Since the enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Black churches have always played a pivotal role in the electoral process. During the Civil Rights Movement, Sunday morning pulpits were preachers’ soapboxes to commingle God’s word with inspiration and information regarding civil rights initiatives, including rights and privileges guaranteed by that law.
In response to the civil rights political victories, African-Americans exercised their right to vote with passion. Within months of the act’s passage, one quarter of a million new Black voters had been registered. By 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.
The enthusiasm with which African-Americans vote has diminished over decades. It remains the Black church’s responsibility to encourage its membership to participate in the electoral process; remind them of their history; and empower them to be heard through their vote.
Black voter turnout, or the lack thereof, will have a significant impact on the election of the next president of The United States of America. This presidential campaign season, many Black evangelicals find ourselves in a bit of a quandary. I am a Pentecostal pastor who is a pro-life, registered Democrat. Thus, I am biblically and doctrinally opposed to policies that support same-sex marriage and abortion. But simultaneously, I support policies that empower the middle-class, poor, uneducated, disadvantaged, and effectively improve the civic, economic, religious, and cultural conditions of our African-American communities. An agreement or disagreement on one issue cannot dictate one’s vote. We must look to the totality of the candidates’ platforms to make an informed voting decision.
As the Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a 6 million member denomination, and the Pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, a 25,000 member congregation in the inner-city of Los Angeles, I take seriously my obligation as an American citizen to vote, despite the complexity of choice we sometimes face. To that end, my vote must be cast for the candidate who cares most about my community, my family, the Black church, its rights and our parishioners.
There are many pastors formally endorsing presidential candidates this campaign season, to much fanfare. It is an insult to the intelligence and savvy of the Black church membership for political candidates, strategists and pollers to assume that for whomever a “church leader” cast his or her vote, the membership will follow blindly. Moreover, legally and constitutionally, the church should not exert influence over the outcome of elections and individuals involved in elections. In fact, a 1954 Tax Reform Act, commonly termed the “Johnson Amendment” noted that all tax-exempt organizations are banned from supporting or opposing political candidates.
However, the Tax Reform Act does not require the church to remain silent. Morally and from a humane perspective, the church should take positions on issues that impact people; the poor, disenfranchised, those who cannot speak loudly for themselves either because of lack of resources or lack of access.
Every once in awhile, an issue rises to the level of potentially contributing to the good or ill of our African-American society; or an issue rises in relationship to those things that are most sacred to us. Consequently, on occasion, it is imperative for the Black church to articulate its position. This presidential campaign season represents one of those occasions where the Black church must articulate its position and express its expectations of the presidential candidates; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
A review of recent comments from each of the candidates demonstrates that each must worker harder to engage the Black Church in a compelling way. Mr. Trump stated, “I believe we need a civil rights agenda for our time, one that ensures the right to a great education . . . and the right to live in safety and in peace, and to have a really, really great job, a good-paying job, and one that you love to go to every morning.” It is unclear to me what Mr. Trump meant by a “civil rights agenda for our time.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prescribed an end to segregation, an end to discrimination in employment, desegregation of schools, and equal opportunity to live in safety and peace. We don’t need a new “civil rights agenda,” we need politicians who are passionate and committed to furthering and fulfilling the original Civil Rights Act.
In response to Mr. Trump’s question to African-Americans: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What … do you have to lose?” If the next President does not understand, empathize and sympathize with the daily struggles and dreams of African-Americans, then we have 50 years of progress to lose.
Secretary Clinton, as of late, has begun to engage the Black church in a more consistent manner, which does not mean, a more meaningful manner. She told a predominantly Black audience that the nation needed “a president who will pray with you and for you.” She has also stated that she is “grateful for the great gift of personal salvation and for the great obligation of the social gospel.” To any God-fearing Christian, these words are music to our ears. Yet, they fall short of speaking directly to our problems and offering tangible solutions that will be top priorities on day one in the Oval Office.
The Black church must wield its strength in numbers and influence and demand that the presidential candidates speak to the issues that impact their members every day. The narrative must shift from how the other candidate will harm us, to how their presidency will help us. Therefore, a clear understanding and agreement in a candidate’s positions, as they relate to the congregants of the Black church, is what will determine who gets the vote.
The Black church is too powerful an institution to be taken for granted or underestimated. Based on our voter engagement, we will cast the deciding votes as to who will be the 45th President of the United States of America. The Black church equals Black power.
Charles E. Blake is the fifth presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ and senior pastor of the West Angeles COGIC in Los Angeles.