March 6, 2005

Black Churches Struggle Over Their Role in Politics


A tug of war is under way inside black churches over who speaks for African-Americans and what role to play in politics, spurred by conservative black clergy members who are looking to align themselves more closely with President Bush.

The struggle, mainly among black Protestants, is taking place in pulpits, church conventions, on op-ed pages and on the airwaves, and the president himself began his second term with a meeting in the White House with black clergy members and civic leaders who supported his re-election.

Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., the pastor of the Hope Christian Church in College Park, Md., is part of a new breed of leaders who have warmed to the Republican stand on social values. He paraphrases Newt Gingrich as he stumps the country to promote a "Black Contract With America on Moral Values," whose top priorities include opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

"Historically when societies have gone off kilter, there has been rampant same-sex marriage," Mr. Jackson said in an interview. "What tends to happen is that people tend to devalue the institution of marriage as a whole. People start rearing kids without two parents, and the black community already has this incredibly alarming and, if I may say, this shameful number of babies being born without fathers."

He said he hoped to collect a million signatures of support this year.

Efforts like Mr. Jackson's have brought a sharp reaction from other black ministers, who bridle at putting their energies into fighting same-sex marriage.

"Oppression is oppression is oppression," said the Rev. Kelvin Calloway, pastor of the Second A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles. "Just because we're not the ones who are being oppressed now, do we not stand with those oppressed now? That is the biblical mandate. That's what Jesus is all about."

At the heart of the debate, church leaders say, is whether to stay focused primarily on issues like job creation, education, affirmative action, prison reform and health care, which have drawn blacks closer to the Democratic Party, or whether to put more emphasis on issues of personal morality, like opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, which would place them deeper in the Republican camp.

"I think there is a movement among African-American evangelicals who are extremely concerned about issues of family and abortion, and our leadership has to do something about that," said the Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II of Philadelphia, who was one of the ministers who met with President Bush in January.

Most black ministers have long been aligned with the Democrats, and Senators John Kerry and John Edwards spent Sundays in black churches in the last weeks of the campaign to get out the black vote.

But the White House has been reaching out to sympathetic black clergy members - through its stand on social issues, its effort to give religious groups more of a role in providing federally financed social services and ideas like Mr. Bush's proposed initiative to counter gang violence, a concern of some black ministers who support him, like the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers of Dorchester, Mass.

Although only 11 percent of black voters cast ballots for Mr. Bush, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls, conservatives point out that it was still an increase from the 8 percent in 2000, and Republicans seek to expand those numbers.

Some black ministers say the Republicans will not make headway. Asked if issues like same-sex marriage will galvanize African-Americans, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "Well, they didn't make the Top 10 with Moses, and Jesus didn't make mention of them." Still, looking to bolster their own political power, the leaders of four black Baptist conventions representing 15 million parishioners met in January to fashion their first united stand in almost a century on social and economic issues and to bury past differences.

At the end of their four-day session, the ministers called for an end to the war in Iraq and withdrawal of American troops. They declared their opposition to the confirmation of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general. They stated their opposition to making the president's tax cuts permanent, and warned that reductions in spending on children's health care programs would be "immoral."

They say they are trying to counter the growing influence of white evangelicals in national politics. "They have a strong voice now in national politics, and it would seem they are the only voice," the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, said of white evangelicals. "And the challenge to us is to be a voice that is soundly biblically based and that doesn't provide a blanket sanction to government policy as others have done. This is a dangerous time when white evangelicals dictate government policy."

But they also raise questions about the conservatives in their own ranks, accusing them of being seduced by Mr. Bush's "faith-based initiatives" program to funnel federal monies to church-run social service programs and asking how much sway they really have.

"Where did this come from?" said the Rev. Madison Shockley, pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif., who with Mr. Calloway wrote an opinion article in The Los Angeles Times in response to the "Black Contract With America." "It came from Bush and the Christian right, and the carrot is faith-based money."

Some conservative black ministers say, however, that they finally feel as if they have a political home. The Rev. O'Neal Dozier, pastor of the Worldwide Christian Church Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., said that for years he had struggled to organize a local ecumenical group of ministers concerned about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, attendance at these meetings has risen considerably, and Mr. Dozier expects 200 ministers, black and white, at the next gathering in April.

"I don't think the old guard is that strong now. We're in south Florida and south Florida is heavily Democratic, yet the pastors I see are beginning to change, and as a result of them changing, it is going to change their flock," said Mr. Dozier, who also attended the January meeting with Mr. Bush. "Every social change has to start from the pulpit."

White evangelicals are also participating in the discussion. Ministers like the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, an organization of 43,000 churches, are organizing black ministers in major cities around issues of sexuality. "We're looking for African-American clergy members who have local authority, and we're getting them to hold a summit on marriage, just one issue," Mr. Sheldon said.

Even longtime friends are being pulled in opposite directions. Dr. Shaw and Mr. Lusk, for instance, have much in common.

Dr. Shaw leads the country's largest black denomination, the National Baptist Convention USA, of which Mr. Lusk and his congregation are members. The churches where each has preached for decades are 20 minutes apart in Philadelphia, and each man preaches politics.

At his White Rock Baptist Church, Dr. Shaw has spoken out against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. He says he does not believe that the Bible permits such unions, but he pointedly rejects a government ban on them.

"My position on same-sex marriage is not that it is the sole determinant on moral issues," Dr. Shaw said. "Marriage is threatened more by adultery, and we don't have a constitutional ban on that. Alcohol is a threat to the stability of family, and we don't have a constitutional ban on that."

From his own pulpit, Mr. Lusk moves in the opposite direction. In services before Valentine's Day at his Greater Exodus Baptist Church, Mr. Lusk invited worshipers to a Sweethearts Dinner. But he cautioned them from attending with sweethearts of the same sex. "We're living in perilous times," Mr. Lusk said. "We're living in a time when the preachers we looked to are confused, when they're getting their sociology mixed up with their theology."

Mr. Lusk says that the differing priorities of politically liberal and conservative clergy members do not have to fracture the black community. He sees himself, he said, as a bridge between the National Baptist Convention and the White House.

"You don't square these things," Mr. Lusk said about the agendas of liberal and conservative black evangelicals.

"You just agree to disagree without being disagreeable."

"The Klan in Memphis when I was a boy denied me the right to think what I wanted," he added. "We shouldn't get to a time in our lives when our own people deny us the same right to think. I think Dr. Shaw and other leaders understand that."