One day at a Little Rock shopping mall, 8-year-old Chris Jones and his father ran into a man named Bill Clinton. As was this man’s habit, he stopped to talk, focusing intently on the conversation, despite the crowd. When Jones later asked who that man was, he was amazed to learn he was the governor of Arkansas.
The thing he will never forget about the encounter is, “I felt like I mattered,” says Jones, who grabbed the encyclopedia and looked up “governor” when he got home. Figuring this job was about helping people, a seed was planted.
The future is now, and Jones is the Democratic nominee for governor of Arkansas. His opponent, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, served as former president Donald J. Trump’s press secretary for the first two years. On opposite sides of the political spectrum, Jones and Sanders share one crucial aspect of their backgrounds in common: They are both the children of preachers, and both claim Christianity as central to their lives and politics.
When White Republican candidates and African American Democratic candidates speak of Christianity, they have drastically different political implications. The White Christian nationalism leads to authoritarianism, impediments to voting, and even violence to meet political ends. History demonstrates that the Black Christian tradition tends toward an expansion of voting rights and civil rights for all citizens.
Even when political candidates highlight the importance of Christianity in their lives and politics, what they believe about their faith and what policies they support as a result can be very different. When candidates say they follow the same religion and the same God, it can be confusing to figure out what they mean and how they practice their faith. The Christian Bible says you will know a tree by its fruit. To evaluate how individuals understand faith in relation to politics, one simply needs to observe the results of their policies.
What’s faith got to do with it? Sanders represents White Christian nationalism. Not only are Sanders and Jones in opposing parties, their professed faiths work themselves out very differently in the political realm.
Sanders is White. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from a small Christian college called Ouachita Baptist College, and has long been active as an adviser and campaign manager for Republican candidates.
Sanders grew up going to Southern Baptist Convention churches. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States, it traces its origins to proslavery sentiments that caused a split from Northern Baptists prior to the Civil War. The denomination previously made the news recently for devastating reports of widespread sexual abuse in its churches.
While one of the Ten Commandments says, “thou shalt not bear false witness,” Sanders earned a reputation as press secretary for evasion and outright lying.
Under the Donald J. Trump administration, she lied about Trump creating more jobs for Black people in 18 months than former President Barack Obama did in eight years. She claimed Trump never encouraged violence, despite him doing just that in several public instances at his rallies. She falsely claimed Obama ordered wiretaps on Trump’s communications. She also admitted to lying when she claimed “countless FBI agents” had called for former director James Comey’s firing.
“A lot of times people say you need to separate faith and work, and my answer is that you can’t,” Sanders said in a 2018 Baptist Press interview. “Because if you are a deep-rooted Christian, your faith is what defines you, and I think that’s something that I try to take with me in everything I do and certainly don’t separate that when I go to work every day.”
Jones is Black. He went to Morehouse College, earned a doctorate in urban design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has a background in nuclear engineering. He served as head of the Arkansas Innovation Hub. He grew up hearing a lot about how to live out Jesus’ teachings: “If you actually follow Jesus’ life, he is the biggest social justice champion we’ve ever had on this planet. Who did he say cared about? Children, widows, the poor.”
In an interview Jones said, “My faith has informed my entire life.” At the start of his campaign he and his team created a “culture document” to establish their core values. It includes statements on faith, hope, inclusion, integrity, and innovation. Each of those principles has a verse of scripture attached.
“People can enter those values however they want to. For me, I enter them through scripture. For me, that’s how faith informs [my politics],” Jones explained.
When a Republican voter came up to him at a campaign event and called him “pro-abortion” Jones responded, “I’m pro-folks talking with their families, praying in their faith, talking with their physicians, and making their decision. I’m pro-the government staying out of people’s business. I’m pro-liberty and freedom.”
Asked why he chose to be so forthright about his faith on the campaign trail, Jones said, “I’m sick and tired of folks using faith as a weapon.”
“To the White [Christian] nationalist I would say, ‘Is it about self, or is it about others?’ Because the Christ I follow says it’s always about others … Love requires us to bring about justice.”
In their recent book, “The Flag and the Cross,” sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry describe a White Christian nationalist story that has deep roots. They write: “America was founded as a Christian nation by [White] men who were ‘traditional’ Christians, who based the nation’s founding documents on ‘Christian principles.’”
This belief system argues that the United States is specially favored by God, but the nation has lost its way, primarily due to “racial, religious, and cultural outsiders,” and must be brought back into obedience to God.
Throughout U.S. history, White Christian nationalist policies have tended toward anti-democratic and pro-authoritarian ends, while the historic Black Christian tradition has generally led toward opening democratic participation and greater rights for all kinds of people.
In the first presidential election following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the conservative party (at that time, the Democratic Party) ran on the motto, “This is a White man’s country. Let White men rule.”
Presidential candidate Horatio Seymour and his running mate, Francis P. Blair, Jr., were known as Christians. Even though they had both sided with the Union during the Civil War, their understanding of faith and politics did not convince them Black people should play any meaningful role in leading the nation or representing White people as elected officials.
By contrast, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, the first Black person elected to the U.S. Senate, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. During his time in the Senate, Revels advocated for the education of Black people and spoke out against racial discrimination.
In March of 1870, Revels spoke in opposition to an amendment that would have made it possible for the state of Georgia to disenfranchise Black voters upon the state’s readmission to the Union: “[Black people] ask but the rights, which are theirs by God’s universal law, and which are the natural outgrowth, the logical sequence of the condition in which the legislative enactments of this nation have placed them.”
In 1954, after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in the Brown v. Board of Education decision that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Judge Tom P. Brady of Mississippi wrote a pamphlet called “Black Monday” (the day the decision was made). He decried the court’s decision to desegregate public schools and provide equal education to all potential voters.
In his diatribe, Brady insisted, “[the White man] has the God-given right to keep his blood White and pure.” He closed his remarks with a prayer, “God give us the wisdom to know what’s right, and the courage and strength to do it.”
Black Christians, on the other hand, led the modern civil rights movement. Prathia Hall, a Black woman and ordained Baptist minister, worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia. Hall viewed her faith as empowering her activism, and she was shot at and jailed many times pursuing voting rights for Black people. When the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was set to speak after Hall, who was known for her powerful preaching, he said, “she is the one platform speaker I prefer not to follow.”
Differing visions of faith and politics persist into the present day.
The Georgia senatorial race demonstrates that you do not have to be White to subscribe to White Christian nationalism, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) faces off against Republican nominee Herschel Walker.
Walker touts his evangelical faith, but has made headlines for accusations of abusing and threatening to kill his ex-wife, and he has faced claims he paid for a girlfriend, and possibly a second, to have an abortion despite billing himself as “a compassionate conservative who is pro-life and pro-family.”
Warnock, on the other hand, gained community support as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the same church where King served as pastor. Warnock won office as a U.S. Senator in 2021 in a special election and became the first African American to hold that seat.
A critical issue where the two men differ is voting rights.
Walker opposed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would have strengthened and protected voting rights. The bill, the original version of which Lewis helped draft, dishonored the late civil rights activist, according to Walker.
“Senator [sic] Lewis one of the greatest senators [sic] that’s ever been and for an African American it was absolutely incredible; I think then to throw his name on a bill for voting rights, I think is a shame.”
A key portion of Warnock’s platform emphasizes voting rights. He sees himself as standing in line with Congressman Lewis in protecting and expanding voting protections. Warnock served several years as chair of New Georgia Project, which registers primarily Black, Brown, and younger citizens.
The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But this does not imply that faith does not inform one’s politics. Rather, it shapes how candidates prioritize issues, the policies they support, and how they communicate with others in a pluralistic society.
Candidates who vocally proclaim their Christian faith might carefully consider Chris Jones’ words of advice: “Let us ask ourselves, ‘Are my actions truly aligned with what love really is … Are our actions putting love in action?’”
Jemar Tisby, Ph.D., author of “The Color of Compromise,” a New York Times bestseller, and a professor at Simmons College of Kentucky, is on a mission to deliver truths from the Black experience with depth and clarity. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @JemarTisby.