PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – In the eight years since he became a pastor at First Immanuel Baptist Church, Todd Johnson says he's seen his congregation's politics make a subtle shift.
The Philadelphia church, which recently hosted a Donald Trump campaign event reaching out to black voters, has “more people now who are more open to voting for someone other than a Democrat,” Johnson said.
The president's meager support among African Americans has shown few signs of increasing from the 6% of black voters he won in 2016, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The president’s standing with black evangelical Protestants is similarly low. According to AP VoteCast, about 8 in 10 black evangelicals who voted in the 2018 midterm elections disapproved of his performance.
But that isn’t stopping the campaign from trying to make inroads, hoping to persuade African Americans to back a president known for racially provocative rhetoric. The campaign’s visit to First Immanuel suggests that, as tough as that pitch will be for the GOP, faith-based appeals may provide a valuable way to start the conversation.
“All black people are not the same, but in the larger scale, we’re very religious and very family-oriented people,” said South Carolina pastor Mark Burns, a black televangelist who led Republicans in a prayer for Trump at the party’s 2016 convention. “So therefore, the black church is still the gateway to the black community.”
Johnson described himself as a longtime Republican and “a conservative constitutionalist evangelical." He also acknowledged that his congregation has a diversity of views.
Discussion at Thursday’s event at First Immanuel focused on the Trump-era economy, which has been strong enough to reduce black unemployment to a record low in 2018, even as the president exaggerates his involvement in a shift that began under former President Barack Obama. But abortion was on the mind of Melanie Collette, one of a few dozen people in the audience.
Collette, first vice president of the New Jersey Federation of Republican Women, touted Trump’s opposition to abortion and wondered whether the issue had “been ceded to just the white evangelicals to talk about.”
“I don’t hear us talking about it in the black community,” added Collette, 49, who described herself as a non-evangelical Christian.
Trump’s anti-abortion stance is out of step with most black Protestants, 64% of whom said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to Pew data from last year. But as Republicans boost their outreach to Latinos, women and black voters by visiting swing states, even a small uptick could pay dividends.
Another attendee, 53-year-old John Petty of Philadelphia, supports Trump. He said some of his relatives “hardly ever go to church," but they have “strong moral standards.”
"If you tell them, ‘You agree a lot with the evangelical community,’ they balk at that,” Petty said.
DeJuana Thompson, a Democratic National Committee veteran who founded WokeVote to communicate with young black and faith-based voters, noted that “the black church is not monolithic.”
“Just because it’s a black church, just because members of that church come from communities that are historically under-served, under-engaged and under-resourced, I can’t say there are people there who don’t align with some of the value sets of this administration,” Thompson added.
Even so, she pointed to a much broader consensus among African Americans and their faith leaders “calling for a standard of justice that is not seen in this administration.”
Democrats are making their own concerted efforts to speak to black voters of faith as well as the broader African American community.
Former Vice President Joe Biden warned Wednesday in a speech to a meeting of the National Baptist Convention — which describes itself as “the nation’s largest African American religious convention,” with 7.5 million members — that Trump has given “oxygen” to forces of hate.
Biden, who has led with black voters throughout his party’s primary campaign, will be joined Monday by at least three Democratic rivals for events at South Carolina churches to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “Black Voices for Trump” is set to hold its own Monday event for the King holiday in Raleigh.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, a leader in the United Church of Christ and the Black Lives Matter movement, acknowledged that abortion is a “deciding factor” for some voters of all races. But she said Trump would face problems courting people of faith because of broader policies that fall short of biblical values.
“It is impossible for me to only recognize that element of ‘pro-life’ and see what is happening to health care coverage, see what is happening to children who are being separated from their parents at the border … people who are watching wealthy people’s income grow exponentially,” Blackmon said.
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