As the war between Israel and Hamas enters its fourth month, a coalition of Black religious leaders is pressuring the Biden administration to push for a ceasefire, a campaign fueled in part by their parishioners who are increasingly distraught by the Palestinian suffering and criticism. of the president’s response on the matter.
More than 1,000 black pastors representing hundreds of thousands of parishioners across the country have issued the lawsuit. In meetings with White House officials and through open letters and announcements, ministers have made a moral case for President Biden and his administration to pressure Israel to stop its offensive operations in Gaza, which have killed thousands of civilians. . They also call for the release of hostages held by Hamas and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The persuasion effort also carries a political caveat, detailed in interviews with a dozen black religious leaders and their allies. Many of his parishioners, these pastors said, are so dismayed by the president’s stance toward war that his support for his reelection bid could be in jeopardy.
“Black faith leaders are extremely disappointed in the Biden administration on this issue,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, senior pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, which has more than 1,500 members. He was one of the first pastors of more than 200 black clergy members in Georgia, a swing state, to sign an open letter calling for a ceasefire. “We’re scared,” McDonald said. “And we’ve talked about it: It’s going to be very difficult to persuade our people to go back to the polls and vote for Biden.”
Any crack in the normally solid foundation of black support for Biden and Democrats nationally could be hugely important in November.
The intense sentiment about the war in Gaza is one of countless unexpected ways the war has altered American politics. And it comes as Biden already faces signs of waning enthusiasm among Black voters, who for generations have been Democrats’ most loyal voter base.
The coalition of Black clergy pressing Biden for a ceasefire is diverse, from conservative-leaning Southern Baptists to more progressive nondenominational congregations in the Midwest and Northeast.
“This is not a fringe issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, founder of Black Church PAC and senior pastor of Way Church in Berkeley, California. “There are many of us who feel that this administration has lost its way. in this.”
Seeing images of destruction in Gaza, many black voters whose churches have been involved in the ceasefire movement have expressed growing disenchantment with Democrats, who they believe have done little to stop the war.
Their pastors said their parishioners’ strong reactions to the war were surprising.
“Black clergy have seen war, militarism, poverty and racism, all connected,” said Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-convener of the National Black Clergy Network, whose members lead roughly 15 million black parishioners. She helped coordinate recent meetings between the White House and faith leaders. “But the war between Israel and Gaza, unlike Iran and Afghanistan, has evoked a kind of deep-seated angst among black people that we have not seen since the civil rights movement.”
When Hamas invaded Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 Israelis and taking about 240 people hostage, leagues of black pastors joined their counterparts in interfaith prayer for Israel, whose land they revere as holy.
But since then, the herdsmen’s Palestinian allies in the United States, Gaza and the West Bank have sought their help on behalf of civilians suffering under Israel’s counteroffensive. And the pastors have received criticism from their own congregants, especially younger congregants, over the conflict and Biden’s outright support for Israel.
That sentiment more broadly reflects a strong sense of solidarity between African Americans and Palestinians that has shaped public opinion since the war began.
“We see them as part of us,” said the Rev. Cynthia Hale, founder and senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia. “They are oppressed people. “We are oppressed people.”
The effort by Black pastors has forced the Biden administration to pay attention, as the president prepares for what is expected to be an extremely close election against former President Donald J. Trump.
It began in late October, when a delegation of black religious leaders from across the country arrived in Washington, where they called for an end to the fighting in meetings with the White House and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Hundreds of pastors signed open letters to Democratic leaders and paid for full-page ads in national newspapers, including The New York Times, to press for a humanitarian ceasefire and call for the release of all hostages held in Gaza.
Since its founding, the black church has been considered a power center of black political organization. In addition to providing spiritual guidance and challenging political leaders on moral grounds, black religious leaders have galvanized their members to exercise their hard-won voting rights, often with great success.
Biden, especially, has recognized the importance of the Black church. One of his first 2024 campaign events took place at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 8, making him the first sitting president to speak from the church’s historic pulpit. When protesters interrupted his speech calling for a ceasefire, his cries were drowned out by shouts of “Four more years!”
The Biden campaign had no comment on the record for this article.
Some leaders say Biden still has time to change the trajectory of the conflict abroad and, in turn, win back the lost love between his administration and Black voters.
“As long as black people feel that the president is being genuine, I think he will continue to have our support,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who presides over more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia. He also signed the letter calling for a ceasefire and the return of the hostages. “I think it’s proving his authenticity by the friction that can be seen between him and Netanyahu in relation to what’s happening in the Middle East,” he said, referring to Israel’s prime minister.
Still, six Black religious leaders who spoke to The New York Times said they or their colleagues had considered rescinding invitations to Democratic politicians who hoped to speak during their Sunday services, or withholding public support for Biden’s reelection until his administration commit to a ceasefire.
“What you are seeing from the administration in Gaza is a blatant contradiction to what we thought the president and the administration were doing,” said the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas and the president. and executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. His church has more than 12,000 members. “So when you hear a president say the term ‘redeem the soul of America,’ well, this is a stain, a scar on the soul of America. There is something about this that becomes hypocritical.”
However, black religious leaders are aware of the risks of pressuring Biden to sign a ceasefire with Trump looming as the likely Republican presidential candidate. Even pastors most critical of Biden over the war in Gaza agreed that a Trump re-election would be a worst-case scenario for their largely black and working-class congregations.
They also suggested that Trump, who has said he would ban Gaza refugees from entering the United States, would likely have less sympathy than Biden for the plight of Gaza civilians.
But the difference between grudging support and enthusiastic support could be significant. Asked whether the war in the Middle East could threaten Biden’s chances in November, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, senior pastor at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, Georgia, said, “I think Biden threatens his own success.”
Democrats, Bryant observed, seemed to be “almost in speed control and feeling like, Oh, the blacks will recover. They will be lenient and will accompany us.” But, he added, as the war drags on, “I really think the stakes will really be raised.”
Calls for a ceasefire have strained some relations between black pastors and Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Peter S. Berg, senior rabbi of the Atlanta Temple, described in an email his “extraordinary relationship” with black pastors and recalled a service at nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in the one in which Christians and Jews prayed together for peace and the safe return of the hostages.
However, he added that he felt that the demand for a ceasefire, by some pastors whom he had long considered friends, did not fully consider the feelings of Jews with ties to Israel.
“While we all want peace and for this war to end, I was disappointed to see some religious leaders calling for a ceasefire without focusing on bringing the hostages home and holding Hamas accountable for the atrocities they have committed,” said Rabbi Berg. . He added: “This is the time to redouble our strong relationships and be open and honest with each other.”
The black pastors said they had tried to reassure Jewish leaders who disagreed with their ceasefire push, stressing that their demand was not rooted in anti-Semitism and also calling for the release of Israeli hostages and for Israel to be safe from attacks.
“Our call for a ceasefire should not be interpreted as a call for the murder or terrorizing of Jewish individuals and families,” said McBride, who participated in the meetings in Washington. “We are against all these perverse expressions of dehumanization and terror, wherever they appear.”
Audio produced by Adriana Hurst.