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Two prominent Democratic US senators, both possible presidential hopefuls, addressed a gathering of pastors last week, pairing religion with politics in an unusually direct appeal to left-leaning Christians.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke last Tuesday at the Festival of Homiletics, a conference, founded in 1992, that gathers clergy from primarily white, mainline Protestant traditions to discuss and engage in the art of preaching, also called homiletics.

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Attendees pray over Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democat from Massachusetts., during the Festival of Homiletics at Metropolitan AME Church on 21st May, 2018, in Washington. PICTURE: Jack Jenkins/RNS

It was the first time that two politicians of Sen Warren’s and Sen Booker’s stature had appeared at the event. Celebrity speakers at the festival normally come in the form of popular ministers, such as Rev Rob Lee, a North Carolina pastor and descendant of Confederate Civil War General Robert E Lee whose denunciation of racist violence made a splash at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.

But the theme of this year’s festival is “Preaching and Politics", and those who assembled at Washington’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church were treated to a rare hybrid of a campaign rally and a preaching competition.

“Oftentimes we’re told in many of our denominations, ‘Don’t touch politics in your pulpit'. But I think we’re called to help people connect the head and the heart."

- Rev Valerie Steele, of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

The packed pews suggested mainline preachers are in search of pointers for how to tackle political morality and justice in the Trump era from the pulpit.

“Oftentimes we’re told in many of our denominations, ‘Don’t touch politics in your pulpit,'” said Rev Valerie Steele, of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma. “But I think we’re called to help people connect the head and the heart.”

For Senators Warren and Booker, conscious that their politics often overlap with a strain of social-justice preaching popular in mainline Protestantism, the conference offered an opportunity to connect liberal faith with potential votes.

Sen Booker in particular has been no stranger to faith gatherings of late. He was the keynote speaker at the National Baptist Conference USA meeting in January and demonstrated last year with Rev William Barber II and others on the religious left against GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Sen Booker’s comfort with God talk was evident at Metropolitan AME as he paced back and forth in front of the crowd for roughly 45 minutes, speaking without notes.

“I have a saying: Before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people around you,” he said. “I think faith demands a humility, not just before God, but really before others.”

Sen Booker then pivoted to a discussion of various policy issues such as mass incarceration, poverty, paid family leave and environmental degradation.

“These are not political issues. These are moral issues,” he said, over shouts of “amen.” He later added: “This is a moral moment in America, where self-inflicted wounds are costing us not just humanity...They’re costing us resources. And a lot of it stems from how we look at each other.”

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Sen Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, addresses Festival of Homiletics attendees at Metropolitan AME Church.PICTURE: Jack Jenkins/RNS

Sen Booker bemoaned the political divisions in the country, recounting criticism he received from fellow Democrats when he publicly hugged fellow Sen John McCain, a Rpublican from Arizona, after learning of Sen McCain’s cancer diagnosis.

“Have we got to the point where we’re demonising God’s creation?” he said, his voice rising.

“This is a moral moment in America, where self-inflicted wounds are costing us not just humanity...They’re costing us resources. And a lot of it stems from how we look at each other.”

- Senator Cory Booker.

After championing respect for all faiths earlier in his speech, Sen Booker, who attends a Baptist church, made clear he is a Christian. Even if members of Congress have come to see their political adversaries as enemies, he asked, “Are we making the sin (of) violating the dictates of our faith to ‘love thine enemy’?”

As he closed, Sen Booker called those in attendance to action, saying, “Stay faithful, because we have come this far by faith.”

Sen Warren’s address was half as long as Sen Booker’s, but no less religious in tone - an unexpected turn for the Massachusetts senator, who has been less vocal than Sen Booker about her faith. When she pulled out a King James Bible to read from Matthew 25, good-natured groans went up from an audience that typically uses Bible translations that are approximately 300 years more recent.

“I’m old-school,” joked Sen Warren, who was raised Methodist.

Standing in the pulpit and sometimes waving her Bible as she spoke, the former Harvard Law School professor began by recalling how she had once been cajoled into teaching a fifth-grade Sunday school class. She was floored by a child named Jesse who answered a question about what people owe to each other by saying, “Everybody gets a turn.”

“What Jesse was saying, at least to me, is that there is God in every one of us,” she said. “Whether we are rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, young or old, gay or straight, male or female, there is God in every one of us.”

This concept is echoed in her politics, she said. “I fight to uplift and protect the divine in every single person.”

Sen Warren called the surge of activism after President Trump’s election - citing the Women’s March, protests against the travel ban on primarily Muslim countries and the championing of undocumented immigrants and gun control - “righteous fights.”

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Senator Cory Booker speaks to the Festival of Homiletics. PICTURE: Jack Jenkins/RNS

That led to a fiery chant, joined by the enthusiastic crowd: “Our fight is a righteous fight!”

The audience’s response to both speeches was overwhelmingly positive. “(Both) were a challenge to us pastors,” said Rev Steele. “I’m not just called to preach social justice - I’m called to act.”

The assembled preachers seemed to welcome the notion that their conference had been turned into something akin to a hustings for a day. Introducing Sen Booker, Rev David Howell, the Presbyterian minister who founded the conference, said, “I don’t hope to move to New Jersey, but I do hope to vote for you someday, if you catch my drift.”

Certainly, there was no shortage of liberal-leaning voices among the lineup of homilists scheduled to speak. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, defended President Obama’s support for same-sex marriage in 2012; Diana Butler Bass, an author and theologian, has been a vocal critic of Trump; the Rt Rev Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, has been an outspoken supporter of gun control legislation.

But even if nobody was converted by the senators’ speeches, attendees said there was still a lot to learn from the encounter. And looking ahead at 2020, Sen Booker may have gleaned something from Sen Warren’s performance: His potential opponent, a force in a debate, can preach, too.