howell, the Presbyterian founder of the Festival of Homiletics, said while introducing Booker in May.
Booker claims that his faith is not partisan: He said religion is a way to reach across the aisle, and Republican Sen. John Thune is reportedly a member of his Bible study (along with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another potential Democratic presidential hopeful). But if Booker is unapologetic about his faith, he’s also unapologetic about the potential political effect of his God-talk.
“I think Democrats make the mistake often of ceding that territory to Republicans of faith,” Booker said.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., in his Washington office on Oct. 17, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
Eric Gregory, who studied with Booker at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and at Yale, said the senator’s fascination with faith is nothing new.
“He certainly has always been religiously musical,” said Gregory, now a professor of religion and chair of the humanities council at Princeton University.
“He was always curious about diving deeply into different religious traditions and trying to understand them but also find wisdom within them,” said Gregory.
Still, Booker roots his personal faith in Christianity, particularly the black church tradition in which he was reared.
“I will talk about my faith, and I also talk about other faiths I study,” Booker told Religion News Service, sitting beneath an image of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the few adornments on his office walls. “I’ve studied Torah for years. Hinduism I’ve studied a lot. Islam, I’ve studied some, and I’ve been enriched by my study. But, for me, the values of my life are guided by my belief in the Bible and in Jesus.”
It’s an approach to religion — multifaith, LGBTQ-inclusive, liberation theology-influenced and social-justice focused — that jibes perfectly with the makeup of the liberal coalition.
“The life of Jesus is very impactful to me and very important to me,” he said. “He lived a life committed to dealing with issues of the poor and the sick. The folks that other folks disregard, disrespect or often oppress. He lived this life of radical love that is a standard that I fail to reach every single day, but that really motivates me in what I do.”
But Booker insisted his connection with religious left leaders such as Barber, who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, has less to do with political angling and more to do with a natural overlap of shared values.
“I find kinship with people I find inspiration from — people I would love to be more like,” he said. “Rev. Barber is powerful. To me, his charisma speaks, in an instructive way, towards my heart and my being. He is somebody who believes that being poor is not a sin or that poverty is a sin.”
Riding progressive religious power
Progressive religion, drowned out in recent decades by the well-organized religious right, has been revived by the rise of President Trump. Within weeks of the 2016 election, left-leaning religious groups saw spikes in funding. Their coalitions became a crucial part of the “resistance” to Trump’s travel ban, the repeal of the ACA and the separation of families along the U.S.-Mexico border. Leaders such as Barber and Linda Sarsour, a prominent Muslim activist and core organizer of the Women’s March, have been elevated to the national stage.
As their influence increased, so too did side-by-side appearances with potential 2020 presidential hopefuls such as Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; and others.
For modern religious progressives the new attention comes with a dilemma: What does it mean not only to protest power but to influence it — or even be courted by it?
“I think faith communities, particularly the religious left, need to become even more aware of the significant, for lack of a better word, lobbying power that they have,” said the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, a theology professor and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, said the shift harks back to the era of President Carter, who ran as a Southern Baptist Democrat.
“I would absolutely see (Carter) as exemplifying this progressive Christian vision,” she said, noting that after he lost re-election the progressive religious spirit that elected him “went underground.” In a sense, the rise of Bookers and Barbers signals a return to form.
“They’ve got their boldness back, and they’re willing to speak in the name of religion and not hide their light under a bushel,” she said.
Douglas also highlighted the importance of Booker’s attachment to the black church.
“Historically, black communities have relied on the leadership and the wisdom of their faith leaders,” she said.
It’s unclear whether white Democrats of faith, whose numbers continue to dwindle, can be successfully courted along faith lines, despite numerous attempts over the years by groups such as Sojourners and others. But appealing to the faith of nonwhite Democrats, according to data unveiled earlier this year by Pew Research, suggests that may be a crucial long-term strategy for those seeking to turn red states blue. Although states with higher religious attendance and expression tend to be Republican, nonwhite populations in those states skew highly religious and deeply Democratic.
Douglas pointed out that Booker already exhibited the power of the black faith community in the 2017 Alabama senate race. As Republican Roy Moore battled accusations of child sex abuse, Democrat Doug Jones reached out to black voters, using the last days before the election to campaign at several black churches.
Two days later, analysts largely credited Jones’ victory to massive black voter turnout.
Preaching a new ‘civic gospel’
Booker is not the only potential presidential hopeful vying for the religious left’s attention. Warren, Harris and others are also winning hearts among the faithful. Booker has also faced hard questions from the left, including religious progressives, for taking large donations from Wall Street.
He’d likely also have to address the concerns of slightly less than a third of Democrats who do not claim a religious affiliation, many of whom are uneasy with politicians who cite faith as a guide.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., addresses Festival of Homiletics attendees at Metropolitan AME Church on May 22, 2018, in Washington. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
But Booker is already working out ways to talk to them, too.
“I prefer to hang out with nice, kind atheists than mean Christians any day,” he has often said.
Meanwhile, the larger struggle may be to convert the religious left into an organized political force.
Gregory identifies “a kind of paralyzing despair or prophetic critique that disables the possibility of politics more than enabling it. In some ways, I think one of the reasons why Senator Booker often gets a lot of enthusiastic reception is because he is capable of recognizing severe challenges but also not giving in to the despair or withdrawal.”
Booker’s optimism is embodied in his concept of a “civic gospel,” a vision for a politics devoid of the “meanness” and “moral vandalism” that he sees in current political discourse, especially from Trump.
“I think God is love,” Booker said, leaning across his desk. “I think God is justice. I think that the ideals of this country are in line with my faith. I don’t need to talk about religion to talk about those ideals that all Americans hold dear.”
Perhaps Booker is something of an evangelical — or at least an evangelist — for this ecumenical sense that politics and religion are not mutually exclusive, all while reaching those outside the religious fold with a broader inclusive message. Whether the faithful, literal and figurative, will rally around that idea will likely be the question of his next two years.
“Every speech I give, I will not yield from talking about that revival of civic grace,” he said.