As the Israel-Hamas war enters its fourth month, a coalition of Black faith leaders is pressuring the Biden administration to push for a cease-fire — a campaign spurred in part by their parishioners, who are increasingly distressed by the suffering of Palestinians and critical of the president’s response to it.
More than 1,000 Black pastors representing hundreds of thousands of congregants nationwide have issued the demand. In sit-down meetings with White House officials, and through open letters and advertisements, ministers have made a moral case for President Biden and his administration to press Israel to stop its offensive operations in Gaza, which have killed thousands of civilians. They are also calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas and an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
The effort at persuasion also carries a political warning, detailed in interviews with a dozen Black faith leaders and their allies. Many of their parishioners, these pastors said, are so dismayed by the president’s posture toward the war that their support for his re-election bid could be imperiled.
“Black faith leaders are extremely disappointed in the Biden administration on this issue,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, the senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, which boasts more than 1,500 members. He was one of the first pastors of more than 200 Black clergy members in Georgia, a key swing state, to sign an open letter calling for a cease-fire. “We are afraid,” Mr. McDonald said. “And we’ve talked about it — it’s going to be very hard to persuade our people to go back to the polls and vote for Biden.”
Any cracks in the ordinarily rock-solid foundation of Black support for Mr. Biden, and for Democrats nationally, could be of enormous significance in November.
The intense feeling on the war in Gaza is among myriad unexpected ways that the war has scrambled U.S. politics. And it comes as Mr. Biden is already facing signs of waning enthusiasm among Black voters, who have for generations been the Democrats’ most loyal voting base.
The coalition of Black clergy pushing Mr. Biden for a cease-fire is diverse, from conservative-leaning Southern Baptists to more progressive nondenominational congregations in the Midwest and Northeast.
“This is not a fringe issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, a founder of Black Church PAC and the lead pastor of the Way church in Berkeley, Calif. “There are many of us who feel that this administration has lost its way on this.”
Seeing images of destruction in Gaza, many Black voters whose churches have become involved in the cease-fire movement have voiced increasing disenchantment with Democrats, who they feel have done little to stop the war.
Their pastors said their congregants’ strong reactions to the war were striking.
“Black clergy have seen war, militarism, poverty and racism all connected,” said Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network, whose members lead roughly 15 million Black churchgoers. She helped coordinate recent meetings between the White House and faith leaders. “But the Israel-Gaza war, unlike Iran and Afghanistan, has evoked the kind of deep-seated angst among Black people that I have not seen since the civil rights movement.”
When Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 Israelis and taking about 240 people hostage, leagues of Black pastors joined their counterparts in interfaith prayer for Israel, whose land they revere as holy.
But since then, the pastors’ Palestinian allies in the United States, Gaza and the West Bank have sought their assistance on behalf of civilians suffering under Israel’s counteroffensive. And the pastors have gotten an earful from their own congregants, especially younger churchgoers, about the conflict and Mr. Biden’s full-throated support for Israel.
That sentiment more broadly reflects a strong sense of solidarity between Black Americans and Palestinians that has shaped opinion since the war began.
“We see them as a part of us,” said the Rev. Cynthia Hale, the founder and senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga. “They are oppressed people. We are oppressed people.”
The Black pastors’ effort has forced the Biden administration to pay attention, as the president readies for what is expected to be an extremely close election against former President Donald J. Trump.
It began in late October, when a delegation of Black faith leaders from across the country descended on Washington, where they called for an end to the fighting in meetings with the White House and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Hundreds of pastors signed open letters to Democratic leaders and paid for full-page advertisements in national newspapers, including The New York Times, to push for a cease-fire on humanitarian grounds and call for the release of all hostages being held in Gaza.
Since its founding, the Black church has been considered a power center of Black political organizing. In addition to providing spiritual guidance and challenging political leaders on moral grounds, Black religious leaders have galvanized their members to exercise their hard-won voting rights, often with great success.
Mr. Biden, especially, has recognized the importance of the Black church. One of his first campaign events of 2024 took place at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 8, making him the first sitting president to speak from the church’s storied pulpit. When protesters interrupted his speech with calls for a cease-fire, their cries were drowned out by shouts of “Four more years!”
Mr. Biden’s campaign did not comment on the record for this article.
Some leaders say Mr. Biden still has time to change the trajectory of the conflict abroad and, in turn, recover any love lost between his administration and Black voters.
“As long as Blacks feel that the president is being genuine, I think he will continue to have our support,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who presides over more than 500 African Methodist Episcopal churches in Georgia. He, too, signed the letter calling for a cease-fire and the return of hostages. “I think he’s demonstrating his authenticity by the friction that you can tell is between him and Netanyahu as relates to what’s going on in the Middle East,” he said, referring to Israel’s prime minister.
Still, six Black faith leaders who spoke with The New York Times said they or their colleagues had considered rescinding invitations to Democratic politicians hoping to speak during their Sunday services, or withholding public support for Mr. Biden’s re-election until his administration committed to a cease-fire.
“What they are witnessing from the administration in Gaza is a glaring contradiction to what we thought the president and the administration was about,” said the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes, the senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas and the president and chief executive of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. His church has more than 12,000 members. “So when you hear a president say the term, ‘redeem the soul of America,’ well, this is a stain, a scar on the soul of America. There’s something about this that becomes hypocritical.”
Black faith leaders are nonetheless conscious of the risks in pushing Mr. Biden on a cease-fire with Mr. Trump looming as the likely Republican presidential nominee. Even pastors most critical of Mr. Biden on the war in Gaza agreed that a Trump re-election would be a worst-case scenario for their largely Black and working-class congregations.
They also suggested that Mr. Trump, who has said he would bar refugees from Gaza from entering the United States, would most likely have less sympathy than Mr. Biden for the plight of Gaza’s civilians.
But the difference between grudging and enthusiastic support could be significant. Asked whether the war in the Middle East could threaten Mr. Biden’s chances in November, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, the senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, Ga., said, “I think Biden threatens his own success.”
Democrats, Mr. Bryant observed, have seemed to be “almost on cruise control and feel like: Oh, the Black people will come around. They’ll be forgiving, and they’ll go along with us.” But, he added, as the war drags on, “I really think that the ante is going to really elevate itself.”
The cease-fire calls have strained some relationships between Black pastors and Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Peter S. Berg, the senior rabbi of the Temple in Atlanta, described in an email his “extraordinary relationship” with Black pastors and recalled a service at the nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in which Christians and Jews prayed together for peace and the safe return of the hostages.
He added, though, that he felt the demand for a cease-fire, from some pastors whom he has long considered friends, did not fully consider the feelings of Jews with ties to Israel.
“While we all want peace and for this war to end, I was disappointed to see that some faith leaders call for a cease-fire without focusing on bringing the hostages home and holding Hamas accountable for the atrocities they have committed,” Rabbi Berg said, adding, “This is the time to double down on our strong relationships and to be open and honest with each other.”
Black pastors said they had sought to reassure Jewish leaders who took issue with their cease-fire push, underlining that their demand was not rooted in antisemitism and that they were also calling for the release of Israeli hostages and for Israel to be safe from attack.
“Our call for a cease-fire ought not be read as a call for the killing or terror of Jewish individuals and families,” said Mr. McBride, who took part in the meetings in Washington. “We’re against all of these wicked expressions of dehumanization and terror, wherever they show up.”