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 both discussion and organization.

In turn, the Black church has cultivated generations of prominent political leaders, some of them ordained clergy, including civil rights icons such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Congressman John Lewis. 

Lewis was an ordained Baptist minister who spent several decades as a Democratic congressman from Georgia until his death this summer. When he was laid to rest, his funeral at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church was led by the Rev. Warnock — Ebenezer’s senior pastor and, himself, a 2020 congressional candidate. 

Seizing the moment

The Rev. Warnock’s bid to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate pits him against Republican candidate Doug Collins, a four-term congressman who coincidentally is a former pastor and “a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve,” according to his website

In addition to Collins, there are two other Republican congressional candidates who have also served as religious leaders: Jody Hice, who is up for reelection in Georgia, and Johnny Teague, a first-time political contender in Texas. Both men were Baptist ministers. 

The seventh pastor-turned-congressional candidate confounds the above categories: Michigan’s Bryan Berghoef is neither a Black Protestant nor a white evangelical pastor. Instead, he leads a United Church of Christ congregation in Holland, a small town in Western Michigan.

Though he was a Republican in the past, he told WZZM, a local ABC affiliate, the Rev. Berghoef is running for the House of Representatives as a Democrat, challenging a Republican incumbent who has held the seat for almost a decade. He is also attempting to flip a district that has been red since 1933.

Academics explain that pastors generally don’t risk a run for office because, in doing so, they risk alienating their congregations — that is, the people who keep them employed. Religious leaders only throw their hats into the ring when “the stars line up and the windows open in a certain way,” says Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. So a pastor running for office isn’t shaping the moment — he or she is seizing it. 

Congregation approval has always been less of a concern, however, for Black clergy who pivot into politics. “In the Black experience, we had most of the early leaders coming out of the church because they were freer than others — they would not be fired by the congregations for trying to improve the lives of African Americans,” the Rev. Cleaver explains. 

Desire to serve

In the past, few of these candidates would have been able to run as many state constitutions specifically forbade clergy from holding public office. The last of those states was Tennessee, where in the late 1970s, a Black pastor — the Rev. Paul A. McDaniel — found himself unable to serve in the state legislature after an opposing candidate invoked the prohibition.

Speaking to The New York Times in 1977, McDaniel remarked, “I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state but I don’t see where a clergyman serving in public office is the same thing.”

His case made its way to the Supreme Court and in the 1978, the justices unanimously agreed, saying that the prohibition infringed on his rights as defined in the First and 14th Amendments — essentially overturning the last state prohibition against clergy running for public office. 

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The prohibitions against clergy running for office were initially written in an attempt to keep the state out of religious affairs rather than the preventing church meddling in government, says Robert Velez, a lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who wrote his dissertation on pastors who run for political office. 

It’s more common to see clergy running for city, county or state office, he says, than for Congress. Regardless of the office, there was a common thread in the interviews Velez conducted with pastors-turned-politicians. “When I asked them ‘Why did you decide to run?’ (Their answer) was, ‘You know, I have a skill set that I thought would serve my community and I just wanted to serve.’” 

He admits he expected to see more “crusaders” entering politics to push specific agendas. “But the overall finding I came up with is that these were individuals who were motivated out of a sense of public service,” he says. 

Because the skill set specific to pastoring — public speaking, fundraising, consensus-building — maps on well to politics, Velez says, he’s surprised more aren’t running. 

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