Politics of Race and Religion

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007

Pastor Harry R. Jackson Jr. will often exhort his congregation to "stand against" abortion and same-sex marriage. "You are on the battlefield in a culture war," he'll say, urging his listeners to help serve as the "moral compass of America."

In his rhetoric and his political agenda, Jackson has much in common with other evangelical Christians who are part of the conservative wing of the Republican party, except that Jackson is African American and so is his congregation at Hope Christian Church in Prince George's County.

Jackson, head of a group of socially conservative black pastors called the High Impact Leadership Coalition, in many ways personifies the possibilities that Republican strategists such as Karl Rove have seen in appealing to the social conservatism of many African American churchgoers. Blacks overwhelmingly identify themselves as Democrats and typically support Democratic candidates, but optimists in the GOP think one way to become a majority party is to peel off a sizable segment of black voters by finding common ground on social issues.

As a group, blacks attend religious services more frequently than whites and are less supportive of gay rights. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation-Harvard University poll this summer, 43 percent of white Democrats supported same-sex marriage, about double the percentage of black Democrats who said they do. More than half of blacks said they oppose both same-sex marriage and legal recognition of same-sex civil unions.

In the 2004 election, there was evidence that an appeal aimed at those differences could work. President Bush nearly doubled his share of the black vote in Ohio, thanks to a same-sex-marriage initiative on the ballot and the targeting of black churchgoers through mailings and radio ads. But it's unlikely that the 2008 Republican presidential candidate will be able to consolidate those gains, and Jackson is one indication of why.

During the last presidential election cycle, Jackson prayed for Bush and crisscrossed the country pressing conservative social issues. Now he's pushing an issues agenda rather than "carrying the water for the Republican party," he said. "They are not reliable enough."

Jackson's discontent is a reflection of the worries of other religious conservatives, black and white, who fear that Republican voters will nominate pro-choice candidate and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and are still chafing at the headline-grabbing sex and ethics scandals involving Republicans.

"You don't have someone who is a Christian evangelical like Bush to really revitalize the black evangelicals this time around," said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Bush promised colorblind appointments and launched the faith-based initiative, and the timing of his run coincided with several state ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage that turned out large numbers of evangelicals, Green said. The Republicans running this year have not made the same appeal.

Other conservative black preachers raise a different issue.

"Morality is different in terms of the way we see it and white evangelicals see it," said Pastor Lyle Dukes of Harvest Life Changers Church in Woodbridge, a member of Jackson's group who supported Bush in 2004. "What we think is moral is not only the defense of marriage, but we also think equal education is a moral issue. We think discrimination is immoral."

Dukes is looking at candidates in both parties this year.

Bishop Timothy J. Clarke, leader of the 5,000-member First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, said: "You have to prioritize. You are dealing with a less-than-perfect world and a less-than-perfect system."

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