The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has called the 2020 general election “the most secure in American history,” and yet President Donald Trump continues to claim — contrary to evidence — widespread voter fraud. In a series of lawsuits across the country, Trump and his campaign have attempted to throw out ballots. In his public statements and pleas to supporters, Trump has singled out majority-Black cities like Detroit, falsely claiming that they have rigged the election against him.
Most of the Trump campaign’s legal claims have already been dismissed from court, but the fight continues in Wayne County, where Detroit is located. Late on Tuesday night, two Republican election officials refused to certify Detroit’s election results, changing their mind only after facing significant public pressure. Later in the week, Trump invited Republican state lawmakers to the White House in an extraordinary move to undermine election results.
On Wednesday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan joined Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, in a news conference to condemn Republican efforts to invalidate Detroit votes.
“What you are seeing in this country right now is an effort to say, we only want to count the votes of people who agree with us,” Duggan said, adding that “it’s impossible to overlook the racial element of this. The Trump administration has targeted the Black vote.”
Anthony, who is also pastor of Fellowship Chapel, called on election officials to stand up for the truth: Donald Trump lost the election.
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” he said.
Sojourners spoke with him later about his faith, voting rights, and what’s happening in Detroit. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Stephanie Russell-Kraft, Sojourners: How do you connect your role as a pastor to your role as leader in the NAACP?
Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony: I’ve been pastor of Fellowship Chapel for the past 33 years, and I’ve been president of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP for the last 28 years and I’m getting ready to start another two-year term. It’s been a symbiotic relationship. My mentor, my pastor, was also president of the Detroit Branch NAACP back in the late 1960s. I was a teenager and I did not think very favorably of the NAACP; I didn’t think it was progressive enough. But he talked about: Don’t just complain on the outside but get on the inside and get involved.
The church is a strong base of support for my work. I keep the church involved, they have allowed me to do this work, they are involved and they participate at every level in the NAACP through financial support, marches, letter-writing, advocacy, everything we’ve done. It’s consistent with the teachings of Christ. When one looks at the question of: ‘What does the Lord require of me? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly’ — that’s what the NAACP is about. It’s about working for and advocating for the needs of the least of these.
Given those roles, what’s your response to President Trump’s campaign’s effort to invalidate the vote counts in Wayne County, Michigan?
With regard to the voting process, at the NAACP we were co-chairs with the ACLU of statewide petition committees to bring about same-day voter registration, early voting, and non-excuse absentee voting. But now that we got it, everyone don’t like it.
It is offensive, it is horrendous, it is a disappointment of the highest order for us to be in America, the so-called leader of the free world. And here we are in 2020 with 250,000 people dead from a coronavirus disease, which could have been prevented, and trying to prevent voting from occurring. Shame on us. Shame on the leadership in this country. Shame on Trump. Shame on the Republican Party. Shame on those enablers, those individuals who are enabling this treachery to occur right before our eyes. If we were in a different country, what we are seeing today would be tantamount to a political coup.
The tragedy of all of this is these moves are being made in Black communities. They’re being made in Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, Milwaukee, places where Black people and minorities are voting in numbers like they’ve not been voting before. They want to count the votes in places where [Trump] is winning and don’t count the votes where he seems to have lost or is losing. It is a shame before God and man. Trump has taken gangsterism to a new level. He makes Al Capone and his crew look like choir boys.
At some point down the road, there will be a political price to pay for this. This is really a battle for the very life of democracy in our nation.
How do you view the role of religious leaders at this moment?
Depends on which religious leaders you’re talking to. But if you’re asking me what I think, part of our role is to do what Christ said: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, release those who are captive, and give sight to the blind. The way you do that is not only feeding them for their physical body but for their mental capacity and intellectual capacity. We feed them with information. We can’t keep feeding them negativity. We clothe them, not just physically, but we clothe them with armor so they can withstand and deal with the issues of the world.
The church is not just a praying station, it’s also a working station. Faith without works is dead.
You got a whole lot of folks who are heaven-bound, but they’re no earthly good. Many of them want to deal with the afterlife, but Christ came for us to have some life here — and to have it in an abundant way. Too many of us are more concerned about babies in the womb but don’t give a damn about babies on the way to the tomb. If you really are pro-life, then you just can’t talk about babies before they’re born, but talk about programs like health care, childcare, education, jobs, opportunities. That’s where the church comes in. The church is a fueling station to fuel people with hope, inspiration, faith, knowledge, and an understanding of God.
It is not my political affiliation that determines my spiritual situation, it is my spiritual situation that determines my political affiliation and participation. I don’t want people to get that twisted. The spirituality that God brings in me drives me to a degree that I can’t just sit around and see and do nothing about things that impact the lives of people. I know where Christ would be on these issues.
Theologically, how do you understand what is at stake when votes are suppressed or not counted?
It’s what Christ came here for. The Hebrews were under oppression. Rome was the power center of the world. The Hebrews had no rights that any Roman was duty-bound to respect. The Black church has grown up in an oppressive tradition. The African American church grew up in America in a slave environment, and through it all we were able to overcome that. Out of that experience, enslavement and freedom and teaching ourselves and using opportunities we had, and using the scriptures we grabbed, and listening to preachers and itinerant folks on plantations, we got it. And out of that experience we were still able to create institutions. The AME church, the African Baptist church, the AME Zion church, CME church, Afro-Christians, they were all born through that experience. They came because mainline churches would not respect all the people of God. They created their own institutions. And out of that they had a concern for issues of justice, survival, how to feed the hungry, how to employ your people. Many of the leaders in our community have come out of the church: John Lewis, Adam Clayton Powell. It’s a natural evolutionary move.
One of the reasons that the African American church and we as Black religionists have been so concerned about pushing for social justice and advocacy is because we have been left out. We’ve had to knock on the door or knock the door down to get in. Institutional churches have not had that concern, because they’ve already been in. So their religiosity and theology can be different. They can focus on otherworld-ism. They can focus on pie in the sky after you die, because they’ve been having pie on the ground while they’ve been around. As your life is, so you become.
Is there any scripture that you’re turning to in order to make sense of it all or process the attacks on voters in Detroit?
There’s so many that I go to in times like this. I like Luke 4:18-19, that lets me know what the mission is and why I do what I do.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And this is not a battle that belongs to me. This is a battle that belongs to God. That’s II Chronicles 20:15.
And, there’s one last one, and that is that faith without works is dead. That’s James 2:14-26.