The religious voting bloc that went overlooked in Alabama’s special election

It reflects a myopic view of black religious and political behavior.

Members of the 16th Street Baptist Church attend service days before the special election. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Members of the 16th Street Baptist Church attend service days before the special election. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

While a great deal of political attention was spent analyzing white faith-based voters’ perplexing support for Roy Moore, the unsuccessful Republican candidate in this month’s Alabama Senate special election, an equally important, religion-inspired voting bloc went overlooked: black evangelical Christians.

In particular, black evangelical Christians like Devon Crawford, a 24-year-old divinity student, turned out in overwhelming numbers to help Doug Jones become the first Democrat in a quarter century to win a Senate seat in one of the nation’s reddest states. Crawford told the New York Times that he took a break from his classwork at the University of Chicago to make the trip home to cast a vote against what he described as Moore’s misunderstanding of scriptures and faith.

Moore’s version of Christianity, Crawford said, “sanctifies the truth-making power of white men” and was “really just a masquerade for white supremacy.”

According to a post-election analysis by the Washington Post, black evangelicals voted in similar fashion to the state’s overall black voting population, with 95 percent supporting Jones. In total, 96 percent of black Alabama voters supported Jones.

By comparison, exit polling conducted by Edison Research found that 80 percent of white voters who self-identified as born-again or evangelical Christians, said they supported Moore. About 18 percent voted for Jones, while another 2 percent chose a write-in candidate.

The disparity of white evangelical support for Moore received a lot of pre- and post-election attention. For the most part, however, media and political pundits failed to recognize Jones’ strong support among religious black Alabama residents. This stems from their ignorance of religious traditions in the United States and, more specifically, a myopic view of black religious and political behavior.

Even the label “evangelical” is fraught with misunderstanding. Strictly speaking, evangelical Christians profess the inerrant veracity and authority of the Bible and feel called to share publicly their beliefs with others, whether believers or not. Extreme believers, such as Moore, have taken their faith into politics, advocating a brand of Christian nationalism that suggests the United States is favored by God and that national laws should reflect Biblical text. Moore’s views, while popular with many in Alabama, led to his twice being removed as Alabama’s chief justice for his refusal to follow federal laws that he claimed conflicted with his religious beliefs.  

Overall, white evangelical support for Moore in Alabama was strong and consistent with its support for President Donald Trump in last year’s presidential race, an echo of the 81 percent who voted for Trump. A small number of white evangelicals appeared to sit out the election. Evangelicals claimed 44 percent of the total vote in Alabama, the Washington Post reports, even though they made up 47 percent of voters in the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections.

Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast, recently noted in an online post that white evangelicalism has morphed indistinguishably into Republican politics, as shown by their support for Moore and for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

“Many other Christians share common basic beliefs with (white) evangelicals, but these other groups have not become so closely identified with the Republican party,” wrote Tisby, who is a PhD student in history at the University of Mississippi. “Whatever label one chooses, white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Republicanism.”

Although black evangelical Christians employ their faith — and votes — quite differently from white evangelicals, political professionals and media observers seem unable to shake free of viewing all black voters as a monolithic, Democratic bloc. While overall voting trends and overall black support for Democrats might lead to such a fallacious assumption, a deep dive into what motivates black voters suggests otherwise. 

Like many white evangelical voters in Alabama, black voters are largely church-going Christians and told pollsters that their faith guided their politics. But unlike Alabama’s white evangelical voters, who looked past allegations of sexual assault to cast a vote in support of Moore’s misplaced morality on issues such as LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, and racial equality, black voters placed greater emphasis on Jones’ support for social justice and equity issues.

In particular, Jones leaned in on his civil rights record with an effective advertising campaign that included media ads and billboards across the state that highlighted his successful prosecution of two KKK members in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a watershed moment in the civil rights struggle.

As the Jones victory suggests, the South is changing.

Although religion continues to play a prominent role in social and political life in the southern states, outdated notions of the so-called “Bible Belt” culture persists in obscuring the changing dynamics of race and politics across the South. As Jenna Giesow wrote recently in a commentary for Relevant, an online religious publication, even the congregations of formerly segregated churches across Dixie are becoming more diverse and less fire-and-brimstone doctrinaire

“More and more, the churches are recognizing the importance of a multigenerational and multicultural church body,” Giesow wrote. “When we stand together in church, we gain a clearer perspective of what heaven will be like one day when all races, all ages, all people are united together with our savior for eternity.”

Of course, that day has yet to be fully realized. Until then, even as they may pray alongside each other, black and white Christian evangelicals remain motivated to vote for very different candidates and for very different reasons.