Black church leaders ‘on the fence’ on Biden endorsement amid Israel-Gaza war
"Longtime Democratic voting bloc devastated by US foreign policy ‘funding wars where people of color are being killed’
Last month, the group Black Christian Faith Leaders for Ceasefire took out a full-page ad in the New York Times pushing for president Joe Biden “to call for an immediate bilateral ceasefire in the Middle East for the sake of our shared humanity and our collective security”. More than 900 Black Christian faith leaders representing churches across the country backed the letter.
Prior to the publication of the ad, signatories of the letter met with White House officials and the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss their concerns regarding the Israel-Gaza war, namely the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The Guardian spoke with several signatories who said they were disappointed with how the meetings went.
Historically, Black Christian voters, often led by their pastors, have been instrumental in electing Democratic candidates. During the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Black Church PAC, which signed the letter in tandem with Leaders for Ceasefire, was pivotal in mobilizing Black and religious voters. They hosted virtual “souls to the polls” events, text-a-thons, voter-registration drives and digital-organizing workshops, and held a bus tour on which they hosted pop-up events to further engage voters. The PAC reached more than 30,000 people, made nearly 45,000 calls and trained more than 2,500 clergy leaders in election protection and souls-to-the-polls efforts.
But Black voter enthusiasm for Biden has waned since he took office. Losing the support of Black churches could prove disastrous for the president’s re-election chances.
Reverend Bri Parker, a member of the Black Church PAC, said that the collective has not yet made a decision in regards to an endorsement for Biden in the upcoming election. “We do our absolute best to give this country the best option when it comes to not just a candidate, but about quality of life,” Parker said.
Pastor Michael McBride, a co-founder of the Black Church PAC and one of the organizers behind the letter, said that the group met with officials before publishing it “to give them an opportunity to give us as much updates as they could, and also push them to call for a bilateral ceasefire and the release of all hostages, a huge increase of humanitarian aid and a peaceful resolution”.
Despite the temporary seven-day ceasefire in November, Biden and the US representatives in the UN have largely been unwavering in their support of Israel. While recently saying that he wants the war to end “as soon as possible”, Biden has not presented a timeline for ending the war. In a recent UN vote calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the US was one of only 10 nations to vote against the resolution.
“I’m not sure we’ve made a decision on how we’re going to engage election season,” Parker said. “If we did decide to support this candidate, this is making, in southern language, a hard row to hoe. It is making it really difficult for us to even imagine right now what it means to attempt to mobilize with this refusal.”
Facing ‘the three triplets of evil’
After Biden was elected, the Black Church PAC released an open letter to the incoming administration, presenting concerns and reminding them of key issues.
The PAC’s endorsement of the Biden-Harris ticket was contingent on promises that the group says have not been kept, such as a failure to pass a federal voting rights bill and failure to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. With the administration’s support of the war in the Middle East, PAC members say their 2024 endorsement is up in the air.
Following the 2020 election, Biden polled with Black voters at about 90%. In a recent survey, about 20% of Black Americans polled said they would vote for someone other than Biden or former president Trump. According to Politico, Biden carries only about 63% of Black voters.
McBride emphasized that the decisions Biden and his administration are making now will affect voters’ decision next year. He thinks the Democratic party at large “needs to step away from engaging in foreign military excursions and activities”.
According to an October survey: “43 percent of Black Americans supported some form of ceasefire in Gaza, while 24 percent believed the United States should not be involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who is arguably the most known public voice of the Black church’s legacy, said that the three triplets of evil that the United States must defeat are racism, militarism and economic exploitation,” he continued. “All three of these triplets of evil are at work right now, and so there’s a moral dissonance in the role of the United States government in 2023 to be funding wars where poor people, people of color, melanated people, dark-skinned people are being killed … I think this will have some kind of electoral impact.”
He said that the events and aftermath of 7 October have raised people’s consciousness in a way that it hadn’t been raised before.
“The consciousness of the Black church, of many Black church leaders, has been now raised around Sudan and around the Congo and around Tigray and around Niger – places where Black Christian churches exist,” he said. “What is the US’s role in those catastrophes? We may not have had language for this previously, but we need to ensure that the Democratic nominee who will likely receive the Black Church PAC’s endorsement has a foreign policy that is not hawkish, committed to endless wars and too often similar to the Republican, authoritarian, anti-Black racist candidate that appears to be hovering in the distance.”
Instead, McBride suggests that the Democratic nominee and the Democratic party at large embrace a foreign policy that is “humanitarian, peace-making, rebuilding of countries and regions that we have historically impacted in an overly negative way”.
Parker said that she has spoken to people for whom Biden’s stance on the war makes them much less hopeful and unlikely to support him in the future.
“The majority of people are saying that they’re on the fence, but we do have activists who have decided that they don’t want to, in their words, support a ‘war criminal’,” she said. “While I’m not willing to use that language … I have to realize that this is a truth that we’re hearing and it’s something that we’re going to have to engage.”
Reverend William Young IV, another signatory of the open letter and a member of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), said that Biden’s refusal to call for a permanent ceasefire has made supporting him “incredibly difficult”.
“Not just for the African American community, but other minority communities that have put him into office,” he said. “We all stand, I think, together in wanting the president to change course in this situation because, ultimately, it is really up to the United States to change course. It’s going to be an interesting election season. Certainly we do not want the alternative, what looks like will be the alternative, but we want to work as hard as we can with the president – if he will listen to us.”
Young said that CMEP has had a “difficult time in connecting with this administration in talking about the war” and that in meetings with White House staff, the answers CMEP was given about changing course were “unsatisfactory”.
What’s more, McBride said that he is also concerned by groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and other organizations that have openly targeted Black elected officials, such as congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and civil rights groups that support ending the war. He cited little pushback from the wider Democratic party on this matter.
In early to mid-November, such groups began airing ads in at least seven districts targeting the “Squad” – an informal group of progressive Democrats of color in the US House – and libertarian Republicans who don’t support foreign spending. The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) alone launched a six-figure ad campaign targeting Rashida Tlaib, the House’s only Palestinian American, for not supporting Israel’s war.
“You also see us calling for more accountability from the Democratic Party to stand with Black incumbent congressional members,” McBride said, adding that the failure to address such pressures will likely have a “significant impact” on Black voters in the 2024 election."