Mayor Adams hosts faith leaders (photo: Benny Polatseck/Mayoral Photography Office)
Mayor Eric Adams recently made headlines for suggesting in a speech that the City of New York would benefit from there being no separation between church and state. On CNN’s State of the Union some days later, Adams clarified his remarks, stating that “Government should not interfere with religion, and religion should not interfere with government.” Though this walk-back did not quell the controversy, it did highlight the precariousness of navigating religion in public life.
Some background on Adams’ beliefs and the broader issue of religion and politics gives context to the mayor’s comments. Most people in my corner of the political world know me for my work as a political consultant and more recently as a political analyst. Many do not know that I am also an ordained minister and that for 16 years I pastored several congregations. My graduate training was in the field of theology; I studied at New York’s Union Theological Seminary under Dr. James Cone, the founder of the Black theology of liberation movement in the United States.
Here, I put on my theologian’s hat and examine Mayor Adams’ recent postulations and their significance for the broader scope of religion and politics.
To begin to understand the mayor’s recent remarks it helps to know his religious background. The mayor was raised in a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) congregation. COGIC is a Pentecostal denomination, and a predominantly Black denomination. In fact, it is the largest Pentecostal movement in the United States. The importance of the Black church tradition on his public service has been previously acknowledged by Mayor Adams. In a late 2021 campaign interview with Gotham Gazette, Adams declared, “I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for the Black church, as a police officer and now as the future mayor of the city.”
COGIC’s reach within the Black community is extensive. The Rev. Al Sharpton was ordained in COGIC, under the leadership of Bishop F.D. Washington, an extraordinary preacher and ecclesial leader. COGIC also counts among its most widely familiar members Denzel Washington (whose family has roots at the Allen Memorial Church of God in Christ congregation in Mount Vernon, NY), Stevie Wonder, and Chris Tucker.
As a Pentecostal denomination, COGIC embraces a theology that is fairly common within such a Christian tradition. It centers the Bible as the Word of God, and embraces many biblical narratives as literal facts, void of any mythic import. It focuses on personal piety; and the belief that God’s Spirit is not a reality aloof from human affairs but is in fact often and consistently at work in individual lives and capable of transforming broader society. This same Spirit is active in the empowerment and uplifting of the most vulnerable.
The significant communal involvement of many Pentecostal and Evangelical churches in underserved communities around our city and state is therefore not surprising. Many of the organizations that have worked on housing, drug rehabilitation, and food insecurity issues, for instance, and that have done so with little or no government funding, have been church-led. To understand Mayor Adams’ belief that his election is part of God’s purpose for New York is to be aware of this commitment and involvement.
Pentecostals firmly believe in the ever-present reality of God in our historical circumstances. Their fervor for spreading the Gospel (evangelism) is undeniable, including the idea that evangelistic efforts should lead not only to the salvation of souls but also to the transformation of society. Hence, within the Pentecostal tradition it is not uncommon to hear comments like those of Mayor Adams about the necessity of re-instituting certain practices of yesteryear, like prayer in schools.
Inviting God’s Spirit into the mundane, Pentecostals believe, will lead to the needed transformation of society. For Pentecostals, much of the content of Mayor Adams’ remarks is familiar. Most of them would support his declarations, though some might perhaps take umbrage at the initial remark on the problematic nature of separation of church and state, that Adams subsequently walked back.
The extent of Mayor Adams’ dependence on Pentecostal thought and practice may end at the idea of God’s continual involvement, and our invitation of God’s involvement in our affairs. For Adams departs from broader Pentecostal practices when it comes to some of his apparent religious practices. For instance, Adams’ collection of Buddhist statues and his belief that “’a special energy’ comes from New York since it sits on a store of rare gems and stones” would certainly be considered weird if not heretical by most, if not all, Pentecostals.
In any event, it is clear that the influence of Adams’ COGIC background continues to permeate much of his worldview.
Adams, considered a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, is not the only elected Democratic official whose political stances are influenced by certain Christian sensibilities. While in New York we can think of a number of former and current elected officials who fit this bill, we can also point to a more national figure who has earned the praise of progressives and moderate Democrats alike.
Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock was raised in the Holiness Church tradition. For him, too, the utterances of Mayor Adams are familiar. Warnock’s parents were both pastors and he is also a pastor, serving since 2005 as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Like me, he is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and a former student of Dr. Cone, referenced above.
To understand the influence and impact of Warnock’s religious sensibilities, one need only revisit his victory speech last November. Warnock’s speech was filled with vivid religious language. On a national platform, he unapologetically drew on the language of faith that nourished him and that continues to propel his work. After thanking Georgians, Warnock proclaimed the words that countless Christians have uttered through song and sermons — “to God be the glory!”
“I have often said that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children. It is faith put in action. It is the sober recognition that we pray not only with our lips but with our legs,” the Senator proclaimed, employing the cadences of the preacher that he is.
Again not shying away from articulating his faith, in another instance Warnock described democracy as the fulfillment of a greater spiritual reality: “I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea. The notion that each of us has within us a spark of the divine…We all have value. And if we have value, we ought to have a voice.” Accentuating this idea, Reverend Warnock declared what guides his own political philosophy—the idea that “each of us has within us a spark of the divine, that we were created in imago Dei, in the image of God."
Despite some Christian trajectories that are similar to Adams’, the theological and political stances of Warnock are in fact quite distinct. As a Baptist minister, Warnock fiercely defends the principle of the separation of church and state, a stance that Baptists consider a key Baptist “distinctive,” the idea of which goes back to their origins in England and Holland and were brought over to the beginnings of the U.S. through leaders like Roger Williams.
Furthermore, some of Warnock’s progressive stances are in fact driven by a particular theological posture, one indebted to the liberation theology movement. At the heart of this movement is the idea that the plight of the most vulnerable is one that deserves our priority response.
While clearly there are differences between Adams’ and Warnock’s worldviews, one cannot deny that faith has and continues to play a pivotal role in their own political philosophies and work, including as elected officials. And they are not shy about expressing this very fact.
Eli Valentin is a political analyst and author of the forthcoming book, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Political Life. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.