Activism cuts into the political might of S.C. black church

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FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden acknowledges applause from parishioners as he departs after attending services at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, S.C. His campaign hired a South Carolina faith outreach director in August 2019 and announced the endorsement of 100 local faith leaders in December. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Before delivering his Sunday sermon this week, Rev. Joseph Darby took a moment to address the elephant in the room: the upcoming South Carolina Democratic primary.

Just because a candidate “ran strong in two of the whitest states in America, that doesn’t mean they’re going to run strong in South Carolina,” he told worshippers at Nichols Chapel AME. “Let the church say ‘amen!”

Parishioners, many nodding in agreement, replied in unison: “Amen!”

Darby — who, like many pastors in South Carolina, doesn’t shy away from politics — then encouraged congregants to attend an outreach event just down the street hosted by the activist group Black Voters Matter. But when asked if the church was involved in the event, Darby said no, explaining he had only learned about it minutes before the service began.

“The civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ’60s ... was spearheaded by the black church,” he said. “Now you’ve got Black Voters Matter and Black Lives Matter. They don’t have that same connection to the church, because it’s not seen as a spiritual battle as much as it is a social-political battle.”

This distinction points to a new reality for Democratic candidates as they court black Protestants ahead of a South Carolina primary on Saturday in which the African American electorate plays an outsized role. Presidential hopefuls can no longer count on the church as the principal forum to connect with black voters: Instead, they must balance that appeal with courtship of a younger population that’s just as likely to rally behind secular activists as it is to heed advice from pulpits.

Joshua DuBois, who directed faith outreach for former President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, recalled a strategy for winning black voters in South Carolina that year that centered on the traditional approach, courting black pastors and majority-African American congregations.

But in the decade since then, he said, times and tactics have changed as Black Lives Matter and other grassroots activist efforts flourished.