Black Churches in Georgia Unite to Mobilize Voters in a Key Battleground

Two of the largest Black church groups in Georgia are formally uniting for the first time to mobilize Black voters in the battleground state ahead of the November presidential election.

The two congregations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, plan to combine their resources and their more than 140,000 parishioners in the state for the get-out-the-vote program, which they are set to announce on Monday at the Georgia Capitol.

Their efforts, which for now will be concentrated only in Georgia, are meant to reinvigorate the Black church as a powerful driver of voter turnout at a time when national polls point to lagging political energy among Black Americans — and slipping enthusiasm for President Biden, who owes his 2020 rise to the White House to their support.

The two churches have long broadly pushed to expand and protect civil rights and voting rights across the country, but they have generally not coordinated their messages or shared resources.

Now, however, their leaders, Bishops Reginald T. Jackson and Thomas L. Brown Sr., say they see the stakes of this year’s election, as well as recently passed laws restricting voting rights and restructuring congressional districts in Georgia, as compelling reasons to work toward a shared goal.

“This is serious, critical,” said Bishop Brown of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who presides over its roughly 300 churches in Georgia. “We have to take leadership, and we have to make sure that our people are empowered, and, particularly in rural Georgia, we have to make sure that we’re on the ground.”

He said at another point that “in the civil rights movement, at least in the late ’60s in particular,” there was more “solidarity among churches across denominational lines.” He added, “I think we’ve kind of waned after some of those advancements have been made.”

The push by the churches, whose congregants lean heavily Democratic, comes as Mr. Biden struggles to rebuild his support among Black voters. In the 2020 election, Donald J. Trump won just 11 percent of the Black vote in Georgia, according to exit polls. But in October, a poll from The New York Times found Mr. Trump drawing 19 percent of these voters in the state.

“With the importance of this election, and with hearing all around the country about Blacks are not motivated to vote, and some Blacks have decided they’re not going to vote, we thought it was important to do something together formally,” said Bishop Jackson, who presides over Georgia’s more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches.

The budget for the voting program is modest — between $200,000 and $500,000 — but church leaders say the goal is to provide the two churches with a single guiding voice.

Other Black faith groups are also working to turn out voters this year.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, the economic justice coalition inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., announced on Thursday a 30-state voter engagement campaign that is set to begin next month.

In December, the National Action Network and the Conference of National Black Churches announced a joint get-out-the-vote campaign that will also try to fulfill pressing needs, like vaccinations, in many communities.

Black churches have for decades played a pivotal role in turning out Black voters, often fueling Democratic victories. In Georgia, they turned out voters en masse in 2020, helping Mr. Biden flip the state blue, and they did so again in Senate campaigns in 2021 and 2022 that Democrats also won.

In part, the cooperation between the two churches serves as a response to a well-established political network of predominantly white, conservative evangelical churches in Georgia and beyond. Their congregants are a key Republican constituency that has helped shape the party’s policy goals for decades. In Georgia, evangelical denominations make up more than 50 percent of all Christian churches, while the share of historically Black churches is 16 percent, according to a Pew Research Center study.

“Unfortunately, for the last 30, 40 years, the Black church has not been as persistent or consistent in motivating and educating our community as it relates to issues that affect them,” Bishop Jackson said. “And what has happened, which is really frustrating to me, is that the white evangelicals have used that as an opportunity to steer many people into what we believe is an un-Christian mind-set.”

During the 2020 election, Bishop Jackson spearheaded a program called Operation Voter Turnout, which focused on voter education, registration drives, assistance with absentee ballots and a coordinated Sunday voting push.

Now the lessons from that effort will be spread throughout the congregations of both churches. Their program will include regular listening sessions about politics and workshops about voting; creating “personal voter plans” for congregants to cast their ballots and persuade their families to do the same; and weekly voter registration efforts.

“Voter registration will take place every Sunday in our churches,” said Cheryl Davenport Dozier, who helps coordinate civic engagement efforts for the A.M.E. Church in Georgia. “And in the rural communities that were still reeling since Covid, we continue to have outreach.”

She added, “Sometimes it’s up to 100 people that are coming through, and we’ll have voter registration forms there so that we’re reaching the people.” Though some of those who show up are homeless, she said, “they still have the right to vote.”

Bishop Brown said the listening sessions would be particularly important to help church leaders understand why some Black voters in the state are feeling apathetic.

“It’s one thing to read about the apathy and disgruntlement about the Biden administration or whoever,” he said. “I think we need to have listening sessions where we can dialogue with people on the ground about what’s going on, what the dissatisfactions are, what the disappointments are, and address as much as possible with facts and resolve.”

Indeed, leaders in both churches believe there is still time to re-energize one of the most influential voting groups in Georgia.

“Regardless of what anyone says, Black people do believe in the institutions that are in place to protect our rights,” said the Rev. Willie J. Barber II, who also works on civic engagement efforts for the A.M.E. Church in Georgia and has the same name as Mr. Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign. “One of the concerns is that they feel that that could easily go away. And how are we going to stop that from happening? How am I going to keep democracy alive so that we can continue to live?”