Skip to content

Biden, the Black Church and Mother Emanuel


Using resources to best serve community

By John Thomas III

Special from The Christian Recorder

“At Church, Biden denounces poison of Supremacy”

“Gaza Protest Erupted During Biden Speech at Mother Emanuel”

“Biden’s Appeal to Black Voters Needs an Overhaul”

One could be forgiven for wondering exactly what happened at Mother Emanuel on Monday when President Joe Biden visited in his first campaign swing of the 2024 presidential cycle. As an affiliate member of Mother Emanuel, a journalist, and a collegiate political science professor, I confess that I needed a few days to sit with the variety of emotions and perspectives that I felt after the Jan. 8 program.

We know that the Black Church as an institution is more to the African American community than a religious place. It is a vital institutional pillar that has undergirded our existence. From providing physical places to gather and shelter to opportunities for leadership and training to incubators for economic development, the Black Church is a singular institution whose influence sets African Americans apart from different parts of the Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere.

We AMEs take pride in navigating the world of United States politics, including presidents in our midst. William McKinley visited Quinn Chapel AME Church in Chicago in one of his last speeches before his assassination in 1901. John F. Kennedy invited the entire Council of Bishops to the White House to recognize Daniel Payne’s role in signing the Emancipation Proclamation. And, of course, presidential candidates routinely attend our general conferences.

So, when people question the appropriateness of the sitting United States president to show up to an AME Church, our history shows that he is just the latest in a long line of persons who have come to our doors. Furthermore, President Biden has a special relationship with the AME Church. He was a frequent visitor at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., when he represented that state in the United States Senate. He also personally visited the families of the Mother Emanuel victims and the survivors of the 2015 massacre days after the tragedy in a show of solidarity—even though his own son, Beau, had died of cancer days before. As  Congressman James Clyburn (an AME Church member) said in his introduction of the president, “We know Joe.” With this context, the visit of President Biden to an AME Church makes sense.

But we know contexts change. The Black Church is not what it once was, and American democracy is not what it once was. When the protestors stood up in Mother Emanuel during the president’s speech, I immediately noticed they were the youngest people in the sanctuary. Given that they couldn’t bring in signs, I appreciated their boldness and that, when asked to leave, they respectfully did so and honored the fact that it was a house of worship and sacred ground.  We know that there is a generational and ethnic divide in American opinion on the conflict in Gaza, and many of the people were more concerned that they were “disrespecting the pesident” than their actual viewpoint about genocide. The largely 60-plus-age crowd in the room was a friendly audience to the president. And we know that the Black Church as an institution is losing inroads among younger generations. Faith will always be important to African-Americans—but how that faith is practiced and what institutions shape it is evolving and changing. Likewise, African American voting patterns are shifting, and the arguments and appeals to Black voters must shift.

Bishop Samuel Green, presiding prelate of the 7th Episcopal District, reminded those assembled in his remarks that while Ella Baker, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other luminaries of the African American freedom struggle might have had issues with American democracy if there was a choice between President Biden or former President Trump, we know they adamantly would have backed the incumbent. This stark reminder of the situation of American democracy, where White nationalist demagogues and insurrectionists have seemingly hijacked one party, speaks to the peril that the country is in. 

Dr. John Thomas III is the editor of The Christian Recorder.