The Common Good

Listening to the Black Church Tradition on Voting and Hope

In the black Baptist church where I worship every Sunday, it's no surprise that Republicans don't own the evangelical vote. But I cut my teeth on faith and politics as a white Southern Baptist growing up in the heyday of the Moral Majority movement, so I appreciate the revolution in media perceptions of "born again" believers. We are, indeed, more complicated than Jerry Falwell made us seem. Depending on our context and history, evangelicals can go either way at the ballot box.

But as someone who's lived on both sides of the racial and political divide in American Christianity, I'm not convinced that evangelicals are the real swing vote in this election. Americans are a religious people, and I don't doubt the importance of the faith factor in '08. But the real religious fervor in this election is coming from "post-Christian" young people who aren't so sure they need God anymore, but still feel the need for salvation in perilous times. A lot is riding on this presidential election, and it seems that so many want more than a president. They want to elect a savior on Nov. 4.

As a white minister in the black church tradition, I've returned in recent months to Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and its bold vision of Christian social engagement. A line from the end of the letter jumps out at me as a prophetic description of our time. "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church," King wrote to ministers who had called his campaign against segregation extreme, "it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."

Four decades after King's death, we have seen some progress toward integrated schools, workplaces, and even families. But today the church in America stands out as the most segregated institution in our society. White Christians have watched our children shrug their shoulders and walk away from our "social clubs." We've failed to pass on a faith they can believe in.

Maybe it is time for us to listen to the black church tradition that Dr. King inherited and learn from people who never had the luxury of imagining that faith and politics could be kept separate. At a time like this, brothers and sisters at my church tell me, the church cannot be reduced to a voting bloc for the candidate we like best. Never have black Christians felt more tempted to put their hope in a presidential candidate than they do this year. But to do so, they know, would be to both shortchange our children and forfeit the greatest gift the church has to offer the world-a demonstration plot where people can see what love and forgiveness across dividing lines looks like.

I believe in the power of God to transform lives and create beloved communities across dividing lines because I have seen it here in Durham, North Carolina. In a battleground state where politics are still racialized in the tradition of Jesse Helms, I know that white and black Christians can worship together on Sunday morning and give ourselves throughout the week to becoming the change we seek. Compelled by love, we can make sure our neighbors have health care, affirm life in a culture of death, create economic possibilities for marginalized kids who are tempted to join gangs, and help families keep their homes. Our life together is political, but it's not partisan. We're citizens of God's kingdom who work and pray for heaven to come here on earth.

Evangelicals' votes will go both ways on Nov. 4, but God's movement to transform the world through a people who love one another will continue. We don't need to elect a savior. We already have one. What we need, more than anything, is to trust the everyday politics that the black church knows and recover the "sacrificial spirit of the early church" Dr. King prayed for.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line.

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