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Politics of Race and Religion
Moral Issues Leave Black Evangelicals Torn Between Parties

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."

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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