Two of Georgia's largest black religious groups are formally uniting for the first time to mobilize black voters in the battleground state ahead of November's presidential election.
The two congregations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, plan to combine their resources and their more than 140,000 parishioners in the state for the get-out-the-vote program, which they are expected to announce Monday at the Georgia Capitol.
Their efforts, which for now will be focused only in Georgia, aim to reinvigorate the black church as a powerful driver of voter turnout at a time when national polls indicate a lack of political energy among black Americans — and a loss of enthusiasm for President Biden, who owes his rise to the White House in 2020 to their support.
The two churches have long advocated to expand and protect civil rights and voting rights across the country, but they have generally not coordinated their messages or shared resources.
Today, however, their leaders, Bishops Reginald T. Jackson and Thomas L. Brown Sr., say they see the stakes in this year's elections, as well as recently passed laws restricting voting rights and restructuring the congressional districts in Georgia, as compelling reasons to work toward a common goal.
“It’s serious, critical,” said Bishop Brown of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which presides over its roughly 300 churches in Georgia. “We need to show leadership and we need to make sure our people are empowered and, especially in rural Georgia, we need to make sure we're on the ground. »
He said at another point that “in the civil rights movement, at least in the late '60s in particular,” there was more “solidarity between churches across denominational lines.” He added: “I think we kind of declined after some of that progress was made. »
The push by churches, whose congregants are heavily Democratic, comes as Mr. Biden struggles to regain support among black voters. In the 2020 election, Donald J. Trump won just 11% of the black vote in Georgia, according to exit polls. But in October, a New York Times poll found that Mr. Trump attracted 19% of the state's voters.
“Given the importance of this election and the fact that we are hearing across the country that Black people are not motivated to vote and that some Black people have decided they are not going to vote, we thought that it was important to do something together in a formal way,” Bishop said. Jackson, who presides over more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia.
The budget for the voting program is modest — between $200,000 and $500,000 — but church leaders say the goal is to provide both churches with a single guiding voice.
Other black faith groups are also pushing to get out the vote this year.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of the Poor People's Campaign, the economic justice coalition inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., announced Thursday a 30-state voter engagement campaign scheduled to begin next month . .
In December, the National Action Network and the National Black Conference of Churches announced a joint get-out-the-vote campaign that will also attempt to address urgent needs, like vaccination, in many communities.
Black churches have played a central role in mobilizing black voters for decades, often fueling Democratic victories. In Georgia, they voted overwhelmingly in 2020, helping Mr. Biden turn the state blue, and they did so again in the 2021 and 2022 Senate campaigns, which Democrats also won.
The cooperation between the two churches is partly a response to a well-established political network of predominantly white conservative evangelical churches in Georgia and beyond. Their loyalists constitute a key Republican constituency that has helped shape the party's policy goals for decades. In Georgia, evangelical denominations make up more than 50 percent of all Christian churches, while the share of historically black churches is 16 percent, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
“Unfortunately, over the last 30 or 40 years, the Black Church has not been as persistent or consistent in motivating and educating our community regarding the issues that affect them,” Bishop Jackson said . “And what's happened, what's really frustrating to me, is that white evangelicals have used this as an opportunity to steer many people toward what we believe is an unchristian mindset. »
During the 2020 election, Bishop Jackson led a program called Operation Voter Turnout, which focused on voter education, registration drives, mail-in ballot assistance, and a coordinated Sunday voting campaign .
Now, the lessons of this effort will be disseminated to congregations in both churches. Their program will include regular listening sessions on politics and workshops on voting; creating “personal voter plans” allowing congregants to vote and persuading their families to do the same; and weekly voter registration efforts.
“Voter registration will take place every Sunday in our churches,” said Cheryl Davenport Dozier, who helps coordinate the AME Church's civic engagement efforts in Georgia. “And in rural communities that were still in shock from Covid, we continue to carry out awareness activities. »
She added, “Sometimes we'll have up to 100 people come, and we'll have voter registration forms on site so we can reach people. Even if some of those who show up are homeless, she said, “they still have the right to vote.”
Bishop Brown said the listening sessions will be especially important in helping church leaders understand why some black voters in the state feel apathetic.
“It’s one thing to read about apathy and discontent with the Biden administration or anyone,” he said. “I think we need to have listening sessions where we can dialogue with people on the ground about what's going on, what the dissatisfactions are, what the disappointments are, and address as much as possible the facts and the determination .”
Indeed, leaders of both churches believe there is still time to reinvigorate one of Georgia's most influential voting groups.
“Regardless of what anyone says, Black people believe in the institutions that are in place to protect our rights,” said the Rev. Willie J. Barber II, who also works on civic engagement efforts for the Church AME in Georgia and has the same name as Mr. Barber of the Poor People's Campaign. “One of their concerns is that they feel it could easily disappear. And how are we going to prevent this from happening? How am I going to keep democracy alive so that we can continue to live?