Gene Locke, a Harris County commissioner, urged caution at putting too much emphasis on the importance of churches literally driving voters to polls, however. While it has helped with a small segment of older voters, he argued, the larger struggle to mobilize voters in the black community, he said, is just like the struggle to mobilize many other low-income, urban voters: The city’s residents are getting younger, and many black inner-city residents are less educated and thus less likely to be civically engaged than those who move away. Convincing them to vote is a challenge: “I figure it out, I’ll call you,” he quipped.
Grady Prestage, a Fort Bend county commissioner, thinks that some of the mobilization role the church has traditionally taken on is now filled by social media. “Folks are going to respond when prodded, regardless of where they are,” he said, adding that social media allows advocates to tailor messages for different groups. But whether potential voters view those messages as truly sincere and personal—crucial factors in driving turnout—is another question.
Audrey Lawson, William Lawson’s wife, foresaw the erosion of some of that personal connection within the black community during a 1996 interview with the University of Houston: “Those blacks who have, quote, made it financially or economically are no longer a part of the inner city or of the community. And so the kids that are growing up over in Third Ward don’t really have a lot of people to look up to … The black church is the only real institution that the black community has, that it owns, that it can control … That is where our power is, and it always has been … The church was the only place that you could corral people, or you had enough people to actually get the grapevine moving.”
Still, Michael Adams, a professor at Texas Southern University, a historically black university blocks from Wheeler Baptist, says that, even as the number of black residents has declined, “African Americans have been able to coalesce.” Black voters have played pivotal roles in electing black officials to office, notably Sylvester Turner, the current Houston mayor.
The role black voters will play in 2016 is obviously still to be decided, as is the precise role of the church. But nationally, around 65 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots in 2008 and 2012, a rate on par with white voter turnout, and higher than both Asian and Latino voter turnout. And while the percentage of people in this country who say they are religiously unaffiliated is growing, blacks are more likely than whites to have a religious affiliation. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults, 12 percent identify as historically black Protestant, according to the Pew Research Center. The vast majority, 85 percent, of religiously affiliated historically black Protestant churchgoers say religion is very important, and more than half attend services weekly. All of this means that the role of the church during election season stands to be significant if church leaders make political participation a priority. Some studies even suggest a positive correlation between church attendance and the likelihood of voting. According to Pew, 62 percent of black Protestants say Clinton would make a good president (compared with 36 percent who say the same about Bernie Sanders), and polls of black voters more generally also put Clinton ahead.
“The black church remains enormously important,” Klineberg, the demographer, said. He will be watching closely to see how Clinton handles things in the coming days. If, as is largely expected, she ultimately picks up enough delegates to secure the nomination, how will she pivot toward the political center, as most candidates do in the face of a general election, without alienating those who helped her win the Democratic primary? And will black voters mobilize in her favor come November?