Using Politics to Amplify a Message

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 13, 2005

When President Bush hosted a group of African American religious and community leaders at the White House last month to talk about African debt relief, seated at the table across from the president was Bishop Harry Jackson.

For the ambitious pastor of the 2,500-member Hope Christian Church in Lanham, the visit was not something he had expected but was certainly something he had hoped for.

"I just wish that my father was still alive to see how far we have come as African Americans," Jackson said as he recounted the meeting, during which he got to shake the president's hand. He said he told Bush that they had something in common.

"I told him that we had both graduated from Harvard's business school," he said. "The president laughed and said it was quite an experience."

During the past nine months, the registered Democrat has taken to the stage with James Dobson, Pat Robertson and other conservative icons at a rally against same-sex marriage on the Mall and stood alongside Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) during the fight over filibusters on judicial nominees.

The appearances were orchestrated to put his message -- and some say himself -- front and center.

"I want to restore America to its moral compass," said Jackson, 52. He has launched a campaign to get one million people to sign on to a platform, modeled after Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, that calls for a return to "biblically based values," such as preserving a traditional definition of marriage and eliminating abortion. Several thousand people have signed on, he said.

"The Black Contract With America is a powerful document that we believe will help define what that moral compass should look like," he said.

Jackson's efforts on behalf of the Republican Party have raised concern and criticism among some black clergy members.

In an interview, T.D. Jakes, the popular Dallas-based television evangelist, didn't criticize Jackson, but he said it's important for ministers to be politically neutral. "There are certainly clergy who steer totally to the right and those who steer totally to the left, but I have never seen an eagle fly on one wing," he said. "I think it is vitally important since we say we represent God that we don't imply that God is for one wing of a whole bird."

Jackson argues that the Democratic Party has left him little choice. In the 2004 presidential election, Democrats' efforts to expand their appeal caused them to overlook their core supporters, including blacks, he said. "It seemed like the Democratic agenda had been hijacked by a militant homosexual agenda without even caring about what was going with African Americans," he said.

Early Years

Jackson grew up in Cincinnati, where he became one of the first blacks to attend Cincinnati Country Day School, a private college preparatory school. He went on to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he studied English.

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