Nationally, the word "evangelical" has become in recent years nearly synonymous with "conservative Republican" and Alabama is one of the most evangelical states in the country. But in Alabama, there is a difference: black Christians.
While in many parts of the country, Christians who technically fit the dictionary definition of "evangelical" — believe in the Bible as the literal word of God, believe in the essential importance of sharing one’s faith, among other metrics — sometimes don’t call themselves evangelical because the word has taken on such a partisan and even racial tone in recent years. And sometimes people who don’t identify with the dictionary definition use the word because it fits their politics. The faith of many Christians of color is sometimes misunderstood or not counted because of chaos over the word "evangelical."
But in Alabama, black Christians use the label, and experts think faith organizers were able to motivate such voters by urging them to reclaim their own religious values in the public square.
Black Christians in Alabama felt "we need to show the world that we as people of color have a voice, that this is the place that birthed the dream" of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said the Rev. Marvin Lue Jr., pastor of Stewart Memorial CME Church in Mobile and chairman of the board of the organizing group Faith in Action. Lue said black Christians in Alabama were motivated to turn out at rates similar to President Barack Obama’s two presidential elections by issues such as mass incarceration, a struggling state educational system and a "mentality that continues to consider us as second-class citizens."
Black evangelicals in Alabama are less motivated by the issues that heavily drive white evangelicals — specifically, abortion and the rise of LGBT equality.
The Washington Post this week reported from Alabama on black voters, who said they were primarily motivated by making sure someone who reminded them of Donald Trump didn’t win:
"But what these black voters knew was that Moore had adopted Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan — and for residents of a state that has deep-rooted racial tensions running through its veins, some moments of America’s past are not among the state’s finest moments."
Race generally trumps religion in Alabama overall as a dividing line among voters — and that is certainly true among African-American voters.
Black evangelicals voted Tuesday in Alabama like black voters overall, according to exit polling. Of that group, 95 percent voted for Sen.-Elect Doug Jones, a Democrat, compared with 98 percent of black non-evangelicals.
The racial divide in America is far more pronounced in Alabama than in the country overall. In 2012, the last presidential election in which Alabama had an exit poll, 84 percent of whites voted for Republican Mitt Romney. Nationally, 59 percent of whites voted for Romney.
However, that may be breaking a bit. While former state Supreme Court Justice and GOP candidate Roy Moore won white evangelicals by 62 percentage points, he lost non-evangelical whites by 29 points. White non-evangelicals were one of the few white groups Jones won.
While African-Americans and white evangelicals voted pretty consistently with their recent past votes in Alabama, white non-evangelicals shifted significantly.
Alabama is one of the most evangelical states in the country. In Alabama’s special election, 76 percent of African-Americans identified as born-again or evangelical, according to exit polling, along with 72 percent of whites. According to the Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, 14 percent of blacks and 29 percent of whites nationally identify as evangelical Protestant.
African-American voters made up about 29 percent of voters in Alabama on Tuesday, exit polls show. That is similar to African-American turnout in Obama’s two elections, according to exit polls.
Lue said he thinks the turnout still would have been very high among black voters even without the explosion of controversy after the Washington Post reported that Moore was accused of sexual misbehavior with several teenage girls.
"African-American women, even though they were sympathetic, they understood their issues are different from their white counterparts. As awful as those allegations were, African-American women are dealing with domestic violence on a daily basis," he said.
Black Christians were motivated by knowing Jones as the lead federal prosecutor of two Klansmen involved in the bombing a half-century ago of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Lue said.
Montgomery doctor Randy Brinson, longtime head of the state’s Christian Coalition, organizer of young evangelical voters and a Republican who lost in the Senate race against Moore earlier this year, said Jones was able to elevate religious values such as humility and grace, rather than specific social issues that sometimes separate black and white evangelical Christians.
"He was successful in talking about such things as virtues rather than riding in on a horse or, ‘We’re here to tell you what to do.’ You had the Old Testament Moore vs. the New Testament. Moore was preaching the Old Testament of law and punishment and Jones was in more soft tones — but not even in explicitly religious terms. It was such a contrast," said Brinson, who has engaged black Christians for years in his organizing work as well as a candidate.
This was inspiring for black evangelicals, Brinson said, who were not going to be motivated by the primary issues Moore characterized as faith-based.
Brinson said he wasn’t negating the power of racial division and allegiances in Alabama. He said during his candidacy that he was invited by several black pastors to speak at a predominantly black church about corporate pollution in Birmingham, but on the day of the event, none of the clergy showed up, and he was told that Democratic Party activists discouraged the event from going forward.