Rev. Josh Saefkow walked across the stage before his congregation at Flat Creek Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, holding up the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The pastor, an avid news reader, had been saving the paper through 2020, to urge reflection in his final Sunday sermon of the year.
“What a devastating year this has been,” he said, then turned to 2021.
“We got a little election coming up,” said Saefkow, referring to the January 5 Senate runoffs. Quiet laughter rippled through the pews, as few have been unable to escape the more than $500 million in political advertising blanketing the state.
“Vote Christian,” urged the pastor. “We need to vote with the context of scripture in our minds and let it come through the lens of scripture.”
While not mentioning by party or name whom they should vote for, congregants told CNN they know who this conservative Baptist pastor was talking about.
“I always vote for the candidate who most aligns with my Christian faith. In this runoff especially, I’m voting for the candidates who are pro-life,” said Allison Yates. Those candidates with anti-abortion rights stances, she added, are Republican incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
Churches, especially evangelical churches in Georgia, have been a potent force among the electorate. According to the CNN exit poll from the 2020 election, about one-third of the electorate in November was White evangelical or born-again Christian. Republicans won about 85% of their votes.
But Black voter turnout in November, especially in the Atlanta suburbs, helped tip the scale for President-elect Joe Biden, with voter registration groups like the New Georgia Project partnering with churches to reach Black Christian voters. In the runoffs, voter registration groups targeting Black voters have continued to work with churches to hold registration drives and host the Democratic candidates in their parking lots.
In the Bible Belt, Georgia remains a state where nearly 80% of its residents identify as Christian, and where politics for preachers on both sides of the political aisle find a natural correlation, especially with the control of the US Senate at stake. Should Democrats flip both Senate seats, Vice President Kamala Harris would be the tie-breaking vote, giving Democrats control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“For me, it’s not about being political, it’s about being Biblical,” said Saefkow. “I think it’s advantageous for all us followers of Jesus to elect people who represent our world view. We’ve become more engaged as a church family so we can make an educated decision in the voting booth but also being framed in the scripture.”
The pastor said he will not explicitly tell his church members who to vote for, but openly disagrees with both the Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, on issues like abortion. Both candidates support abortion rights. Saefkow takes the sharpest departure with Warnock, in part, because both men share their Christian faith.
“I think he’s a gifted orator. I think he’s a gifted communicator,” said Saefkow, “but not the best student of scripture. It’s not about Rev. Warnock, it’s about what the scripture says. For me, he veers off there, when you look at the issue of life. I think he’s wrong on that.”
The issue of abortion is a powerful driver to the ballot box not just for the pastor personally, but for the religious right in Georgia, believes Saefkow.
‘A lot of people look to the church for guidance’
About 40 minutes to the north of Flat Creek Baptist Church, Rev. Vandy Simmons of Antioch AME Church, called out evangelicals for their emphasis on abortion.
“We’re challenging our so-called evangelical brothers and sisters. We’re challenging them to be better. We’re challenging them not to hide behind something called pro-life,” preached Simmons, from his Sunday pulpit. “Where you’re more concerned about the life you can’t see instead of making provisions for the life that come into this world.”
For the parishioners here, attacks on Warnock’s abortion rights position are nonsensical.
“As much as they make an argument about life in the womb, in the midst of this pandemic they’re opposed to wearing face masks. They’re opposed to the guidelines from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) so therefore, we have had almost 400,000 people that have died,” Bishop Reginald Jackson told CNN. “So, you’re saying we’re more concerned about the life in the womb than we are about the lives outside the womb?” he asked rhetorically. “I preach, teach, counsel, advocate against abortion. But at the same time, I believe, ultimately, that is that woman’s decision to make.”
Loeffler doubled down on the religious divide during the only televised debate in the Senate runoffs with Warnock. “Look, I’m not going to be lectured by someone who uses the Bible to justify abortion,” Loeffler began her argument.
“Listen,” Warnock said as part of a broader response to the attack. “I have a profound reverence for life and abiding respect for choice. The question is, whose decision is it.”
Christian Democrats have emphasized health care, economic justice and criminal justice reform. Delivery on those issues lies on whether the coalition that handed President-elect Joe Biden Georgia in November turns out in January.
Jackson minced no words on who leads that coalition for Democrats in Georgia, speaking to the congregation at Antioch AME Church on Sunday. “The eyes of the nation are waiting to see if Black folk are going to turn out for the runoff like you turned out in November,” he said from the pulpit. “All I want to say to them is come and see.”
Jackson oversees nearly 90,000 church members in the Georgia’s 6th Episcopal District of the AME Church. “There will be huge turnout among Blacks and the church is giving leadership to that effort,” he said of the January 5 election.
The message has not been lost on the faithful listening from the pews, only a small and socially distanced congregation allowed into the sanctuary due to Covid-19. Lynnise Gamble, in attendance at Sunday’s service, told CNN, “I’ve been hearing it since before November. We’ve been talking about voting, voting, voting. A lot of people look to the church for guidance and so it’s very important to get that word out.”
From the tiered stage of Antioch AME’s sanctuary, a choir of women in ruby red dresses raised their voices in song. “His plan, His plan for me is victory!” they sang.
“The heat is on, church. We want to be ready, church,” urged the woman at the mic. “Because the whole world is counting on us to make the Senate blue.”