The Reverend-turned-Congressman Emanuel Cleaver still remembers the moment he was called — not to the pulpit but to politics.
It was over a decade ago and the local creek had flooded again, the waters killing some residents of Kansas City, Missouri. One evening, while with family and friends, the Rev. Cleaver remarked on the deaths, adding, “Somebody ought to try to do something about this.”
“You’re somebody,” a friend answered.
“Two years later, I was running,” recalls the congressman, who is up for reelection this year. If he wins, it will be his eighth term representing Missouri’s 5th District in the U.S .House of Representatives.
The Rev. Cleaver, who serves as a guest pastor at numerous churches when he isn’t busy politicking, isn’t alone. This year, six other congressional candidates are either pastors or have served as such in the past.
The two professions of clergy and politics are not as incompatible as one might think. Countless clergymen have held municipal, county and state seats, or have served in Congress. According to Pew Research Center, the first U.S. Congress included six ordained ministers and a Lutheran minister served as the very first Speaker of the House.
And, in 1881, one member of the clergy, James Garfield, became president.
All the religious leaders who have served in Congress have been Christian; most have been Protestant. Only two Catholic clergymen have sat in Congress — reflecting the papal prohibition that bars religious leaders from taking political office. And no one knows how many elected officials have held lay clergy positions in their congregations.
While Pew Research Center found a majority of Americans today want houses of worship to stay out of politics, two groups still prefer the opposite. Asked if churches “should keep out of political matters” or “express their views on day-to-day social and political questions,” a majority of white evangelical Christians (61%) and Black protestants (51%) chose the latter — making them the most supportive of bringing politics to the pulpit. This data point is reflected in the crop of current or former pastors running this year: save for one, all are either white Republicans from evangelical backgrounds or Black Democrats, like the Rev. Cleaver.
Academics say these candidacies also reflect a variety of historical forces, including the way segregation pushed politics into the Black church. Today, though, the question isn’t why these pastors are running, says one expert. Rather, because of a skill set that lends itself to politics, the question is: why don’t more religious leaders run for office?
Black pastors in the public square
In addition to the Rev. Cleaver, the other two Black Democrat pastors running for congressional office this year are the Rev. Cori Bush, also from Missouri, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, from Georgia.
The Rev. Bush is a “nurse, pastor, single mom and Fergsuon-made activist,” according to her website, who vaulted to national prominence through her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. She is running to represent Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, and, if elected, it will be the first time Missouri has sent a Black woman to Congress.
The Rev. Bush is also notable because, in the primary, she defeated another Black Democrat — William Lacy Clay Jr., a 10-term incumbent whose father also spent decades in Congress. Her victory over a fellow Democrat was propelled by the rise of “more liberal, confrontational politics within the Democratic Party,” according to The New York Times.
Though the Rev. Bush’s candidacy might seem like a product of the moment, historically speaking, it has always made sense for Black pastors to step into the public square. In the past, segregation and other legal and social barriers that prevented Black Americans from participating fully in society pushed politics into the church, which served as a safe haven for…