Black Women and the ‘Values Vote’ In Alabama
By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
The religious voters spoke in Alabama and it wasn’t the ones that people were expecting to hear. Roy Moore counted on being the ‘religious’ candidate, and, indeed, he was supported by over 80% of White Evangelicals who voted. Yet, what is being widely noted in the aftermath of the election was that the voters who spoke loudest in the Senate race were Black voters, and especially Black women. And many of them go to church.
There is terminology that has survived for far too long in our political and media lexicon: “Values Voter.” This is a convenient phrase that has been used to signal religious Americans who are voting out of their moral convictions. But like Moral Majority before it, Values Voters is more of a political organizing tool than a religious or spiritual reference point, with a very narrow field of issues (abortion, homosexuality, low taxes) and cultural identification (white nationalism).
Unfortunately, Values Voters is such a pithy phrase that it has seeped into American consciousness and often is used as interchangeable with religious voters or moral voting. For years, if a talk show or panel was interested in the religious voice, the fall back choice was a White, male, Christian preacher who would offer all the predictable political things that the White Evangelicals believe.
The term “Evangelical” has become more of a political and racial identifier than a religious one — and a potent force. They make up about 25% of the American population, more than any other single religious group, and they are unified in their political activities.
But their (almost) uniform embrace of the candidacies of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, in Alabama, may spell the end of their hegemony as ‘religious’ voters.
The majority of Americans are still religious. Roughly 70% identify with some form of religious tradition — and the number is even higher of Americans who consider themselves spiritual and believe in some kind of higher power or God. Many of them are conservative. More are not conservative, but are pluralistic and progressive in their understanding of morality. President Obama won with a wide coalition of religious voters who voted for him in 2008 and 2012. In fact, Obama won the majority of voters from every religious tradition, aside from White Evangelicals.
Donald Trump portrayed himself as the last, great hope of the White Evangelical ‘values voter,’ even though in his personal morality did not measure up to the the strictures of those who supported him. The turn out of Evangelical voters made the difference for Trump in 2016.
But 2016 was also probably the crest of Evangelical power, and certainly the end of the identification of Evangelicals with moral authority of ‘value voters.’ You can’t support an alleged pedophile in Moore, and an admitted sexual molester in Trump and maintain moral authority.
On the other hand, voter turnout was amplified among Black voters and especially Black women. 98% percent of Black women voted for Doug Moore, making up 17% of the voters in the election. Black voters certainly come from different traditions but, in Alabama, they are living with the not too distant legacy of the greatest spiritual moment in American history — the Civil Rights movement.
If we are looking for voices of moral authority in America today, Black women should have the mic.
The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, pastor of Middle Church in New York City, is an African American pastor who exemplifies this new understanding of values voting:
“African Americans — in particular women — turned out last night in Alabama as value voters. Human decency. Compassion. Human and civil rights. Freedom of choice. As a Christian clergy who believes there is more than one path to God, these are my values. These are American values. And they won the day.”
Poet and politician Andrea Jenkins, who is a black trans woman recently elected to City Council in Minneapolis. She makes a call for resources and power to be put into the hands of Black women at all levels of society:
“From Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, to Shirley Chisolm and Maxine Waters, Black women have taken in their own hands to make America the great nation that it strives to be. Yesterday, in Alabama, we witnessed yet again — Black (people) standing up for equality and justice. When we center the most marginalized people in our community and make life better for them, we make life better for everyone. Let Black women lead!”
Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity Church in Chicago, reflects:
“Alabama has witnessed a sweet and brutal history where people of African descent were (and, in many cases, still are) marginalized by the political status quo; yet the same marginalized community is the consistent moral thread redeeming the state from political obscurity. What greater act of ironic mysterious redemption than Black voters, especially Black women voters loudly rejecting Roy Moore and embracing Doug Jones. This is similar to Rosa Parks and ‘Selma March’ organizer Amelia Boynton becoming the true iconic moral symbols of the state over the tragic and misguided political calculations of George Wallace and Eugene ‘Bull’ Conner.
“Once again Alabama has been saved by Black women. The state’s moral compass has historically been recalibrated by the people the state rejected. Doug Jones is not a product of the DNC but the M.I.A (Montgomery Improvement Association) the coalition of women, ministers, and organizers who dared challenge segregation in Alabama in December 1955.
This is the organization Rosa Parks helped form and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked to lead at the behest of long-time activists. Is it not ironic this December, just as in 1955, we witness again the power of black women organizing and redeeming the ‘Sweet Home’ called Alabama? I think everyone in the nation should say ‘Amen.’”
And yet, Womanist Theologian and activist Lisa Anderson (and Auburn’s VP of Embodied Justice Leadership) wants to make sure people know that Black women countered Roy Moore and Donald Trump out of their interest to stay alive in the “belly of the beast that is America.”
“Black women’s spiritual power is about marshaling our agency to love ourselves and our folks hard and well in a world that does not love us. Yes, we are powerful in the extreme. But we are nobody’s saviors or spirit guides.”
Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President of Auburn Seminary and Editor of Voices.