The front row of a box suite in Wells Fargo Arena was lined with big names of African-American preaching Wednesday night, as pastors waited together to hear President Obama speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
As they cheered for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, sang along with “What the World Needs Now is Love” and waved their “Joe” and “Yes We Can” signs, their discussion turned serious. A handful of African-American preachers who support Donald Trump, including Darrell Scott and Mark Burns, they say, have managed to dominate the political and spiritual narrative for African-Americans this presidential cycle—even though many of them repeatedly have spoken out for Clinton. And they want that to change.
Bishop Greg Davis from Michigan is an evangelist whose shows are featured on the Word Network, the largest network for African-American religious media, which he says is in 90 million homes in 200 countries. He says the handful of black pastors supporting Trump are organized in a way pastors supporting Clinton are not yet. Davis says he has mentored Burns and used to even be on Scott’s radio show daily, but he does not understand how Scott and Burns do not challenge Trump to say that black lives matter. Democrats in Philadelphia, Davis says, have given “more hope in one night than all last week” in Cleveland. “They are really organized,” he says, but “they don’t see the racist venom that he spews out.” That is prompting him to act as the general election approaches: “It’s a late start, and I’m going to help with all I can.”
Bishop Corletta Vaughn, of Holy Ghost Cathedral in Detroit and reality star on Preachers of Detroit—a pastor who answers her phone with a cheerful “Praise the Lord”—wants to help Clinton push faith leaders, and especially women of faith, to the forefront. Vaughn was one of about fifty black pastors to meet privately with Clinton in January, and she was also one of 28 black ministers who pledged support to Clinton soon after. That move came after “the fiasco,” as Vaughn puts it, when the Trump campaign inaccurately claimed to win endorsements from 100 black pastors, including hers, which she never gave.
When Clinton visited her church not long after, Vaughn was moved by her personal faith and her decision to visit the town of Flint. “I introduced her as Deborah, who brought Israel together after the men had failed,” Vaughn says, referencing an Israelite prophetess. And when Vaughn heard Clinton speak to her congregation about the Biblical parable of the prodigal son, she adds, “she did so good that I didn’t preach that day!”
Rev. Traci Blackmon, who leads Christ the King United Church of Christ near Ferguson, Mo., and who serves on Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also hopes there will be more of a platform for women of faith to speak out going forward. She was in Cleveland at the UCC’s denominational headquarters during the Republican national convention, and decided that the best witness was not to protest the RNC itself but “to just be the church.” She and other faith justice leaders opened the UCC space to be a center for mediation and hospitality, to give out cookies and host the Catholic “Nuns on the Bus” travelers.
“What concerned me in the street was the misogynistic spirit that permeated,” Blackmon says of the mood in the streets of Cleveland. “When you say things like, Trump versus the Tramp? Those words go beyond this political candidate to what you think about women in general.”
She continues: “We still struggle with women in the authority in the church, and now you are talking about women being at the head of the government? … Here is the bottom line: we’re coming.”
Bishop Rudolph W. McKissick Jr., who leads Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, a 14,000-member church in Jacksonville, adds that he has preached as a guest for Scott’s church. Now his concern is that pastors like Scott and Burns are straying from the core of the gospel message. “They have sold out African-American people, they have sold their souls,” McKissick says. “Limelight can be a terrible aphrodisiac.”
But McKissick also admits the other side has been playing a strong game. They have been getting all the press, he says, because they have been making all the noise. “I think the remnant of us who believe in community, who believe in diversity, who believe in the message of Secretary Clinton, have now got to reshape the narrative and help people understand what I believe is necessary for our county, and as a result, necessary for our world.”
McKissick’s plan is to be very intentional about getting young people registered to vote, and to vote early. In the African-American tradition, he says, the church has always been “the centerpiece” of democracy. “As African-American pastors, we have to be unbought and unbossed,” he says. “For me, she may be imperfect; he is immoral.”
How the Clinton campaign leverages this groundswell of support for the general election remains to be seen. Clinton’s team hired a new director of African-American faith outreach, Zina Pierre, just this month. But the starting lineup is warming up. Down that front row line are more: pastor Jamal Bryant of Baltimore, Rev. Leslie Callahan of Philadelphia, others. And when Clinton joined Obama in the arena Wednesday night, they were all on their feet.