GOP Sees a Future in Black Churches
Black conservatives who supported President Bush in 2004 and gained new prominence within the Republican Party are launching a loosely knit movement that they hope will transform the role African Americans play in national politics.
The effort will be visible today at the Crenshaw Christian Center, one of Los Angeles’ biggest black churches, headed by televangelist Frederick K.C. Price. More than 100 African American ministers are to gather in the first of several regional summits to build support for banning same-sex marriage -- a signature issue that drew socially conservative blacks to the Republican column last year.
Before the meeting, one prominent minister plans to unveil a “Black Contract With America on Moral Values,” a call for Bible-based action by government and churches to promote conservative priorities. It is patterned loosely on the “Contract With America” that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used 10 years ago to inaugurate an era of GOP dominance in Congress.
A separate group with ties to Gingrich will announce a similar “Mayflower Compact for Black America” later this month in Washington, which includes plans to organize in key states ahead of the 2006 and 2008 elections. And at the end of the month, the Heritage Foundation will cosponsor a gathering of black conservatives in Washington designed to counter dominance of the “America-hating black liberal leadership” and to focus African American voters on moral issues.
Those events all enjoy support from the Republican Party and its allies in the philanthropic and religious worlds. The meetings have a common goal: to foster a political realignment that, if successful, would challenge the Democrats’ decades-long lock on the loyalty of black voters.
The effort has proved so successful already that Democrats who make up the Congressional Black Caucus are quietly expressing alarm -- and planning countermeasures.
“I am frightened by what is happening,” said Rep. Major R. Owens, an 11-term Democratic congressman from New York who has been conferring with colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. “Our party is in grave danger. This Republican movement is going to expand exponentially unless we do something.”
In the last seven presidential elections, the GOP’s share of the black vote ranged from 8% to 11% nationwide.
But by courting conservative blacks in battleground states -- reaching out through programs such as the president’s faith-based initiative -- GOP organizers believe they made the difference that secured Bush’s victory in 2004. In Ohio, for instance, a concerted effort increased black support for Bush from 9% in 2000 to 16% in 2004, providing a cushion that allowed the president to win the pivotal state outright on election night. The Black Contract With America will be unveiled by Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a registered Democrat from suburban Washington who backed Bush in 2004 after voting against him four years earlier. He was drawn, he said, to the GOP’s social conservatism that he thought reflected the true values of black churches.
In addition to such conservative GOP priorities as allowing workers to create private Social Security accounts and banning same-sex marriage, the Jackson contract deals with some potentially dicey issues for Republicans -- such as restoring rights to former felons. The contract, Jackson said, combines the Bible-based elements of the traditionally Republican and Democratic platforms.
“We crafted this based on the issues that are workable within the current Republican administration,” Jackson said. “We’re dealing with folks that we now have some access to.”
Jackson’s enthusiasm for working with Washington’s Republican power structure is shared by the party’s leading strategists. Today’s Los Angeles meeting is sponsored in part by the Traditional Values Coalition, headed by the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, a white evangelical Christian with close ties to White House political strategist Karl Rove, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and other senior Bush administration officials.
Mehlman said Monday that he was in close contact with the organizers of each group and was coordinating with Gingrich and other party leaders.
“It may not be 1,000 flowers, but they’re blooming all over the place,” Mehlman said of the various efforts. “I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for the party to build on what we’ve done over the past couple of years to improve our performance in the African American community.”
Last week, about two dozen black civic and religious leaders who agree with Bush on moral issues visited the White House, where they received the president’s thanks and were urged to support his plan to revamp Social Security.
One who attended the meeting, the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers of Boston, said the post-election period marked the beginning of a “significant transformation” among African Americans, a clear move toward the GOP.
Rivers had been hosted in the White House by Bill and Hillary Clinton, who heralded his work with gangs in Boston. He also has conferred with Police Chief William J. Bratton about Los Angeles’ gang problem. Lately, Rivers has been embraced by Bush, whom he supported last year.
One of the leaders of the Mayflower Compact effort, Vivian Berryhill, is a longtime Mississippi Republican and president of the National Coalition of Pastors’ Spouses. She and her husband shared the presidential box with the Bushes during the Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
The Mayflower Compact group describes itself as a self-funded effort to seek signatures from prominent black leaders nationwide to promote a conservative agenda. Berryhill and her partner in the enterprise, the Rev. Oliver N.E. Kellman Jr., a former aide to Democratic House members, have consulted with Gingrich and his staff to develop the idea, as well as with GOP leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
Yet she credits the president with sparking the movement because of his unflagging interest in reaching out to black conservatives.
“This president has really changed the tone of the Republican Party,” Berryhill said. “In the past, African Americans perceived Republicans as rich, white and racist. This president has come in and reached out from the beginning.”
If the small shift in black voter support is thrilling to GOP leaders in Washington, it is scary to the country’s most senior black elected leaders, who long have found their home in the Democratic Party.
Owens suggested that one way the Democratic Party could fight back would be to renew its commitment to investing in poor black neighborhoods. He lamented that “we don’t have leaders like Lyndon Johnson, who understood the dynamics of building power, building it through your base.”
Rather, he said, that lesson has been learned by Republicans like Gingrich and Rove.
Failure to respond to the GOP investment in black communities, he said, could allow Republicans to add five percentage points to the 11% they received among African American voters nationwide in 2004.
Republican officials, such as outgoing party chairman Ed Gillespie, have said they think the percentage could rise to 30 in the next presidential election -- a prediction that even some GOP strategists called overly optimistic.
Even if it rises 5 percentage points, Owens said, “the Democratic Party will be paralyzed.”
Owens said the GOP strategy of courting church leadership was on target. “The churches are the last institutions alive and breathing in some of these neighborhoods, and people look to them for leadership,” he said.
The Bush administration has found entree to church leaders through its faith-based initiative, which is providing them with federal aid to fight social problems such as drug abuse, prison recidivism, divorce and teen pregnancy.
To counter the Republicans, Owens was preparing legislation that would send billions to impoverished neighborhoods through programs that he said would be more accountable than Bush’s faith-based program.
All of the upcoming national and regional meetings of black conservatives emphasize a “moral values” agenda.
The organizer of the Heritage Foundation meeting, the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson of Los Angeles, said that his session would emphasize the need for black families to reject the notion that racism caused family and economic ills and begin taking personal responsibility. He favors the Republican emphasis on traditional marriage, school vouchers and reduced reliance on government. And, he said, he sees a palpable shift in attitudes.
“I saw black preachers turning toward the Republicans in greater numbers this election. I don’t know if it’s because they believe in it or they want some of the faith-based money. Whatever the reason, they are turning; and as a result of the preachers leaving, many of the congregations are following.”
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The “Black Contract With America on Moral Values,” to be unveiled today in Los Angeles, is designed to help African American churches gain influence in the Republican Party and promote socially conservative legislation. Highlights of the plan include:
Marriage: Focus on prohibiting same-sex marriage.
* Wealth creation: Private Social Security investment accounts and encouraging homeownership.
* Education: School vouchers, charter schools and boosting black enrollment in higher education.
* Prison reform: Including a “Second Chance Act,” reentry programs and laws restoring the rights of felons.
* Africa: Intervention in Sudan and penalties against corporations that explore for oil in the region.
* Healthcare overhaul: Including programs to cover the poor.
Source: Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., Hope Christian Church, College Park, Md.
Los Angeles Times