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
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
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
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
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
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.