Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003

                                                     by Fredrick Harris

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Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals: Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals: Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others


















































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Unlike mainline white Protestants, there's no ambiguity about the ability of black churches to mobilize politically.

In the post civil rights era, black churches have been instrumental in supporting liberal candidates, particularly black elected officials, and they've done this in several ways.

In surveys, for instance, African Americans are much more likely to report visits by candidates in their churches and to report that their ministers discuss politics. Clearly, the church is a mobilizing force for African Americans, much more than other religious groups.

But one thing that could divide this group and affect the mobilizing capacity of the black churches is the faith-based initiative. Active black clergy have deeply divided views about whether or not black churches should accept this money.

 That division was particularly vivid at a conference on the state of the black church sponsored by black journalist Travis Smiley. It aired on CSPAN about a year ago. The dialogue included name calling, people calling others sell outs, and assertions that some are more committed to justice issues than others.

But even with this divide, there were a lot of people in the middle who were really grappling with this issue. Some clergy, such as the Reverend Charles Evans, senior pastor of the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, see a Trojan horse. He says this is a move to co-opt black ministers, that the Republican Party is trying to stifle the prophetic voice of the black church.

Other ministers, such as Pentecostal minister Carlton Pearson out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, are saying, “Look, this is an opportunity for the GOP to reach out. There's deviation in black communities. This is an opportunity to serve the poor. We should do whatever we can to promote this particular policy.”

There were also legendary people of the civil rights movement such as the Baptist minister Gaylor Taylor, now retired from Concorde Baptist Church in Brooklyn, who responded to questions about stifling the churches’ prophetic voice and opposition to structures of racism by saying, “Let's take the money. We'll be concerned about that later.”

 Some have said that the motivation of the GOP is not so much to convert African Americans to the Republican Party—last evening, we saw that some 80 percent of African Americans voted for Gore in the last Democratic election—as to soften opposition by black clergy to the Republican Party.  

Step back in time to the New Jersey gubernatorial election with Christie Todd Whitman. There was a political operative by the name of Roger Wells who said at one point that the reason why his candidate won is because he got to those ministers. He later retracted those statements. But the idea was not to get them to become Republican, but to bring down voter turnout in black communities by softening opposition to the Republican candidate.

This is something that many opponents of the faith-based initiative are very concerned about. But there’s not been enough investigative reporting about it. What are the consequences of receiving government funding for politically active churches?

Theological differences also play a role. The leaders of the black megachurches have 20,000 people on a given Sunday in an arena-style church, working class and middle class African Americans, and many of them have very a different view about political involvement. They would say that we need to work on individual transformation, to make them prosperous, to make them better citizens; if we do that, the rest will take care of itself. This is totally different from the way that mainstream Baptists and Methodists have viewed their role in social and political engagement.

There is also a guy by the name of T. J. Chase out of Dallas who is not explicitly politically engaged, but he holds “Manpower Conferences” or “Womanpower conferences” to talk about a man being a Christian, a woman being a Christian. Before the program starts, he plays a video of George Bush. They are not explicit messages about how you should vote but are related to personal transformation and positive engagement. This is a huge nondenominational movement, and if it continues it’s going to have lasting implications for politics in black communities.

Another interesting issue is the campaign of Reverend Al Sharpton. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984 was remarkable because Jackson is embedded in black civil leadership traditions, having joined the civil rights movement through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was one of the stewards of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was very much embedded in black churches. And in 1984, despite the opposition of some black leaders, he was able to mount a national campaign.

Can Sharpton pull that off? I would argue that it's going to be very difficult because Sharpton does not have the same kind of institutional access and resources within the church as Jesse Jackson. Sharpton is very much confined as an activist to New York City. His activism doesn't go beyond that. He has not, to my knowledge, regularly spoken at the National Baptist Convention, which is the largest black denomination group in the country. Can he gain access to rural areas in South Carolina and Mississippi? Would those church doors open as they did for Jesse Jackson?  

There are also similarities between the two. Both of them are grass-roots activists. Both come from humble circumstances. However, access to these networks really separates the two in their ability to mobilize black voters.

There is also tension between Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Sharpton argues that Jackson was co-opted as a result of his campaign. Sharpton criticizes Jackson in his autobiography for softening his opposition to some of Clinton's policies. Because of this tension, the networks that Jesse Jackson has built up may not be readily available for a Sharpton candidacy.

 The Carol Mosely Braun candidacy is interesting because, on the surface, she doesn't seem to express a strong commitment to religious beliefs. However, I followed her to black churches around the country while doing my dissertation research, and she talked about how religion had given her strength throughout the campaign, ways God interceded. For instance, she talked about how she had chronic bronchitis since she was a little girl, but, by the will of God she didn't have it that particular year. She used those religious beliefs to mobilize African Americans in Chicago and throughout the state of Illinois.

But you don't hear that type of discourse in her candidacy for president. One reason is that she doesn't want to portray herself primarily as a black candidate; her target is more toward women.

What connections will the Democratic nominee have to black churches? This is also important, because Democratic southern candidates have been very adept at mobilizing African American voters, particularly in the south.

In 1976, an obscure candidate by the name of Jimmy Carter didn't readily get the support of a lot of elected officials, particularly outside of the South, but Jimmy Carter often talked about his religious beliefs, talked about being a born-again Christian. This, along with connections he made in Atlanta as governor, was enough to gain access to many black churches during the campaign. Carter was probably the white candidate most comfortable in African American churches ever in history and the most successful in mobilizing that constituency.

Is there a white southern Democratic candidate out there who could have the same connection as Jimmy Carter, and less so Clinton, to African American religious institutions? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that.