By Grace George
Minister Jennifer Butler and Minister Leslie Copeland-Tune stood for hours at a polling place in Georgia during the 2018 midterm election handing out food and water to voters waiting in line.
“When I’m there in my clergy gear, I feel like I’m there as a witness,” Copeland-Tune said in an interview. “I’m really, as much as possible and as humbly as I can be, a witness for God and for how God wants God’s people to be treated.”
Butler is the founding executive director of Faith in Public Life, an organization that works with a network of around 50,000 religious leaders in the U.S. to advocate for progressive legislation and social justice causes. She wrote a recent op-ed for Religion News Service imploring religious leaders to act as peacemakers and mediating forces at polling places for this year’s presidential election.
“I think by showing up as clergy we can sort of help people stay calm and well behaved,” Butler said in an interview.
Butler said clergy at polling places would seek, “to be a peaceful presence, to be an encouragement to people to stay in line.”
Copeland-Tune is the Chief Operating Officer for the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical body that partners with secular and interfaith communities to advance a progressive agenda. She agrees with Butler that religious leaders should be peacemakers at the polls since their experience together in 2018.
“Ever since then, I’ve felt like it’s definitely a place for clergy to be and to show up and have a presence just to encourage people,” she said. “If anybody has ill intent, they’re less likely to go forward with it if they see clergy collars.”
Butler said religious peacemakers would not be pushing their agenda or trying to garner voters for their candidate. Rather, they would dole out food and water to voters waiting in long lines, call for help if there are violent disruptions and remind, “people who they are and how they ought to behave,” Butler said.
“Our posture is one of love and acceptance and kindness,” Copeland-Tune said. “We’re not yelling and screaming at people. We’re not trying to make anybody feel uncomfortable. We’re trying to be helpful.”
Copeland-Tune said this call for peacemakers at the polls comes during a divisive time in which the potential for political violence on or around election day is heightened.
“I think the rhetoric around this election has just been so divisive, and there’s a lot of people who are energized about voting, about getting the vote out,” Copeland-Tune said. “And we had the president tell people to have his people go to the polls and stand and watch what people are doing, which is a form of voter intimidation.”
Butler said this election “clearly” has more potential for violence than previous elections due to the president’s lack of moral leadership.
“We’ve seen in this president that he is not willing to condemn militia violence and white supremacist violence,” Butler said.
Some religious leaders Butler works with through Faith in Public Life have already reported seeing violence while voting this year, she said.
A recent article by the think tank Brookings Institution posits that the high risk of election violence this year can be attributed to increasing political polarization, anxiety from the pandemic, growth in extremist groups, mobilization for or against the Black Lives Matter protests and the president’s ambiguous language telling his supporters to be poll watchers for voter fraud.
Some voters, like D.C. voter Amy Kampf, have been feeling this tension rise during the lead-up to election day as well. Following the protests she witnessed this summer, Kampf said she is planning to stay inside on election day in the event that there is violence on the streets.
“I’m not sure how D.C. is going to react to [the results],” Kampf said.
Butler and Copeland-Tune plan to do the opposite. Both are looking to show up at polling places where violence is most likely.
“It’s the swing states and the places where there’s going to be a really close vote where we most expect that there might be some infractions and intimidation happening,” Butler said.
Butler plans to be a peacemaker at a polling place in Pennsylvania, and Copeland-Tune is thinking of going to either Georgia, South Carolina or North Carolina. Copeland-Tune said she is not afraid of putting herself in a potentially dangerous situation on election day.
“Jen and I are like soldiers,” Copeland-Tune said. “If there is a battle, we are going right there for it.”
Butler and Copeland-Tune believe their work as peacemakers at voting places is about more than maintaining peace in one space on election day. They see their work as ministers as inherently political.
“Politics is not in a vacuum; It impacts our lives,” Copeland-Tune said. “And as faith leaders, we have to be engaged in discussing it or else our people are not going to get the best care or the resources that they need.”