The Southern black church -- once the engine of voter registration drives and other civil rights efforts -- has been largely transformed, political historians say. Instead of building political power, many of the most prominent black churches now focus mainly on building wealth. The so-called prosperity ministries began blossoming in the Reagan era, matured in the late '90s and have grown, in many cases, into megachurches.
Their approach to ministry, experts said, has influenced black theology, political participation and delivery of services in poor communities.
Megachurches such as the Potter's House in Dallas, Atlanta's World Changers Ministries, Chicago's Christ Universal Temple and Los Angeles's Crenshaw Christian Center preach a theology of material prosperity, teaching that God didn't call his children to a life of poverty.
As a result of these and other changes, the generation that fought for voting rights for African Americans -- and that used the church as a center for mobilizing popular will -- now watches, often with a tinge of disappointment, as seminars on tithing and fiscal management replace candidate forums and other overtly political activities.
"The message has moved from community empowerment to individual prosperity," said Fredrick Harris, a political scientist at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.
"The thinking is that if individuals rise, so will the rest of the community. That is a complete reversal from the mission of the black church during slavery, Reconstruction and civil rights," said Harris, who has researched the church's influence on black political behavior.
Pastors for several prominent Dallas churches, including the Potter's House, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship and Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, could not be reached for comment.
Rick Hill, pastor of administration for Friendship West Baptist Church in Oak Cliff, Tex., said the church invites politicians, but never on Sundays.
"That day is for the gospel," he said.
Some observers say that the "corporate nature" of many black churches means new generations of members -- the children and grandchildren of civil rights activists from the '50s and '60s -- lack basic skills, or interest, in political participation.
What's lost, said Harris, is the opportunity for "lay church people to gain valuable skills in organizing and learning how America's political system works."
Once, he noted, "the black church was needed for education, social justice and political activism, because segregation had shut black people out of the mainstream of American life. The church was the only institution then -- and still is in some marginalized communities."
Black churches need to keep a political focus, he said, because traditionally, black churchgoers have been far more likely than their white counterparts to hear political speeches or be encouraged to register to vote at their places of worship.
With the presidential election just more than three months away, organizers nationwide are working overtime to register black voters and encourage them to turn out. The work is harder, some say, if black churches are largely engaged in other activities.
Some black pastors have no practical use for politicians in their pulpits.
When Democratic candidates were calling on black churches during the primary season -- a campaigning tradition that goes back decades -- some religious leaders said no to "photo ops" in their churches.
The Rev. Arthur Hilson of New Hope Baptist Church in Portsmouth, N.H., accused those candidates of "coming in here to pimp the church." Most politicians, he said, were far more interested in getting their photos taken with a black pastor than in hearing what that pastor had to preach.
"Come because you want to be here," he said. "Don't come here because you want to use me or our people."
The Rev. Denny Davis of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Tex., was more diplomatic. He has declined to invite candidates to his pulpit, he said, because such activity distracts from spiritual messages by giving attention to "outside, worldly matters."
The Rev. Albert T. Wilkins, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Pascoe, Wash., said: "It seems the black church, and not just in the South, has retreated from its historic role. There seems to be an incredible level of ambivalence towards politics.
"We are watching long-fought-after rights deteriorate because we as believers haven't been active in putting our beliefs on the line." Besides nondenominational megachurches, the fastest-growing faith groups attracting black Americans are Pentecostal churches, Islam and Catholicism, Harris said. These traditions have not historically encouraged political activity from the pulpit. However, since Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim advocacy groups have done political education and supported Muslim candidates in local and state elections.
Not all black churches have become apolitical. In particular, political engagement remains an ideal among smaller congregations "headed up by young brothers who are fired up about political activism," said Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. The coalition formed in 1976 to fight apathy among black voters.
"The young ministers," she said, "know that blacks under 35 represent the lowest voter registration and participation levels. They are pushing the envelope on political involvement."
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. is one pastor who believes in "preaching his people to the polls."
The head of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago has launched a "4 in '04" campaign, urging each church member to take four people to the polls. Voting, he said, "should be a collective responsibility, and I charge each individual I pastor to take this on."
Noting federal rules that limit political activity by tax-exempt churches, he said: "We are not endorsing candidates. We are not making political contributions. But we are saying we as God's people can use our influence for social change." Historically, Northern black churches have tended to be greater electoral forces than Southern ones, historians said. Churches in Northern cities benefited greatly from the mass migration of Southern blacks in the early part of the 20th century. This, in turn, attracted the attention of political machines in those cities, Harris said. "That was the case in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and a number of urban areas," he said. "These political machines brought black voters into the process."
The Southern church, in contrast, became a home for grassroots organizing efforts, catapulting ministers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams and Andrew Young to the national spotlight. Social justice issues shaped the politics and theology of those leaders, said James Cone, a black theologian.
"The churches were the centers for organizing and planning. There is no political focus or analysis at the major church conventions. There is more focus on preaching techniques than theology. There is more about pastoring, about internal organization, than having an impact on the world outside."
Eva Partee-McMillan, a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas, remembers a time when "the pastor did not have to tell us to be politically active." The 83-year-old spent a quarter-century working on voter education drives in Dallas and Mississippi.
"Back then when something happened to one of us, it happened to all of us." she said. "There were few places to turn but the churches." Today, she lamented, "we've got people who won't go to the polls, knowing that blacks bled and died for this very basic American right."
Black voters have historically been overwhelmingly Democrats, and in a close election, the ability of John Kerry and John Edwards to attract those voters -- whether through churches or other venues -- could prove critical, said David Bositis, a senior researcher with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
This year, the Republicans have sought support from black churches on the issue of gay marriage. Some conservative black pastors have denounced efforts to sanctify gay unions, saying it's wrong for gay rights activists to compare their struggle to the civil rights movement. But the effort appears not to have gained much traction.
"That was good for a sound bite and a couple of stories, but it is not going to change the instinctive political behavior of black people -- and that is to vote Democratic," said Bositis, of the Joint Center, a Washington think tank that focuses on political and social issues of interest to African Americans.
Black pastors who campaign against gay marriage run the risk of alienating their own gay members, said Herndon L. Davis, author of "Black, Gay and Christian."
"A number of these pastors are being shortsighted, missing the pink elephant that is right in the room with them," said Davis, who published his own book and developed a Web site "to help guide gays through spiritual issues."
During the last presidential campaign, Republican strategists hoped black pastors would embrace George W. Bush's so-called faith-based initiative. The plan seeks to fund social service programs through private groups, like churches. Harris said participation in the initiative may have had the effect of "silencing some black activist pastors who accepted money and now cannot be vocal in criticizing or praising the president."
Wright agreed. "We have pastors who will not speak to power with conviction because they have their partnerships," he said.
"If they praise too much, they look like sellouts. If they criticize too much, they risk the funding."