A June 10 Metro article about the role of black churches in Maryland politics incorrectly identified the Rev. John A. Cherry as the pastor of the Full Gospel AME Zion Church. Cherry broke away from the AME Zion denomination in the late 1990s and changed the name of his church to From the Heart Church Ministries.
Mixing Politics and Faith to Woo Md. Voters
Saturday, June 10, 2006
The early morning breakfast gathering at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden was intended to promote economic empowerment for African Americans.
But the long roster of prominent politicians packing the small church meeting room last week signaled that the coming election season could bring parishioners something else they've been seeking: political clout.
The candidates for Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat, in particular, have turned the state's predominately black churches into a key battleground for both the primary and general elections.
"This is where you've got to be," said the Rev. Jerome Stephens, a Baltimore minister who is helping execute an outreach strategy to black churches for U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, one of a half-dozen Democrats seeking the Senate seat. "Everybody who wants statewide office knows they have to be seen in church."
Attracting the support of black voters has always been pivotal to Democratic candidates because African Americans make up roughly 40 percent of the party's primary voters. This year, these voters have also become a crucial target for the best-known Republican contender, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
Steele recently predicted he needs 25 percent of the black vote to prevail in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly two to one.
Aware that the best place to reach black voters is in church, Steele, Cardin and Democratic contender Kweisi Mfume have been a steady presence in the pews over the past year.
"All politicians seeking African American votes know they have to go through the churches," said Mark Clack, Mfume's communications director. "That's where the black community first received its political inspiration, and it's where the center of the community still remains."
Mfume is making inroads by virtue of friendships he made during a decade as president of the NAACP. Cardin's four-decade career in public service has helped him forge bonds with church leaders in Baltimore, and he has hired Stephens to help him reach leaders in Prince George's, home to some of the state's largest black congregations.
But it is Steele, the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland, who appears to be investing the most energy into winning church support. "They're going to play a huge role in this process for me," Steele said. "The church is a big part of the anchor for the black community."
The lieutenant governor is aided by his personal history -- he spent three years as a Catholic seminary student and at one point considered joining the priesthood -- and by conservative social views that resonate with many churchgoers.
Steele has been most aggressive in highlighting his opposition to same-sex marriage, including an appearance at an Alliance for Marriage Foundation workshop at Hope Christian Church in Lanham. One recent survey showed 70 percent of African Americans oppose same-sex marriage, a greater percentage than in the general population.