When Strom Thurmond became a Republican in 1964, no one would have predicted that the former Dixiecrat’s home state would become an incubator for racial diversity in his adopted party. Yet here we are.

On Monday, Sen. Tim Scott launched his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, joining former governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who got in the race in February. Although Donald Trump is still considered the favorite there, South Carolina now has an Asian-American woman and an African-American man competing to be the GOP’s standard bearer.

Scott begins his campaign with nowhere to go but up, poll-wise, although he has an impressive war chest and the endorsement of the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, John Thune of South Dakota.

He also has something which has become rare in Republican politics: a message which speaks more of the future than the past. In his announcement speech at Charleston Southern University Monday, Scott spoke of initiating an era of “exponential innovation.” Imagine Trump or Ron DeSantis using that phrase.

Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination and the White House in 1976 largely because voters exhausted with the Watergate scandal viewed him as the candidate most removed from the political quagmire Washington had become. Scott has been in Washington as a congressman and senator since 2011, but if any of the 2024 hopefuls has a Jimmy Carter-like lane to the nomination, it’s him.

Scott made his candidacy official the week after another African-American Republican, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, breezed to victory in that state’s GOP primary for governor. Cameron, who has the rare distinction of being endorsed by both Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, defeated two well-funded opponents, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and former U.N. ambassador Kelly Craft, with 48 percent of the vote. He will face the nation’s most popular Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, in what will be one of this year’s most closely watched elections.

Next year, one of the top races is going to be for governor of North Carolina. Here again an African-American, Trump-endorsed Republican, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, is considered likely to win his party’s nomination and face Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein. That one’s going to be a doozy, because Stein is Jewish and Robinson has a history of antisemitic comments, including the remark that the movie “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew.” 

Both Cameron and Robinson can be seen as following in the footsteps of Hershel Walker, who had Trump’s enthusiastic support in his U.S. Senate race in Georgia. But Walker entered his race as a political novice, and Cameron and Robinson will run for governor as elected officials who aren’t in their first statewide race. 

It’s a seldom-recognized fact that by almost any measure, African-Americans constitute one of the most diverse populations on Earth. So it should not come as too much of a surprise that there are African-Americans who are conservative Republicans, and that even within that group, Scott’s optimistic vision contrasts sharply with Robinson’s angry rightwing populism.

To better understand how new forms of African-American conservatism are emerging in politics, we should widen our focus to consider global developments in the area of religion. 

The joint visit to Africa in February by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was an historical event which should have received much wider notice. This unprecedented joint mission by the leaders of rival denominations amounted to an acknowledgement of the critical role Africa seems destined to play in the future of religion.

Currently, sub-Saharan Africans comprise about a quarter of the world’s Christians. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, that portion is likely to rise to 40 percent by 2060. Sub-Saharan Africa is where the most intense competition between Islam and Christianity will take place. It’s also where the Christian denominations face the greatest risk of schism, over issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and women’s rights, where the leadership of African churches are much more conservative than their European counterparts. 

Religion is also at the center of Scott’s campaign for president, as he made clear in his announcement Monday. It will be very interesting how the religious right, which is mostly white, reacts to that.

Avatar photo

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

Join the Conversation


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.