The outcome of the historic runoff election in Georgia will determine the balance of power in the next Congress, but it also could be the first time in decades that two ministers serve in the U.S. Senate.
If Georgia voters choose Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, he will join Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) in exchanging the pulpit for the upper chamber of Congress.
With five ministers elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives in the newly sworn-in 117th Congress, the pathway from serving in a house of worship to public office hasn’t been uncharted. But it is unique.
In 2017, doctoral student Robert Velez curated a list of 217 clergy members who pursued elected office at national, state, and local levels between 1980 and 2016. Velez began his research thinking that clergy leaders wanted to pursue a political agenda that aligned with their personal religious beliefs, but his dissertation, When Church Becomes State: Clergy as Political Candidate, revealed a different motive.
“Ultimately, those members of the clergy that end up running for office are more interested in public service and bringing their professional skills that they develop as a member of the clergy to bear — not [in] converting the country to Christianity or turning us into a theocracy — but because they tend to believe in good government,” Velez, who now teaches a government and politics course at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, told Sojourners.
Separating church and state
Though religious leaders often speak out on matters of national politics and policy, serve as counselors to politicians, and offer invocations at presidential inaugurations, Americans have debated where to draw the line between church and state since the nation’s founding.
In an approach that had roots in English law, 13 states adopted constitutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that outlawed members of the clergy from serving in a public office. Though many of these prohibitions were removed by 1880, in 1978, the Supreme Court struck down the last prohibition in Tennessee.
Today, about half of Americans think that the Bible should have some influence on U.S. law, while two-thirds say churches should stay out of politics, according to the Pew Research Center. As tax-exempt institutions, churches are prohibited from endorsing political candidates.
Velez found that those he interviewed had a clear idea of the line between their role in the church and in the statehouse.
“One pastor, I believe he was in North Carolina, said [separation of church and state], means that when I'm preaching, I preach by the Bible, when I'm governing, I govern by the Constitution,’” Velez said.
The 17 clergy members Velez interviewed eached expressed a desire to step up their level of public service. They also saw their role in government as an extension of what they were pursuing as spiritual leaders in their communities.
“Though their main focus is spiritual, they understand that part of making lives better for their community lies in having a seat at the political table,” Velez wrote.
In his campaign, Warnock has expressed similar sentiments, Velez said. During a recent debate, Warnock, who grew up the son of two pastors, told the audience that he knows the importance of good federal policy.
“[R]unning for the United States Senate … gives me an opportunity to work on the issues I’ve been working on for years,” Warnock said in the Dec. 6 debate. “I’ve been fighting for access to affordable health care. I’ve been fighting for voting rights. I’ve been fighting for essential workers, ordinary people — because I know what it’s like to be an ordinary person.”
Community service is also top-of-mind for Rev. Wendy Hamilton. In December, energized by her work supporting universal basic income for Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign, Hamilton launched her 2022 run for Congress to serve as the District of Columbia’s non-voting representative.
“[I was] just moved by what's happening in our world, moved by wanting to step up in my level of public service and really, the heart just breaking for people and what we have need of right now,” Hamilton told Sojourners. “For me, it's a part of what I've been called to do and that’s help God's people to help people to alleviate suffering.”
Hamilton says she draws inspiration for her campaign from Rep. John Lewis who was among seven ministers serving in the previous session of the House of Representatives until his death in July 2020. In an essay published shortly after his passing, Lewis described his motivation for pursuing public service.
“When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something,” Lewis wrote. “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
A new perspective
The majority of members of Congress have pursued other careers prior to public service and their professional backgrounds influence the legislative agenda, said Robert Speel, who is chair of the political science program at Penn State University and teaches a course that includes a study of the occupations of national lawmakers.
“We often hear about the fact that having more women in politics helps on certain issues that might be of greater concern to women than men. We hear about having more African Americans or more Latino Americans in politics helps reflect the views and opinions of those communities better,” Speel told Sojourners. “But we don't hear as much about occupational background. And I think that does matter, too.”
Overall, most national lawmakers have occupational backgrounds in business and law. In recent sessions of Congress, their professional backgrounds have run along partisan lines, Speel said: Republicans tend to have business backgrounds while Democrats more often have backgrounds in law.
Clergy experience, he says, may bring a different perspective to policy priorities.
“If we have a Congress filled with lawyers and a Congress filled with business people, why is it not appropriate for people from other professions — including the clergy — to have a chance to represent or express political views as well?” Speel said.
Regardless of their political persuasion, faith leaders have a measure of influence that candidates coming from secular fields may not.
“Clergy are ‘street-level elites’ who have the potential to influence their congregations politically,” Velez wrote in his dissertation. “They exude a level of gravitas reserved for those who have dedicated their lives to the service of others, the community, and God. Their public comments are given credence as religious authorities. They also straddle the border that separates the masses from the elites and are able to move between groups as needed.”
An unusual route
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) joined four reelected pastors — Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Emanuel Cleaver ( D-Mo.), Jody Hice (R-Ga.), and Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) — in the House of Representatives when the new Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3. In each of the three previous sessions of the House there were seven clergy members, the greatest number seen in Congress’s lower chamber in recent decades.
By means of a 2015 special election, James Lankford became the first senator with a ministerial background since 2001. He brought with him more than two decades of experience in ministry, including 15 years as director of student ministry for the Baptist Convention of Oklahoma and director of Oklahoma’s Falls Creek Youth Camp, plus four years as a member of the House of Representatives.
Lankford launched his political career, he said, after receiving a nudge to “get ready” from God.
“I can assure you, I never expected this would be the place that I would be serving,” Lankford told the Baptist Communicators Association in 2018. “I was a youth minister for 22 years. I’ve yet to ever hear anyone say, ‘If you really want to be a United States senator, you should be a youth pastor.’ No one sees that as a route.”
The senator returns home every week to worship with his family at Quail Springs Church in Oklahoma City and has filled in at the pulpit when the senior pastor was on vacation. Lankford doesn’t introduce politics in the pulpit, but his faith appears to drive his perspective on policy. In support of the 2020 JUSTICE Act (S.3985), a bill that aims to retrain law enforcement in the wake of an epidemic of police shootings of unarmed African Americans, he invoked the Bible to explain why the measure needed to become law.
“You can go back as many pages as you want to in scripture and work your way from beginning to the end and you're gonna find … this repetitive statement about how God's affection is for equal weights and measures,” Lankford said in June on the Senate floor. “It was a simple way of saying … everyone is to be treated the same. This is a biblical issue, as well as being a personal issue, but for us as a nation, it's a legal issue. [W]here we find inconsistencies of the application of the law, we are to correct it."
Neither Velez or Speel are certain whether the Georgia Senate runoff will inspire more clergy to run for office.
One thing ministers must consider is how parishioners will perceive their pastor pursuing public office. But this election in particular may shed light on whether voters are ready to see more clergy serving in local, state, and national government.
“Many [voters] like [candidates] who provide more guidance, rather than [candidates] who just seem to be involved in politics just to get ahead or to help themselves,” Speel said. “[Voters] might want to see politics as having a higher purpose — to improve society or to improve the world. Clergy members might be able to lead the way — at least for some people.”