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Phil Vischer: This Is How Race Shapes the Way Christians Vote

In his latest video tackling the complexities of race in the United States, VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer explores the question, “Why do white Christians vote Republican and Black Christians vote Democrat?” There are many factors that play into the answer to this question, but Vischer suggested the reasons have a lot to do with the very different histories and life experiences of white and Black Christians in the U.S.

“Everyone knows conservative Christians vote Republican,” said Vischer. “It’s like one of the rules of nature.” But at the same time, “Most African Americans self-identify as Christian and most African-Americans vote Democrat.” 

As an illustration of that point, Vischer cited data from Pew Research Center that found that 96 percent of Black Protestants voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. How is it possible for two groups of people who claim to be following the same faith to come to such different conclusions about which candidate or party they will support? To answer this question, Vischer gave a brief history lesson, starting in 1870.

Phil Vischer on the History of Our Political Parties

When Black men gained the right to vote in 1870, the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” had connotations very different from what we think of today. President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and when they got the right to vote, most Black people were Republicans as well. “In fact, the first 23 Black congressmen were all Republicans,” said Vischer. This was in part because of Lincoln, but also because most slave owners and many members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were Democrats.

The commitment Black people had to the Republican party was shaken, however, by the Great Compromise of 1877. Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 had jeopardized the voting rights of Black Americans in the South, so Republican presidents sent federal troops there to protect those rights. But when the election of 1876 fell into a deadlock that threatened to send the country into another civil war, Rutherford B. Hayes (a Republican) became president in exchange for the withdrawal of the troops in the South that had been protecting African American rights. “Yep, Northern Republicans sort of threw southern Black people under the bus,” said Vischer. 

Between 1868 and 1898, the South had elected 22 Black representatives. But when the federal troops were withdrawn, the “elimination of Black votes was so complete,” said Vischer, it would be 30 years before another Black man would be elected to Congress.

States then passed Jim Crow laws and Black people became more vulnerable to the KKK. This led to the Great Migration, where six million African Americans left the South to escape segregation and lynchings. Another advantage of leaving the South was that in the North, Black people could vote. Some still voted Republican because of Lincoln, but Republican leaders were not advocating for them, and in 1926, the NAACP encouraged Black voters not to be loyal to either party. 

During the Great Depression, unemployment was twice as bad for Black people in the North as it was for white people there, and the Black community favored Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt was a Democrat, and he “received overwhelming support from Black voters.” Another noteworthy event during this time was Arthur Mitchell’s election to Congress in 1934. He was “something Washington had never seen before: A Black Democrat.”

For the next 20 years, said Vischer, the Republican and Democratic parties each supported different civil rights measures and Black voters voted for both Democratic and Republican candidates. “Though today this seems hard to believe,” he said, “there used to be conservative and progressive wings of both parties.” The conservative Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans were united in their desire to limit the size of the government. Both factions also opposed new civil rights measures. So fighting for states rights and limited government became associated with opposing civil rights. 

As Northern Democrats proposed more civil rights legislation than Republicans did, Black voters gradually voted Democrat more than they voted Republican. And as the Southern Democrats continued to oppose civil rights laws, this tension, said Vischer, led to a “breaking point, and that break would radically alter American politics.” 

The political career of Strom Thurmond, who was governor of South Carolina and then a senator for five decades, “almost perfectly illustrates the shift in political parties over the last 80 years,” said Vischer. Thurmond was a Southern Democrat and a staunch advocate of keeping the South segregated. When Harry Truman integrated the Army and proposed “aggressive civil rights legislation,” Thurmond and other Southern Democrats formed the States Rights Democratic Party, or the “Dixiecrats,” “a conservative party dedicated to preserving segregation.”