Dr. Martha Simmons of the New Georgia Project is one of many religious leaders engaging with progressive voters on moral grounds. She calls voting a 'civic sacrament.' Dr. Martha Simmons of New Georgia Project
Dr. Martha Simmons of the New Georgia Project is one of many religious leaders engaging with progressive voters on moral grounds. She calls voting a 'civic sacrament.'

Georgia’s progressive faith community helped turn out the vote in one of the nation’s most hotly contested elections. With the Dec. 7 deadline to register fast approaching, they aren’t letting up ahead of January’s rematch.

Georgia’s Senate race has galvanized faith leaders who are using moral points, territory often claimed by the right, to further progressive platforms. It’s not a new strategy, but it’s one that’s key to getting many of the state’s religious voters registered ahead of the Dec. 7 deadline.

Religious appeals have been underutilized by the left in recent years. Yet, 71% of Democrats and Independents identify with a religious tradition, and faith leaders have historically pushed for the expansion of civil rights—working to ensure their communities’ values are represented in the public square. 

This election cycle, Rev. Martha Simmons of Rush Memorial United Church of Christ in Atlanta volunteered with the New Georgia Project (NGP), a nonpartisan initiative by Stacey Abrams to ensure as many residents of color who are eligible to vote are registered. Simmons, speaking as a private citizen, said she was motivated to get involved because of the immorality of the current administration. “We’ll cage kids, close down 20 polling places, who’s gonna stop us?” she described the attitude.

Simmons canvassed neighborhoods registering people to vote and, on Election Day, passed out water at polling stations so fatigue wouldn’t depress turnout. Volunteers also offered voters free rides to the polls and personal protective equipment on Election Day. Their efforts, she said, are partly a response to Georgia’s history of not allowing people their legal right to vote.

“Voter suppression never sleeps,” Simmons said. “If you continue making it so hard for people to vote, it erodes democracy. This time people got so mad, they voted anyway.” 

The evidence of that is in the record turnout the Bible Belt state saw in November. Now, Georgia is poised for a runoff of its tightly contested Senate race. Black churches and Jewish groups rallied behind Democratic challengers Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, while white, conservative congregations supported Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Georgia’s two Senate seats are at stake, which could deliver Democrats a razor-thin majority and impact President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to enact legislation on health care, economic relief, and other pressing matters.

In the meantime, Simmons promised not to let up on engaging. In fact, she’s working harder than ever to make sure everyone, even those who voted in the Nov. 3 election, are still on the rolls or are registered by the Dec. 7 deadline. She sees it as her duty, both spiritually and historically.

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“The last four years have shown us just how fragile our democracy really is,” Simmons said. “So many of what we assumed were norms for any president have been torn asunder. I hope it has taught us a great lesson: You don’t have a democracy if you can’t keep it.” 

Rev. Billy Michael Honor, who also works at NGP, agreed on the importance of faith leaders helping their communities engage in the democratic process. 

“We don’t want to be in a situation where any particular religious viewpoint becomes law, but we have values that inform the things we care about and we’re encouraging people to vote their  values: Access to health care in rural communities, expanding Medicaid, and making sure we are opening hospitals and closing jails,” Honor told COURIER. “Every faith leader I know, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on, believe it’s important for people of faith to express their values.” 

Simmons said “voting is a civic sacrament” for people of faith, especially Black people. “It’s one of the things I have to do as a citizen who wants to make things better for many people, especially the least of these. People don’t appreciate what voting can do because they don’t see change at the speed they want to see it. I tell people things may not be changing as quickly as you want, but there’s certainly been change. And if you don’t believe me, just read a little history.”