Religion and Voting Rights
Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, and Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, discussed the history of the fight for voting rights by religion leaders and current interfaith efforts to protect the right to vote. Shaun Casey, the T. J. Dermot Dunphy senior fellow of religion, violence, and peace building at Harvard Divinity School, moderated.
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CASEY: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Shaun Casey and I’m the T.J. Dermot Dunphy senior fellow of religion, violence, and peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record. And the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website, which is CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, the Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted today to have two remarkable experts. We have Dean Kelly Brown Douglas and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner with us, and we’ve shared bios with you but I’m just going to highlight from their august list of accomplishments for your own interests.
Dean Kelly Brown Douglas is dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and she’s a professor of theology. She also serves as the canon theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, and theologian in residence at Trinity Church Wall Street. Dean Douglas has taught religion at Goucher College, Howard University School of Divinity, and Edward Waters College. She’s the author or co-editor of several books, including Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective, and that was the first book to address the issue of homophobia within the Black church community. She’s considered a leader in the field of womanist theology, racial reconciliation, social justice, and sexuality in the Black church. Kelly, it’s great to have you. Welcome.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is director of the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism. He’s also the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Pesner has been named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine for his leadership in social justice activism. His work is focused on encouraging Jewish communities to reach across lines of race, class, and faith in campaigns for social justice. In 2006, Rabbi Pesner founded Just Congregations, which engages clergy, professional, and volunteer leaders in interfaith efforts in the pursuit of social justice. Over the course of his career, he’s also led and supported campaigns for racial justice, economic opportunity, immigration reform, LGBTQ equality, human rights, and a variety of other causes. He serves on a number of boards, including the NAACP and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, among others. Welcome, Jonah.
So let’s begin by—I’m going to ask Kelly a question and then Jonah is going to provide his answer to the same question and then we’ll talk together. But I guess my larger question that maybe you can help us frame the history and context here is really how big are voting rights today in our current environment? How big a problem are we facing?
DOUGLAS: Yes. First of all, thank you for inviting me to be a part of this discussion and this conversation, which is a very important conversation and one that I think is an urgent conversation for faith and religious leaders to be having and so that we can engage in the kind of action that will help us to protect our vision for a society and a democracy where everybody has equal voice and is treated as a sacred human being, and it’s always nice to be in conversation with my friend and brother, Rabbi Jonah Pesner.
Let me begin to answer your question this way, Shaun. Of course, we are seeing not an unprecedented reality but, perhaps, unprecedented in our twenty-first century times, a number of states—I think some thirty-three states or more—passing a record number of, or trying to, and passing a record number of voting suppression bills and as opposed to voting rights, trying to find ways to suppress and strip people of their right to vote.
This is not unprecedented or unusual, particularly as these bills are aimed particularly at communities of color, more specifically, aimed toward the African-American community, which, by and large, in our current context typically votes Democratic, and so even as people want to talk about the political divides in these bills we really have to reflect on the wider context of what’s going on historically in this country.
So this has occurred—this pattern, if you will—began with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and, of course, we know that the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870 and that amendment told us that—or barred states from depriving citizens—at that time, male citizens—of the right to vote based on race.
As soon as that amendment was ratified, we saw Southern states, in particular, beginning to enact a series of measures, be it poll taxes, literacy tests, all-white primaries, measures that would, in fact, prevent or keep African Americans from the polls, whether be it through them not being able to pass such tests, meet such standards, or through sheer intimidation.
Nevertheless, what we began to see is that after the passage of that bill, more than a half million Black men joined the voting ranks and the voting rolls, particularly, during, of course, this period of Reconstruction.
When that occurred—and then, of course, we saw record numbers of Black men elected to public office. It was no accident that as more and more Black people began to take advantage—and, of course, earlier on that meant men—began to take advantage of their right to vote, began to exercise even what limited power they may have had, their power through the right to vote, you began to see the backlash.
This was a backlash, of course, that we talk about the backlash to the sort of Reconstruction era amendments. This cycle would continue. What we saw in relationship to this backlash to the Fifteenth Amendment and Black people entering into the ranks of voting, Black men—(laughs)—entering into the ranks of voting and entering into elected political offices, Jim Crow, poll taxes, the rise of these white supremacist groups—the Klan, et cetera—trying to keep Black people from the polls and, by and large, they were.
And so it would be from, really, this era of post-Reconstruction backlash, all efforts, by the way, let’s keep in mind that these were efforts to protect a white electorate, to protect the sort of underside of our country’s foundation, though the truth of our country’s foundation that it was, in many ways, founded to be a democracy that reflected white supremacist power, that lived in contrast to its projected vision of being a nation where there’s freedom and justice for all.
And so this vote—all of this backlash in regard to other than white men being able to exercise their power, and right to vote, is a part of this wider narrative of what kind of democracy we want to be, who this democracy is for, what we mean by American exceptionalism, which has always been equated with white supremacist exceptionalism and who can be a citizen.
What we saw then, really, it was not until the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act that we began to see, really, this response to, and turn back away from these various Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, et cetera, that kept Black people from the polls.
Let’s fast forward in history. In 2008, of course, we had the election of the first African-American president. In 2012, he was reelected. In 2008 and in 2012, you saw record Black turnout. I think, in 2012, that turnout was 66 percent. It exceeded, in 2012, the turnout of white Americans and that was an unusual situation. I think the turnout of white Americans was somewhere around 57 percent or so, and I may be wrong on those numbers. But we saw record turnouts.
Again, in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, we saw record Black turnout. Didn’t quite reach the 66 percent level of 2012 but it was in the 60 percent—high 60s (percent). It is no accident, and, of course, we know that that turned the election, right, in these key states. It turned the election.
We saw local organizing, whether it be in Georgia through the work of Stacey Abrams and others, whether it be in Michigan, Missouri, the Soul to the Polls, which began in the 1990s in Florida and became a national movement, really became energized and that is getting Black people to the polls after church services.
All of these things began to really emerge, become reenergized, and we saw a major impact on the national election as a result of the turnout—we’ve got to be clear—of Black voters and the activity that happened on the ground and in relationship to Black churches. It is no accident, therefore, that we began to immediately see these voting suppression laws being enacted.
Let me add one more thing and then I’m sure my brother will reinforce because there’s so much that can be said. So this is in a nutshell. But I must say that this could not occur with such success if in 2013 the Supreme Court had not gutted the 1965 Voter Rights Bill Act, because what they gutted—what they took away was that section of the bill—I think it was Section Five and I may not be recalling that specific right—but they took away the section that required states to get permission, particularly the states who had a long history of discriminating against certain groups, particularly, Black Americans, to get permission to change their voting procedures.
When that was taken away, immediately after that was taken away by the Supreme Court, you began to see this influx of legislation by states trying again to enact and suppress the Black vote, and even—and not only doing that in ways with the laws which they were passing, be it voter ID, closing polls, et cetera, but changing—closing polling places and changing the voting districts. They no longer needed federal permission to do that.
And so what we now have, really, is an open attack on the voting rights of Black Americans once again. Why? Because it indicates the power of the Black vote and how that Black vote began to not simply change the balance of power, if you will, in this country but, really, what we fail to recognize is that what—when we allow more people to come to the polls and what has historically been the case in terms of the Black struggle for the vote, and Black struggle for freedom, that when Black people progress in that regard, guess what happens?
Our democracy grows, and we grow into the vision that we proclaim is ours, that we want to live in into. And so what we’re fighting here when we fight and enact these voting right measures we are also saying something about the kind of democracy we really want to be.
And so I’ll stop there simply by saying it is a major problem, it is not a new problem, and we could have predicted this if we recognized the historical pattern that every time Black people seem to progress in any way toward freedom there is a proportional backlash.
CASEY: Thank you, Kelly. That was an amazing introduction. Thank you so much. So, Jonah, how about you? What is your take on how big the problem is today?
PESNER: What she said. Kelly Brown Douglas, I was absolutely right. You needed to go first, provide that incredible grounding of our history and the challenges to really confront how we got here. So thank you for that, and thank you, Shaun Casey, and Irina Faskianos from CFR for hosting this important conversation.
And I’m keenly aware we are a multi-faith panel—there are Christians and Jews—but in the audience, I know, watching—I saw the registration—we have our Muslim family, our Sikh family. We are people across the racial and religious divide, which really is a great reminder about this multi-religious multiracial democracy we’re trying to create and the challenge of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in the center of not only voting suppression, Shaun, but anti-democratic tendencies.
And as just a kind of metaphor for how I think about these things, and then I’ll kind of give the Midrash, the, like, rabbinic interpretation of Kelly’s wonderful Torah, the Biblical text. I’ll give the rabbinic interpretation. I want to just share a kind of—a picture of where we are at this moment.
So on January 6, 2021, the whole nation watched as a bunch of white supremacists, Confederate flag-waving goons, terrorists, took over the nation’s capital in an insurrection of violence, and not only were they waving their Confederate flags and they were, basically, saying we don’t like the outcome of this election—we’re going to change it—in the long tradition of Jim Crow and voter suppression, they were wearing “Camp Auschwitz" and “Six million are not enough” t-shirts. There is this incredible intersectionality of anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism, which, of course, shows up around anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim bigotry as well.
So that same day, the first Black senator and the first Jewish senator were elected to the state of Georgia, the site of some of the worst excesses of enslavement, of Jim Crow, and voter suppression. And it happens that that white senator, Jon Ossoff, was bar mitzvah(ed) at the temple, the place that was bombed by the Klan during the civil rights era because Rabbi Rothschild, famously, worked with King and the other luminaries of the civil rights movement, and the temple in Atlanta’s sister church is Ebenezer Baptist, which wasn’t only King’s church but was also Reverend Warnock’s church, who became the first Black senator.
So that split-screen moment, right, of the white Jewish—majority white Jewish community in allyship with the Black community fighting for the transformation of the Old South into the multiracial multi-religious democracy they yearn for, with this gasp of backlash of violence to steal the election is where, I think, we are at this moment. So I want people to kind of hold that because it puts into context the four hundred years of history that Kelly so beautifully articulated.
So the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism that I’m honored to lead is actually famous—it’s part of the story that Kelly told because it’s the site of the drafting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was eviscerated in Shelby v. Holder in 2013. It was, in fact, Section Five that was eviscerated by the Court, the pre-clearance, which would have prevented a lot of states from passing these voter suppression laws. And why was it that it was at a majority white Jewish institution that the Voting Rights Act was written?
It was because of a bunch of white Jews who understood the threats to all minorities, including to Jews, because of the ways in which anti-Black racism was so foundational to this country and white supremacy was such a threat to all minorities, and so it was that people like Jack Greenberg, Arnie Aronson, A. Philip Randolph, gathered the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, that was housed in our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and they drafted and strategized around the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65.
The founder of the RAC was a white Jew named Kivie Kaplan, who was born in Boston and was the child of immigrants who started with nothing, built a business, became incredibly wealthy, and then when he became wealthy he paid it forward through philanthropy. He became the president of the NAACP, which, when he retired, he was the last white Jewish president of the NAACP, and I trace by board seat to Kaplan, and he donated the RAC to the Reform Jewish—and why?
Because when he was a young man on his honeymoon to Florida with his wife, Emily, he was being driven around Florida by a Black taxi driver and they kept seeing the same sign over and over again, “No Jews, no dogs.”
Now, coming from the Northeast he had never experienced Jim Crow. He turns to the Black taxi driver and says, “is this common down here? What is this?” And the Black driver just looked at him and said, “they don’t even bother with us.”
And Kaplan understood what King was trying to teach, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, that if you oppress one minority you oppress all minorities, and as I think about Kaplan’s legacy, having donated the Religious Action Center to the Reform Jewish movement, with the caveat that we would host the luminaries of the civil rights movement, which is why the Leadership Conference was housed there, which is why Dr. King, when he used to come to Washington, he would use our offices because Kaplan understood what has become a maxim for me during this current struggle for civil rights, that our safety in this country is in our solidarity.
When Muslims, and Christians, and Jews, and people of Asian heritage, and brown, and Black, and people across the whole spectrum are in deep solidarity we become safe, and we will only finally have redemption as a nation when we have democracy, right.
Core to the civil rights movement was understanding that the only way to finally throw off the hundreds of years of systemic racism, to finally end Jim Crow, really, would be through voting rights because if we actually had a democracy that reflected the reality of the mixed multitude, then our government would look like our people and we would actually all be able to flourish, that we would all be represented.
That’s why John Lewis got his head bashed in on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and he was marching not only with Dr. King but Rabbi Dick Hirsch, my predecessor as the leader of the Religious Action Center.
So then we get to where we are now. I won’t repeat everything that Kelly Brown Douglas articulately said. I would lift up, though, another white Jewish voice, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her memory for a blessing, in Shelby v. Holder in her withering dissent, which I urge everybody to read her dissent—it’s incredible, almost scorcher at this point—when she said the logic of the Court—and by the way, the majority opinion was written by none other than Chief Justice Roberts—whose logic was, in essence, well, things are better now.
And I don’t—I’m sure there are lawyers and jurists on this call who are now offended by my oversimplifying Roberts’s logic. But if I read it that’s kind of what it says, is things are better now. To which Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, that logic is like standing in a torrential rainstorm and saying, gee, I don’t need my umbrella anymore because I’m not getting wet.
And so we saw, as Dr. Douglas said, hundreds and hundreds of pieces of legislation, voter suppression, passed state by state by state, and I’ll just land with the where do we think we are now with this incredible challenge.
My community, along with the Muslim community, and the diverse Christian community, and other religious communities, mobilized so powerfully not only in the 2020 election to do that overwhelming turnout that made history in a nonpartisan and 501(c)(3) appropriate way, but to make sure, that as we say in Hebrew, kol kolot. There’s a wonderful double entendre. The word kol in Hebrew can mean voice, it can mean vote, and, spelled differently, it can mean every. So we say, kol kolot—every voice, every vote—because we know that you really don’t have a voice if you don’t have a vote.
We had 15,000 Reform Jewish leaders who worked across lines of difference with the interfaith and multiracial community that turned out eight hundred and 875,000 voters alone, targeting communities that are the site of the historic voter suppression targeted by these laws, working across lines of difference, and then worked so hard to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which failed, which would have rolled back lots of this voter suppression.
And if you talk to anybody from the luminaries of the civil rights era of the ’60s into the civil rights moment we’re in today, it is about turnout, turnout, turnout. The single biggest antidote to voter suppression is overwhelming voter education, voter engagement, and getting people to the actual polls, and then watching those polls to make sure that their vote is counted, that their ballot is cured if it isn’t counted, and to actually reclaim the democracy for which we have fought so valiantly for.
And with that, I will stop talking.
CASEY: Well, thank you, Jonah. That, too, is a remarkable introduction. I was going to ask you to react to one another but the clock is not our friend here.
So I’m going to exercise what little power I have as the mediator here to really follow up what you closed with, Jonah, and tell us—Stacey Abrams’s name was mentioned by Kelly—tell us what is working now in terms of local tactical work to do the kinds of work you were just talking about, Jonah.
So we’re going to pivot to Q&A from the audience soon. So if you’ve got questions, please put those in the chat or the Q&A button at the bottom and we’ll get to those after our panelists really tell us at the grassroots level.
So, Kelly, tell us, in your experience and in your view, what are some of the organizations or what are some of the tactics that are really doing the kind of work that need to be done with respect to voting rights today?
DOUGLAS: Yes. First of all, thank you, Jonah, for that and I’d like—and I want to affirm that our safety is in solidarity, and our salvation as a nation and—is in solidarity with one another.
I think what we have to begin to focus on is what’s working, right, at the grassroots level and in our local communities because that’s where it really matters and this is where faith communities can really begin to be more and more engaged, and it’s a model that the Black church community has, throughout its history because the church has always been that place, that institution, that Black people could rely upon when other social institutions have failed them and failed our community.
So what works? I think it is important, one, to—before we could get people to the polls, get them registered, and so what we’ve seen working even as a part of the Souls to the Polls movement, whether we’re talking about Black Vote Matters, whether we’re talking about the PAC of twenty-five Black—and I’m speaking from African-American context—of Black religious leaders, the—and I can’t now think of the name of Stacey Abrams’s organization in Georgia. But these were all centered, first and foremost, around getting people registered, also getting people to check their registrations, because there’s legislation that has been aimed, of course, at purging the polls and people are finding themselves purged from the polls not knowing it and then they get to the polls and they can’t vote.
You can do that through your local faith communities and begin to have movements that move through, go through neighborhoods, or voter rights to get people registered and provide easy access to registration, helping them to get registered, taking them to get registered, helping them. You can’t fill it out for them, but helping them to get registered.
The other thing that worked moving into the 2020 election was voter education and one—and I say this more broadly is that we have to begin to educate our communities on this—what we are saying in this conversation, what’s going on, because we know there is so much false information out there, and purposefully targeted to certain communities.
And so one of the things that Black churches conduct are voting education weekends and seminars, et cetera, to begin to educate them on the importance of this moment that we find ourselves in as well as to the issues at hand and what’s really going on. I think—and then I’ll be quiet—one of the most effective measures that we’ve seen in the run-up to elections, and that’s why this is being targeted—this is why early voting is being targeted, this is why reduction on weekend voting has been targeted—because of the Souls to the Polls campaign, and Black churches across the country ensuring that Black voters can vote by taking them to the polls on Sundays.
Here’s the thing we have to recognize, and this doesn’t simply impact the African-American community—I only speak out of that context right now—is that for the most part, particularly poor communities and communities of color, they cannot afford to be standing at a poll all day in line trying to vote.
They’ve got to work, and so we have to understand the racist logic and exclusionary logic of these voting suppression—voter suppression bills. They know people can’t stand in line all day because these people have to work. They know that people can’t miss a day of their job so they—a lot of people—that’s why you have disproportionate numbers of people of color, in poor communities, voting prior to election day because they take advantage of the early voting so they can vote and engage in the, quote/unquote, “democratic process.”
And so I think that we have to continue to not simply attack these bills on the local level because that’s where they’re playing out, on the local level, at the same time—that’s one thing, that’s the reactive part—and then the proactive part, even as we do that, proactively we’ve got to get more, and more, and more people engaged and signed up and registered to vote, especially looking at—I don’t know what are they, Gen Xers?—but our new voters and getting new voters to the rolls.
So I think there’s a reactive and a proactive role that has to happen simultaneously, and it is a moral—if you will, we have a moral reason as leaders of faith leaders and faith communities to, in fact, do this because what we are trying to do is create a society that is more reflective of the sacred creation that we are—with everybody having equal voice, equal respect, and equal participation.
CASEY: Thank you so much, Kelly. Jonah, from your perspective what should be happening at the local tactical level?
PESNER: Yeah, again, amen to everything that Kelly just said, so I just want to put a pin in that. But I won’t repeat it. I will do a little bit of just kind of building off of it.
I want to frame this piece with emphasizing the local nature of this work with a very haunting reminder that I carry with me whenever I do this work. We first started getting deep back into voting rights because my movement had historically been in—but we got deep back in after Shelby v. Holder, and we were invited down to North Carolina by none other than Reverend William Barber—who is the cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival—that has tried to breathe a kind of new life into King’s original vision.
And he was the head of the NAACP of North Carolina, and he called us and he said, what’s happening on the ground in North Carolina is antidemocratic and it is putting the nation at risk because of the voter suppression tactics that were unleashed by Shelby v. Holder. And he invited the Reform Jewish Movement in with our people, to ally with his church, and with his NAACP chapter to do the work that Kelly Brown Douglas just described, and it was an incredible education.
Number one, in the depth and impact of the tactics of voter suppression and how it impacts mostly low-income communities, rural communities, and communities of color, and the way in which allyship is really about listening to the people who are impacted by voter suppression, hearing from them, and then taking the lead from what they actually need, and what the strategy is to actually change the dynamic.
So we mobilized thousands of Reform Jews in allyship with Barber’s church, and others, to do the work in 2016, but one of the things that Barber said—after I got up, gave the sermon at church, and we did a whole mobilizing thing, and I told the story of the Voting Rights Act being written in our conference room—and he said, “Rabbi Pesner, let me issue a correction—a Talmudic emendation, if you will”—and if people know Barber, you know what I’m talking about—he said, “the Voting Rights Act was not written in your conference room. It was written in blood in Selma and transcribed in your conference room.” And I carry Barber’s teaching with me all the time because it’s happening in Atlanta, it’s happening in South Florida, it’s happening in Houston. This is where voting rights either happen or are suppressed. This is where democracy either happens or is suppressed.
So the good news is, Shaun, there’s great work happening all across the country. I see that my friend Ruth Messinger posted—the former head of American Jewish World Service—she referenced Fair Fight Action—I just would lovingly say, Ruth, we actually don’t work with Stacey because she is partisan and running for governor. We’re a religious body; we’re a 501(c)(3).
So we work with Nse Ufot—the name people don’t know, but you should know. Nse runs The New Georgia Project and has built a coalition with Natasha Brown, who does Black Votes Matter, and a whole range of local grassroots groups—some in the churches. As Kelly Brown Douglas said, we’ve got to leverage the power of the Black church, and the synagogues, and the mosques, and also the folk who are not in church but who are really impacted by voter suppression, and do the deep hard work of voter mobilization. What I would say to folks, every state that is dealing with this has a coalition. These coalitions are multiracial; they are multi-religious.
One last one that I’ll just lift up, Shaun, and then turn back over the mic. We just had a big victory in Pennsylvania. A project—I want to get the name of the project exactly right—PA Voice and the Keystone Counts Coalition. This coalition of churches, mosques, and synagogues, advocacy groups, and other coalition partners were not OK with the gerrymandered, partisan redistricting that was racialized, and basically trying to bunch up and package all Black folk and other people of color into one or two districts. And they mobilized across the state. They acted in solidarity. They built a broad network of folks, and they were able to put enough pressure on the legislature, and on the governor, to actually get new maps that are much more democratic, and much more reflective, and much more protective of communities of color.
So I actually am very hopeful and optimistic. As much as this stuff is and feels horrible, this work is a generational project. If Stacey Abrams were here, she would say it was a decade of effort. To me, this is not just about a decade. It’s not about the midterms or about the presidential—it’s about a generational commitment to democracy.
CASEY: All right, thank you, Jonah.
We have gone longer than we anticipated before we pivoted to Q&A, but that’s okay because what Kelly and Jonah have given us is quite remarkable, and every second of it has been important.
So we’re going to transition to audience question and answer, and I know we have some, so let’s go ahead and turn to those. And so we’ll let our two panelists field those questions.
So go ahead and read one of those.
OPERATOR: Great. (Gives queuing instructions.) We will take the first live question from Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations.
KNOTTS: Thank you very much. Thank you for your presentation.
One thing that I think is true is that every election since Richard Nixon, the majority of white people have voted Republican, and if we suppress the Black vote in this country we will have Republican government, and we will not have a two-party system. And for us to maintain a two-party system, we need to have everybody voting regardless of who it is.
And so I’m referring to Susan Neiman, who wrote the book, Learning from the Germans, and she resists the idea being an ally. She says, I’m an affected party, and yes, Black people are more effected. I have a Black husband. I know the danger he lives with. I know the privilege I have as a white man. But we’re all in this together, and we all face living in a one-party dictatorship if we don’t have everybody voting. And so we all have skin in the game.
And one last comment, I was part of the consultative group that Shaun organized at the State Department, and I’m wondering if that’ll ever happen again because that was really a good consultative group. Thank you.
DOUGLAS: I guess I will affirm what—thank you, Bruce, for your comment—what you said, and just add a couple little things.
One, yes, this goes back to what Jonah said in terms of solidarity, and I’d like this word—perhaps Jonah—I’ve said to Jonah, I like this word solidarity much more than I do ally because when we say ally, we are suggesting that it’s your problem and I’m joining you and helping you to solve your problem, and I say, no, no, it’s your problem. This is our problem. It’s our problem, as we have to really determine what kind of nation we want to be, and what kind of people we want to be.
And for those of us who are members of religious and faith communities, regardless of what those religious and faith communities are, it is a question of whether or not we really believe what we claim to believe as people of—representing our particular traditions, and that is a belief that we are all sacred human beings. And to be valued, valued equally, and if we really believe that, then we are fighting and struggling to live into that vision, into that claim.
And so it’s our moral responsibility, and so it’s not about being allies with anybody. It’s about recognizing that this for us reaches a level of moral urgency because it says something about who we claim to be, and something about who we want to be, and it also says something about the integrity of our very religious and faith claims.
And so I agree, and until we create voting rights, or just one layer of this, but a very important foundational layer that will help us move a little bit closer to who we want to be.
PESNER: Yeah, amen to that. And I just want to reflect a little bit, Kelly Brown Douglas, on the deeper layer, and you and I have been in the anti-racism business together, and the multi-faith solidarity business for a while.
So voting rights is the presenting crisis. There’s deeper, right? So I love the reference, Bruce, to we’re all impacted. Of course, we’re all impacted by white supremacy. White Christian people are impacted by white Christian nationalism, but we’re impacted differently. Kivie Kaplan understood that. As a white Jew, he had enormous privilege that he only understood was conditional privilege when he saw that sign, “no Jews, no dogs,” but he’d been fine up until that point. His solidarity with the African-American taxi driver was a recognition that we’re all impacted but differently, and so we have to just recognize that.
Part of that then means doing the internal reckoning, and part of our campaign around democracy and voting rights is a racial equity, diversity, inclusion campaign inside the American Jewish community. We’re asking all of our activists, all of our organizers, all of our rabbis to do their anti-racism work within the synagogues, to ask ourselves, how have we actually been racist with the 10 to 15 percent of Jews in America who are not white? What ways are we perpetuating systems of oppression within the synagogue impacting Black and brown Jews, and Asian Jews, and Jews of all hues, even as we’re doing these external public fights for the common good, which make a lot of sense?
And then, the only other thing I would say about the whole partisan thing, which I think really matters, because Bruce really lifted this up, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed by bipartisan majorities. The Voting Rights Act was reauthorized into law by presidents whose names were Reagan and Bush, not just Clinton and Carter, so there was a time there was a bipartisan consensus around democracy and voting. We need to reclaim that.
CASEY: All right. Can we take our next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Tiffany Hartung from Interfaith Power & Light. She says: Interfaith Power & Light recently launched our 2022 Civic Engagement Campaign, the Faith Climate Justice Voter Campaign—and she provides a link—to mobilize faithful voters to turn out and vote their values for caring for our common home and loving our neighbors. We are focused heavily on Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In addition to voter registration and voter education, do you have suggestions on how our campaign can support the faith-led efforts in those states to counter the voter suppression efforts that might occur during voting?
PESNER: Kelly, do you want me to jump in on that one?
DOUGLAS: Because I jumped in it first, I was going to let Jonah jump in on that one.
PESNER: All right. I will do just because immediately Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner comes to mind. She is the head of the African American Clergy Network and the Skinner Institute, and partners with Adam Russell Taylor—formerly of the World Bank now of Sojourners—in an interfaith strategy called Lawyers and Collars—said lovingly as a guy who doesn’t wear a collar, I wear a kippah. So, we—but we have a lot of lawyers in the Jewish community, so it kind of evens out. But it’s an effort to mobilize religious leaders together with lawyers to do election protection work, and what Dr. Skinner has done brilliantly, has figured out who are the local clergy state-by-state that are influential, and has the relationships that can build up the coalitions and networks now—do the training and do the support—so that we’re ready months ahead of the 2022 midterms.
So to Interfaith Power and Light, who I love, I would say it would be a good idea—in addition to the voter mobilization coalitions in your state-by-state effort—to really look at what Dr. Williams-Skinner has set in each of those states where there is an influential pastor, an influential rabbi, and then a whole group of other religious leaders and lawyers who are getting set as we speak.
But I don’t know, Kelly, that’s just one very specific answer.
DOUGLAS: No, actually, yeah, I was going to say Lawyers and Collars, and—(laughs)—because what I wanted to point to—and you’ve just done it, so I’ll just reinforce it—is that it’s not only about building partnerships with people within the interfaith community et cetera, but what has become very significant in the finest partnerships with lawyers and even what we found—one of the things that happened on voting day was certain organizations made sure that they had lawyers there—(laughs)—ready to help people through the process if their right to vote had been challenged on that day.
So I think that—yes, that was the organization that I was going to lift up.
CASEY: All right. Great. We have time for more questions, so what’s up next?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question live from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons from Center for American Progress.
GRAVES-FITZSIMMONS: Hello, everyone. Thank you for this great panel.
Given the specific attacks on the Black church, I wonder if each of you thinks it’s strategic to frame this, partly, as a religious freedom issue? Thank you.
DOUGLAS: Well, thank you, and good to see you in this conversation. Thank you for that question. And I’m going to answer quickly in light of the time.
One, we have to understand the attacks on the Black church in relationship to the wider history and significance of the Black church. To attack the Black church—this is, again, nothing new—but to attack the Black church is to attack the center of the Black community, to center—to attack the institution that signals the survival onus, freedom of the Black community.
As W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1903—I believe he said, the Black church is the religious center as well as the social center for the Black community. So to attack the Black church in essence is to attack the Black community, equivalent to attacking Black HBCUs. These are stronghold institutions that reflect the wellbeing, the future of the Black community.
Is this an issue of religious freedom? I think Jonah said it best—all of these things go together. And so what we have to understand is, what is it that when we are trying to suppress the vote, when we are attacking certain communities? What do we mean by protecting white supremacy, and what does that look like? What you’re actually trying to protect is a particular understanding of what it means to be a citizen, and so, when you understand that, then it is about religious freedom in the sense of what it means to be a multicultural, inter-religious, multiethnic community.
And so what’s really at stake here is trying to protect a particular notion of what it means or who is accepted as an American, and that has to do with religion, color, et cetera, et cetera—gender realities, et cetera.
PESNER: I can only add—I mean, it’s a really interesting question, and I appreciate Kelly centering the Black church as another—the church fire is just an example of what this looks like.
Religious freedom issues feel very complicated to me, and we keep—as a religious minority, where my predecessor Rabbi David Saperstein was famously part of the coalition that passed the original RFRA, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which really was to protect religious minorities—suddenly has become weaponized as a way to oppress to LGBTQIA folk, to take away women’s right to control their bodies.
So I guess it’s a really interesting idea. Although I feel like religious freedom at this point just mucks everything up, and as a person who really treasures religious freedom, I wish it were less weaponized. It would help all of us who are religious minorities feel safer, frankly.
DOUGLAS: Amen to that. And I just want to say for me it depends on who’s talking about it. (Laughs) And I mean, really it depends on who’s talking about it.
CASEY: All right. We have time at least for one more question, I think.
OPERATOR: Great. Next is a written submission from Emma Petty Adams from the Mormon Women for Ethical Government.
She asks, “voting rights have historically been a point of bipartisan agreement. Thank you for your acknowledgement of that, Jonah. Do you have any specific advice for those conservative Americans who have watched their party walk away from this issue and instead pivot towards voter fraud as the most pressing issue? How can we or they speak persuasively to friends and family about the collective positive impact that comes when all Americans have access to the polls? For example, is there a collection of individual stories that help demonstrate the personal impact of voter suppression?”
DOUGLAS: I think it was directed to you, Jonah.
PESNER: Oh, no, I just heard a thank you for that.
DOUGLAS: Oh. (Laughs.)
PESNER: I mean, all right, I’ll just say a word briefly, and then kick it to Kelly.
I mean, there’s a wonderful emerging organization called the One America Movement, which is trying to combat the kind of polarization that leads to the mess we’re in without doing just kind of touchy-feely reconciliation work, but actually deep. How do you get people who come out of very different traditions, kind of the—and I hate to use, white Evangelical Christians, right, as a basket as if they’re all the same, right—talking to Muslim American, coming at immigrant communities, et cetera—like an actual conversation where we rebuild the fabric of the One America?
I have a critique because One America, if you ask somebody who lived under Jim Crow, what is that One America? Is that the One America we want? But it is an aspirational vision, let’s say, of what could be, and I think its theory of change is around relationship and conversation, where people who are reacting to what they see in disinformation, whether it’s mainstream media disinformation or online disinformation, humanizing the reality of people’s lives and getting them to talk to people who are not like them.
But I must admit I feel like this is the great challenge of our day, is how will we invite in folk who see the world differently into—they respect and very Talmudic—you remember in the Talmud it’s all about the dissenting opinion, Hillel and Shammai. The minority opinion was always published and celebrated even as the majority won the day. We have to find a way in this country to celebrate the majority and the minority, but stay one sacred dialogue, and I don’t have any deep words of wisdom on how to do it.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, neither do I, except to say this, that we have to—it begins with changing the gaze and helping people change their gaze. And that means engaging with those who are different than themselves, and because the more we can open up our perspective, the more we are able to even see the limitations, perhaps, of our own perspective.
I don’t want to open up another can of worms, but best to open it up when we’ve got to close. That’s why not unrelated to this—because all of this is so inter-related—not unrelated to this is the attack on quote/unquote, “critical race theory,” because that’s about changing our gaze. That’s about hearing other people’s stories. That’s about engaging other histories and what it looks like from other perspectives to be in this struggle to become the democracy that we claim we want to be.
And so I think we cannot see disconnected from voter suppression and what we’re seeing going on in this country—this whole critical race theory discussion—because it’s all about protecting a vision, protecting a gaze, protecting a view of America. And so we just have to find ways—and to the person who asked the question—in our local communities and congregations. If we believe that these things have to be opened up, we have to engage that in our local communities and not allow these various forms of legislation about voting suppression and controlling a particular—protecting particular views of truth and history. We’ve got to find ways to open those things up, and I think if we do then we will find ourselves moving closer, closer to understanding that we are all in this together, and that there is salvation and solidarity.
CASEY: I would just simply add, as we come to our close here, I think that the struggle for people who are working for voting rights today—and really, it’s throughout our whole polity—is how you live in proximity with people who do not agree with you.
Too often in my experiences having worked on some national campaigns, it’s all about turning out the base—that you try to turn out the people who agree with you. And the notion of trying to persuade and interact with all of American citizens has become really rare today and really, frankly, harder to sit down and live in proximity with somebody who does not share your particular political or theological views.
And I would add a historical footnote, Jonah, when you were talking about January 6—those insurrectionists were also fueled, frankly, by white Christian theology, and I would simply argue, from my perspective as a Protestant theologian who is Anglo, we bear a greater burden in this. We have not engaged, in this case, Evangelical or fundamentalist Christian theology with any success. In fact, again, we don’t really live and work in proximity with the generators of that alternative theological view that fueled those folks we saw on January 6.
So I think all religious communities, whether—no matter what the community of origin—have a duty to try to engage, and it’s much harder today than it was ten years ago. And I think that’s part of the key of preserving voting rights today. It’s more than just rallying our bases. It’s about how do we engage with people who are actually opposing and working against voting rights.
Let me simply say, I think we’re going to actually end on time, which I’m not noted for as moderator, so let the record show.
First of all, thank you so much, Kelly and Jonah. This was a remarkable conversation, and it will be posted. The transcript will also be posted. I think this is certainly a sharable hour that you can circulate among your friends. So look for that—look for those posts at @CFR.org. Thank you, too, to the audience for your excellent questions and comments.
Let me also do the moment of advertising. You can follow Kelly’s work on Twitter at @DeanKBD, and you can follow Jonah’s work at @JonahPesner—all one word. And we encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources, and you can reach out to Council on Foreign Relations at [email protected] with any suggestions or questions.
I’d like to thank Irina and her team at the Council on Foreign Relations for putting together this absolutely superb panel. Thank you, all, for coming. I look forward to your participation in future discussions. Take care. Thank you, everybody.