For generations, a critical part of Democrats’ efforts to get Black voters to the polls has been appeals via the Black church, one of the strongest pillars of the African American community. Warnock’s election is the latest example of the success of this strategy. But a broader view of the Democratic Party’s recent past makes it clear that the African American church has become a powerful organizing space for Democrats — so much so that national candidates for office must engage the African American church for any hope of winning the party’s nomination.
This was evident during the 1976 presidential elections when Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter made widespread appeals to the Black church during his run for the presidency. Carter persuaded Martin Luther King Sr., the father of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., to campaign with him. His actions immediately caught the attention of African American voters. Appeals to such voters became critical when, late in the fall campaign, it was revealed that Carter’s church in Plains, Ga., did not allow any African American members. Support from King Sr., Andrew Young — who, before becoming heavily engaged in the civil rights movement served as a pastor, too — and other Black religious leaders helped Carter avoid what could have been a devastating blow to his campaign.
The rise of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was another clear signal of the importance of the Black church to Democratic Party politics. Although the 1980s are remembered politically as the era in which the Moral Majority and the conservative White evangelical movement made its presence felt in the Republican Party, some African American religious leaders thought the Black church needed to become more politically active.
“It is no accident that the Black church has produced much of the Black political leadership in the United States.” This was the opening of an essay in Ebony magazine’s August 1984 issue about the importance of the church in Black politics during another critical election year. By the late summer of 1984, Jackson had set out to use his pulpit — along with his activism and coalition building through the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition — to rise in the Democratic presidential primary.
Jackson’s arrival on the national scene showcased the potential political power of the Black church. When the Rev. T.J. Jemison assumed leadership of the National Baptist Convention in 1982, he argued, “We are not going to be like the Moral Majority and try to force our point of view on any candidate.” He added, however, “But we are going to be very strong in our efforts to endorse candidates who do see eye to eye with us.”
The legacy of activism and political involvement from the African American church continued throughout the 1990s. Bill Clinton’s utilization of the African American church during his 1992 presidential campaign, for example, was so thorough and extensive that journalist Gwen Ifill, then writing for the New York Times, wrote that it seemed as though Clinton was “toying with a calling more spiritual than political.” Such connections were used again by Clinton in 2008 when his wife, Hillary Clinton, ran for the Democratic nomination. Nonetheless, the rise of Barack Obama in that year’s campaign split the Black electorate — and also embroiled the African American church.
Ebenezer Baptist Church served as a political battleground in that campaign. As pastor of Ebenezer beginning in 2005, Warnock was becoming part of a radical, more politically engaged element of the African American church. Ebenezer, after all, was the church home of King Jr. during the 1960s. Warnock accepted the political importance of the church by allowing Obama to appear there on the Sunday before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2008. Referring to King and linking Obama to him, Warnock said, “Maybe 40 years after his death, it’s time to claim the promise.”
It was the very radicalism of certain elements of the Black church, however, that nearly cost Obama his 2008 nomination. His pastor in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was caught on film making inflammatory remarks about the United States. To many Americans, the statements were shocking and beyond the pale — so much so that Obama disavowed Wright to save his campaign. But to many in the African American church, they were merely part of the prophetic tradition of that church. It is a tradition that, time and again, speaks truth to power in American society. It was a tradition that, for example, sparked King Jr. to thunder against American warfare in Southeast Asia in 1968 by warning that God would “break the backbone of your power.”
It was this tradition in which Warnock spoke while serving as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Before that, he served as a youth pastor, and later assistant pastor, at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Abyssinian, another important church in the history of African American Christianity, was for years the church home of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell who — like Warnock — combined religious leadership with success in the political arena. Warnock’s election victory in Georgia is not only historic for sending an African American Democrat from the Deep South to the U.S. Senate for the first time in more than 150 years, but it is a reminder of the continued importance of the Black church in national politics.