When President Bush hosted a group of African American religious and community leaders at the White House last month to talk about African debt relief, seated at the table across from the president was Bishop Harry Jackson.
For the ambitious pastor of the 2,500-member Hope Christian Church in Lanham, the visit was not something he had expected but was certainly something he had hoped for.
"I just wish that my father was still alive to see how far we have come as African Americans," Jackson said as he recounted the meeting, during which he got to shake the president's hand. He said he told Bush that they had something in common.
"I told him that we had both graduated from Harvard's business school," he said. "The president laughed and said it was quite an experience."
During the past nine months, the registered Democrat has taken to the stage with James Dobson, Pat Robertson and other conservative icons at a rally against same-sex marriage on the Mall and stood alongside Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) during the fight over filibusters on judicial nominees.
The appearances were orchestrated to put his message -- and some say himself -- front and center.
"I want to restore America to its moral compass," said Jackson, 52. He has launched a campaign to get one million people to sign on to a platform, modeled after Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, that calls for a return to "biblically based values," such as preserving a traditional definition of marriage and eliminating abortion. Several thousand people have signed on, he said.
"The Black Contract With America is a powerful document that we believe will help define what that moral compass should look like," he said.
Jackson's efforts on behalf of the Republican Party have raised concern and criticism among some black clergy members.
In an interview, T.D. Jakes, the popular Dallas-based television evangelist, didn't criticize Jackson, but he said it's important for ministers to be politically neutral. "There are certainly clergy who steer totally to the right and those who steer totally to the left, but I have never seen an eagle fly on one wing," he said. "I think it is vitally important since we say we represent God that we don't imply that God is for one wing of a whole bird."
Jackson argues that the Democratic Party has left him little choice. In the 2004 presidential election, Democrats' efforts to expand their appeal caused them to overlook their core supporters, including blacks, he said. "It seemed like the Democratic agenda had been hijacked by a militant homosexual agenda without even caring about what was going with African Americans," he said.
Jackson grew up in Cincinnati, where he became one of the first blacks to attend Cincinnati Country Day School, a private college preparatory school. He went on to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he studied English.
He worked in sales and marketing for several companies before going to Harvard. "My father always wanted me to go to Harvard, so when he died, I felt like I went to Harvard in memory of him," Jackson said.
In 1981, he left corporate America for the pulpit. He had been raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, attending services in an all-black congregation.
But, raised to believe in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of racial harmony, Jackson sought out an integrated worship experience. While living in Corning, N.Y., Jackson founded a church. The congregation was 98 percent white.
Jackson said he quickly learned that racial unity was still a challenge. "Some of my members were shunned by their families. Others were threatened with losing their inheritance just for coming to my church," he said.
The reactions stunned but didn't deter him. He moved to the Washington area in 1988 and became pastor of Hope Christian Church, his second attempt at a multiracial congregation. During his tenure, the church has gone from fewer than 300 members to more than 2,500, and it has dozens of ministries and offices in Lanham and Beltsville. The congregation is predominantly black but has a small contingent of white members.
Jackson is known for juggling large plans. The Rev. Rudy DePass, one of Jackson's 14 associate pastors, said he and the other associates perform most of the funerals and weddings for the church. Jackson, he said, is often off working on the church's next venture.
Jackson often latches on to an idea but then moves on to something new, DePass said. At one time Jackson promoted Hope as one church in two locations, Maryland and Virginia, but he realized it wasn't feasible. He created the High Impact Coalition, a nonprofit organization that claims the support of 300 ministers from across the country. Its goal is to educate and empower Christians to promote biblical principles.
Then there is his work in Africa. Jackson has been shuttling between the United States and Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he is training ministers to "plant" churches in southern Africa.
Lately, he has spent much of his time in a downtown Washington studio taping segments for his TV One newsmagazine show aimed at a Christian audience. When he is not in the studio, Jackson has been on the road speaking in support of Republican-backed judicial nominees. He will participate in tomorrow's Justice Sunday II event, the Family Research Council's nationwide broadcast in support of conservative judicial nominees.
Jackson acknowledges that he's often not around for weddings and funerals. "I see myself as more of a rancher as opposed to a shepherd," he said. "You provide pastoral care, but you don't feel like if you don't your flock won't be cared for."
Aligning With the GOP
Jackson said that the Republican platform -- opposing same-sex marriage and abortion while touting a message of family values -- is more in line with the views of African Americans. Bush's support for those values led Jackson to vote for him.
Last month's meeting with Bush was, Jackson said, "the beginning of a marriage."
The marriage already has hit a rough patch. Jackson said he felt betrayed by the party earlier this year when Trent Lott of Mississippi and other southern senators refused to sign a resolution condemning lynching.
"I feel like the Republican Party needs to have a family talk with people who were former Dixiecrats to tell them that the new Republican Party does not have a place for hate and the racial hatred of the past," he said.
Paula Matabane, a communications professor at Howard University, said the difficulty Jackson is having in fully embracing the Republican Party, and being embraced, reflects the ideological war black churches are being pulled into over such issues as same-sex marriage and abortion.
"The black church is not in the epicenter of the gay rights movement, nor is the black church supposed to be homophobic," Matabane said. "The black church is supposed to be at the epicenter of black liberation. We need to have our own voice on these issues and not let our tradition get lost in this whole picture."
But Jackson said he is not worried.
"I don't mind taking shots that others don't take. Somebody has to go ahead of the crowd," he said during a sermon Wednesday. During the spirited service, he described himself as a spiritual martyr for embracing conservative viewpoints often unpopular in the black community.
"This is something that God has ordained me to do," he told his congregation. "It is time for a new black church to rise up in America."
Jackson is greeted by his wife, Michele, in Silver Spring after returning from a trip to South Africa.Kimberly Rattley of Mitchellville said she's not bothered by Jackson's politics. "When we are here, we are really worshiping the Lord," she said. Bishop Harry Jackson says the GOP platform is more in line with the views of African Americans.