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Politics of Race and Religion

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Clarke has worked with Jackson's coalition but also hosted Democratic presidential candidates in 2004. He said he and his members care as much about health care and livable wages as they do about conservative social issues.

On his way out of the noon Bible study at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in the District the other day, Stephen Peagler, 27, said he is a faithful churchgoer who believes that abortion and same-sex marriage are wrong. But, he said, when it comes to voting, he's looking for a candidate who will address issues that are more relevant in his everyday life. And Democrats are more likely to deal with the high incarceration rates of black men and underperforming inner-city schools, he said.

And there is a more fundamental obstacle that anyone seeking a vote for GOP candidates must confront: "I was brought up to say that the Republicans are not good, and they are not for issues that concern blacks," Peagler said.

Only 5 percent of blacks in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll called abortion or moral or family-values issues their top concerns for the upcoming presidential election. By contrast, more than four in 10 highlighted the war in Iraq, 38 percent health care and 33 percent the economy and jobs.

"Devout black churchgoers' issue set is pretty much the same as other African Americans, which is big on economic issues, health care and dealing with poverty and education," said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "When African Americans say they are conservative, it doesn't mean they are politically conservative. It means that they are conservative in terms of their personal behavior."

The evangelical church's racial split turns on that point. The black evangelical church developed a penchant for social justice and progressive politics as part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. White fundamentalists steered clear and after the passage of Roe v. Wade made fighting legalized abortion their signature political issue.

"One of the misnomers that we labor under is the line of demarcation between social issues and moral issues," Clarke said. "For us, they are almost one and the same."

Jackson tells both black and white evangelical groups that they have to shake off the past and realize that they now have more in common than they think. At a recent gathering of white evangelical voters in Washington, he described "a new generation of African American preachers who are preaching this same cornbread-and-beans encouraging message, but they have a laptop and BlackBerry. They are informed. They share your values."

That line elicited a standing ovation from the white crowd, who welcomed the black minister with the same shouts that later greeted Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and conservative Christian leader James Dobson.

Republican officials, for their part, have not given up their efforts to reach church members. The Republican National Committee sent representatives to the recent National Baptist Convention in Philadelphia, the National Progressive Baptist Convention in the District, and the 100th anniversary celebration of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis to interact with black pastors, according to Shannon Reeves, who oversees the RNC's efforts to increase its following among blacks.

"What they preach from the pulpit is consistent with [Republican] policies, but there was not an organized effort to have an ongoing relationship," Reeves said. "This is long-term."

But Jackson, at least, has become more skeptical about the party.

He thinks the GOP pays attention to evangelicals when it needs their votes but has not delivered when it comes to advancing their causes. Jackson said that after the 2004 election, he attended a White House meeting of evangelical leaders and listened as Rove said he didn't think the church vote had won the election for Bush.

Jackson told him: "I am a registered Democrat. The only reason I am here is because I thought you were working on issues of faith and that it would be better for my folks than the promises, promises of the Democratic party."

Democrats, he said, "come to us under the cloak of darkness at the last hour, get what they want and then act like they don't know us the next day."

That got a big laugh from the conservatives, he recalled. Then Jackson said he told Rove: "You all are doing the same thing to the evangelicals."


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