Reverend Greg Lewis was enraged.
As executive director of “Souls to the Polls Milwaukee,” a program to engage religious Black voters in Wisconsin, Lewis was triggered by a campaign question: Is the Biden team doing enough to reach out to communities of faith like his?
“When are these people going to learn how to fight?” Lewis said in an interview Monday afternoon. “They just stand there and just let the Republicans just punch them in the face. And they sit there complaining about getting punched. Do something about it, man. This is crazy! That question right there really hits my gut,” he said.
In short, his answer was no.
The fiery critique, which came just minutes before Biden spoke in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, helped to elucidate the gravity of what’s at risk for many religious individuals across the country in just six weeks.
Facing the possibility of a second term with President Donald Trump in the White House, some Black faith leaders have railed against a possible extension of what they consider to be Trump’s unholy affront to things like morality and inclusion. With so many “social ills” to right, as one minister put it, some see their service to help get votes as even more critical now, especially as the Biden operation has gone entirely digital during the pandemic.
“It’s lucky we’ve got ‘Souls to the Polls’ here because we’re going to saturate this community with information,” Lewis said, describing faith-based voting programs across denominations.
In Lewis’ view, registered Milwaukee residents will likely help sway the election this time around, just like in 2016, presenting a substantial opportunity. But as state polls currently show a real shot for a change of political power at the top, he’s concerned that Democrats may flub their chance to stave off a Trump homecoming, warning against repeating a nightmarish script from four years ago with a different nominee.
“People don’t give a—I can’t cuss, I’m a faith leader,” he said. “But people don’t care about Biden.”
Pressed more, he brought up the president. “Trump has an opportunity to win. Let me put it to you like that. I’m not Democratic or Republican. All I know is I don’t like what I see in the White House right now.”
Lewis’ fury is not unique. While others see the former vice president, a devout Catholic, in a more favorable light as a natural magnet for voters of faith, the anxiety that Trump could claim the prize is still a top cause for worry.
“There’s a lot of fear,” said Bishop Harry Seawright, a minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “That’s why we just want to make sure that if people are afraid to go out, they still need to know that they have alternatives.”
The fear is not just about Trump. Seawright is worried about a whole host of potential problems before and after Nov. 3—especially COVID-19, which disproportionately affects older residents like Black seniors. But “the sabotaging of our votes” tops the list, he confessed.
With safety above all else, the Biden campaign is pushing for Americans to vote by mail and is conducting virtual-only organizing efforts across the board. Their comprehensive outreach programs fall within that broader strategy. Biden often alludes to or directly mentions core principles of faith in his paid advertisements and political speeches, and his campaign staffers have taken their cues from him. Aides have hosted regular virtual faith events, including phone banks and house parties. They’ve also reached out to prominent national leaders in the space and have held a series of “off the record listening sessions,” ultimately receiving more than 1,000 endorsements.
“We are directly courting people who are faith-motivated,” said Josh Dickson, the Biden campaign’s faith engagement director, emphasizing a “strong moral contrast between the two tickets.”
“We’re aiming to be the most expansive and robust and diverse faith outreach programming that we’ve seen in a Democratic campaign,” Dickson added. One event that speaks to the broadness of their shop is scheduled to take place on Wednesday night, where officials will host an “Evangelicals for Biden” virtual conversation with Billy Graham’s granddaughter, Jerushah Duford.
“Our faith is being tested,” said Terry Wimes, a 58-year-old resident from Jones County, Georgia. “Currently the biggest threat to Christianity is the hypocrisy of many Evangelicals. I have to do my part to be a positive representative for Christ.”
Wimes posted online about driving seniors and other residents in his county to the polls for early voting, which starts on Oct. 12. “Black folks are focusing on turning Georgia blue!” he said, sharing a wish that matches one of the Biden campaign’s pledged priorities.
Historically during presidential election cycles, gathering in churches and other centers of worship are some of the more common places to register and bring in new people under the tent. “Souls to the Polls,” a broad election-time term that encompasses a lot of these standard elements, has been replicated with success in interfaith institutions across the country.
This year, the nature of the novel coronavirus has made that significantly harder. In an effort to err on the side of science, Team Biden’s decision to not engage in person is one of the clearest contrasts to their opponent, whose campaign has continued canvassing face-to-face, at times eschewing stay at home precautions by health experts. The president himself, cheered on by loyal attendees packed in close quarters, continues to hold large gatherings, sometimes indoors, despite 200,000 coronavirus deaths nationwide.
Bruce Colburn, who works as “Souls to the Polls’” program coordinator in Milwaukee, envisioned something entirely hands-on when he started crafting GOTV initiatives pre-pandemic. He planned on facilitating discussions at churches and providing spaces for families to talk with each other after services about the importance of voting. That playbook had to be thrown out.
“Our work was really going to be based in the churches,” Colburn said. “And that all changed.”
Colburn’s group has started to produce different types of gatherings for the first time, including hosting safe sit-ins with masks at churches after protests swept Wisconsin. “Those are places where people bring their chairs and sit by the side by the churches and discuss what they’re going to do about getting active,” he said, counting a “couple hundred people” who showed up in solidarity recently. “One of the big features of those is making sure that we get people to register to vote while they’re there.”
His network has also held more phone calls than previously expected and had success getting additional polling places designated for early voting, a victory he believes will alleviate some voters’ concerns about casting their ballots safely. They’ve also made visual appeals to locals by distributing signs and billboards around the city so people can still receive critical voting messaging when they’re not interacting with others.
Biden’s campaign is also engaged on that front. Their own internal “Souls to the Polls” program assists in giving out education materials on a non-partisan basis to faith leaders to share with their parishioners, including resources on online voter registration.
“We know that COVID has presented so many challenges for people, but we actually see enthusiasm around this work at an incredibly high level because of all the ways in which people have been impacted,” Dickson said.
In the Democratic primary, Biden won the support of many Black voters in South Carolina who helped guide him towards success with voters in other states. Michael Wear, a former adviser to President Barack Obama on faith outreach, said that his longstanding bond with religious groups was unique among contenders at the time, and has helped him make a similar positive connection through the general election.
Praising the Biden campaign’s reverence for “the institution of the church, in particular,” Wear said their “solid relationships” could be strong mechanisms for turnout now, even absent any in-person contact with the candidate himself.
“Some of the other forums through which campaigns might try to reach voters, barber shops, rec centers, that kind of thing, in many places those are still closed, and if they’re not closed folks are tentative,” he said.
“It’s really the church that is still—even if it’s digital—it still has a purpose and function for convening people, for sharing information. I think faith communities are going to be even more essential than usual and play an even more pivotal role.”