Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, one of this city’s most prominent black pastors, supported Democrats in past presidential elections, backing Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
This fall, however, the bishop’s broad face appeared on Republican Party fliers in the battleground state of Wisconsin, endorsing President Bush as the candidate who “shares our views.”
After Bush’s contested 2000 victory, Daniels felt the pull of a most powerful worldly force: a call from the White House. He conferred with top administration officials and had a visit in 2002 from the president himself. His church later received $1.5 million in federal funds through Bush’s initiative to support faith-based social services.
Daniels’ political conversion, and similar transformations by black pastors across the nation, form a little-known chapter in the playbook of Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign -- and may mark the beginning of a political realignment long sought by senior White House advisor Karl Rove and other GOP strategists.
Daniels says it was not the federal money that led him to endorse the Republican candidate last year, but rather the values of Bush and other party leaders who champion church ministries, religious education and moral clarity. It was evidence to many religious African Americans that the GOP could be an appealing home.
That’s exactly the way many conservative Republican and evangelical leaders hope the faith-based program will work.
“The political benefits are unbelievable,” says the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, which helped shape the administration’s faith-based strategy and the GOP’s outreach to black Christian voters. “The Democrats ought to have their heads examined for voting against this.”
The money that flowed to Daniels’ church was part of a broader effort inspired by Bush’s contention that religious groups can do a better job than government in providing such services as counseling, education and drug treatment. In 2003, the administration awarded more than $1 billion to hundreds of faith-based groups, some of which hadn’t received such public funds in the past.
The White House adamantly denies that the faith initiative is a political tool. But the program has provoked criticism that the GOP is seeking to influence new supporters, especially African Americans, with taxpayer funds. The Rev. Timothy McDonald of Atlanta, a prominent black minister with Democratic ties, dubbed the program an “attempt to identify new leadership in the black community and use the money to prop these people up.”
There’s no question that the faith initiative -- combined with the administration’s support for banning gay marriage and promoting school vouchers -- has already helped reshape Bush’s image among some traditionally Democratic African Americans. And the change in black support on Nov. 2, though only a 2-percentage-point increase nationwide, helped secure Bush’s reelection victory. The gains were greater in battleground states.
In the crucial state of Ohio, where the faith-based program was promoted last fall at rallies and ministerial meetings, a rise in black support for Bush created the cushion he needed to win the presidential race without a legal challenge in that state.
Now, Republicans are plotting further gains using the faith program as one major entry point. Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd says that as early as 2006, Republican Senate and House candidates could win a quarter of the African American vote. The long-term goals, he said, are even more ambitious.
That would be a dramatic rise from the 11% of the national black electorate that went for Bush last year -- a projection that even some of the most enthusiastic Republicans, such as former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, caution could be overly optimistic.
Yet even a modest shift in the voting patterns of the minority group traditionally the most loyal to Democrats could transform the dynamics of American politics, giving Republicans an edge for decades.
Expanding a Tradition
The idea of directing government funds to church-related organizations is as old as the Republic. After the Revolutionary War, taxpayer funds supported church hospitals for soldiers. Government support to church-related charities has continued ever since, and expanded under the Clinton administration.
President Bush wanted to go further, knocking down some of the traditional restrictions on funding religious groups.
The political appeal of this approach was clear one Sunday two weeks before the election in the west-side Milwaukee neighborhood where Daniels’ 8,000-member church is located. Lying amid abandoned warehouses and modest homes, the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ is instantly visible, a $25-million complex including a school, health clinic, credit union, senior housing complex and -- soon -- a retail center and water park.
That morning, Daniels told congregants he wouldn’t tell them whom to vote for -- but then turned over the pulpit to one of Bush’s most prominent African American advocates.
“We know what faith-based can do every single day,” Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele told the congregation, drawing head nodding and remarks of “yes” and “Amen” from more than 1,000 in the vast sanctuary.
That enthusiasm was echoed in battleground states across the country, particularly in Pentecostal congregations that include some of the most conservative black Americans. GOP field organizers and campaign surrogates cited the faith initiative to churchgoers -- particularly in heavily black urban centers vital to Democrats.
“It got them to listen and it was impressive because President Bush put money where his mouth is,” said Lamont Couch, an African American outreach worker for Florida Republicans during the 2004 campaign.
Deborah Burstion-Donbraye, an Ohio GOP official who led the party’s outreach effort to black voters, said the faith initiative -- along with the White House position on abortion, school vouchers and gay marriage -- gave many longtime black Democrats a reason to consider voting for Bush.
“For the first time, even those who may have been most against what the administration stood for realized they had a friend in the White House,” she said. The GOP wooing of African Americans took other forms as well. Early this month, it was disclosed that the administration paid $240,000 to a prominent black commentator, Armstrong Williams, to promote Bush’s education agenda.
But the faith-based initiative provides an especially compelling and long-lasting draw to black voters, said Steele, who studied to be a priest before entering politics. When the president cites the initiative’s emphasis on funding small and independent church organizations that have never received government funds before, the message has special resonance with black congregations.
“That’s part of the strategy to create some realignment, to demonstrate to the African American community that your issues are the same as our issues,” Steele said in an interview.
And many say the best way to reach those voters is through the preacher. As Bush political advisor Dowd put it: “The minister is the No. 1 influencer in the African American community.”
The administration’s attention to faith-based programs in battleground states appeared to pay off.
In Florida, where record black turnout in Democratic precincts nearly put Gore in the White House in 2000, Bush’s support among African Americans in November rose 6 percentage points to 13%, helping to increase the president’s victory margin and avoid a repeat of the 2000 squeaker that inspired the recount.
In Wisconsin, the president drew 14% of the black vote last year, 3 points above his nationwide performance.
In all-important Ohio, Bush’s vote tally among African Americans more than doubled his 2000 total, and he gained 7 percentage points to draw 16% of the black vote. If Bush had received the same proportion of black votes in Ohio as he did in 2000, the president’s margin of victory would have narrowed from the actual 118,000 to about 25,000, according to an analysis by David Bositis at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading think tank on black issues.
Given the high number of provisional ballots filed in Ohio, said Bositis, “Ohio would have become Florida, the legal battleground of 2004.”
For all of the apparent political success of the faith-based initiative and its central role in Bush’s agenda of “compassionate conservatism,” the program got off to a rocky start.
Bush entered office in 2001 vowing to loosen regulations and expand tax deductions for charitable organizations. Repeatedly, he emphasized his desire to end what he called discrimination against church-connected social service providers in the distribution of federal funds.
Senate Democrats, citing the constitutional separation of church and state, blocked the administration’s legislation that would have put the faith initiative into the law books. They expressed reservations about sending taxpayer dollars directly to churches, as well as measures that permitted faith-based federal contractors to hire based on applicants’ religious beliefs. The president put much of the program in place anyway through executive order.
Six months after starting, the initiative’s first director, University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio, quit citing personal reasons. He later complained that politics was getting in the way of some of his efforts in a White House governed by “Mayberry Machiavellians.”
Bush then hired Jim Towey, a registered but disaffected Democrat and former state social services official under Florida Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.
The White House office serves as a kind of outreach and political center, building support for the concept of aiding private and church-backed social services. The real work of reviewing and making grants goes on in federal agencies, many of which have faith-based offices.
Towey brought sterling credentials to a White House eager to make inroads with religious communities. He was a former counsel to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an advocate for the rights of the elderly, impoverished and oppressed, including refugees. He was also a close friend of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, and as an opponent of abortion, was unhappy with his old party.
Towey, who is white, says he has sensed a similar disaffection among many black clergy.
“African Americans are really starting to question some of these fundamental precepts that the Democratic Party is there for them,” Towey said in an interview from his office next door to the White House.
In addition to issues like abortion and gay marriage, Towey says the frustration stems, in part, from a sense among many black churches that they were excluded from federal grants in the past, due to complicated rules and a preference for large, well-established charities. That, he said, explains why many black clergy have responded so enthusiastically to the faith-based initiative.
But the heightened interest is not entirely spontaneous.
Some black ministers reported receiving entreaties to attend White House meetings or faith-based conferences held around the country, some of them in hard-fought election states. In addition, about two-thirds of Towey’s travel during the election year was to a dozen battleground states where he often met with community leaders and promoted the availability of federal funds for church-related social service projects.
The administration also awarded grants to a number of high-profile African American organizations whose leaders were linked directly or indirectly to the GOP. Besides Daniels’ church in Milwaukee, a Philadelphia church led by the Rev. Herb Lusk II received $1 million in federal funds for a program to help low-income Philadelphians. Lusk gave the invocation at the 2000 Republican convention and has been an outspoken Bush supporter.
Another beneficiary was a South Florida-based organization headed by Bishop Harold Ray, a longtime Bush acquaintance who gave an invocation for Vice President Dick Cheney at a West Palm Beach, Fla., rally. Ray’s group received $1.7 million in taxpayer funds.
A third grant went to the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, founded and headed by Bob Woodson, an outspoken black conservative who backed Bush and whose late son was active in the president’s first campaign.
Woodson, like other recipients, rejects the notion that his grant was related to his personal politics. But he said he was aware that some Republicans were hoping to use the program for electoral purposes. He cautioned both parties against letting politics intrude on the initiative, saying it would tarnish the idea.
Administration record-keeping has made it difficult to track where the faith-based money has gone.
Data released last month by the White House, for example, indicate that more than $1 billion was distributed through faith-based programs in 2003. But the summary includes a caveat that it does not represent all grants, and it includes numerous grants to agencies that are actually secular and other groups that were receiving funds long before Bush entered office.
The confusion has drawn sharp questions from critics. Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), a member of the Appropriations Committee who describes himself as a deeply religious Christian, said his repeated requests for accountability had been rebuffed by Republicans, who he charges have used the initiative for political advantage.
Towey defended his travel itinerary, arguing that key electoral states such as Florida, which has its own faith-based program, are also hotbeds for the initiative. “If you look at where the battleground states are, it’s where the action is in the faith-based initiative,” he said.
Towey insisted he traveled where need was greatest, not where politics dictated. He noted conferences in California, New York, Louisiana and Massachusetts, which were not presidential battlegrounds.
But from the bully pulpit of the White House faith office, Towey often advocated for the president’s agenda with biting attacks against critics and, at least once, Sen. John F. Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent in the 2004 election.
Kerry had laid out a detailed plan to expand faith-based funding, but Towey charged that the Massachusetts senator was under the thumb of “secular extremists” and would relegate the program “to the Smithsonian.” At one taxpayer-financed White House conference in the midst of the campaign, Towey declared the faith program a flashpoint in the “culture war” between people of faith and the secular world.
A longtime observer and critic of federal faith-based efforts, Robert Wineburg, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says the Bush initiative is as crassly political as any program he has seen.
“Look at where they planned their large-scale meetings,” said Wineburg, who has written books on the politics of faith and social service and has worked as a consultant to religious charities. “A grant-writing workshop in St. Louis in September before Missouri was a lock, in Miami in October before Florida was sealed. I wouldn’t call it honest technical assistance based on communities that needed that assistance most at that specific time. I’d call it honest American, or maybe old-style Chicago, politics.”
To some beneficiaries of the program, however, the president deserved political support for recognizing churches’ good works.
“I think it’s an awesome thing that we have a president that used the bully pulpit of the presidency to support organizations that are out here in the trenches,” said the Rev. David Outing, the chairman of the Orlando, Fla.-based Center for Urban Leadership, which got $37,000 to boost its after-school program.
Some recipients scoff at the notion that their support could be “bought” by federal grants that they say provide only a fraction of the money needed for their charitable work.
“The funds that have been distributed are rather meager to the need that is out there,” said Bishop Ray, whose Palm Beach-based group, the National Faith-Based Initiative, won a $1.7-million grant to train smaller charities. A successful lawyer turned preacher, Ray added: “If you think I come that cheap, that’s kind of silly.”
Ray met Bush when the president was still governor of Texas. After Bush moved to the White House, Ray said he peppered Bush’s top political strategist, Rove, with calls and eventually scored a brief meeting in early 2001 with Ken Mehlman, then Rove’s deputy, who takes over this week as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Soon after, Ray held a Capitol Hill summit on the faith initiative and the black church. The Republican-dominated program was beamed to about 50 locations on a television feed sponsored by foundations linked to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church has received indirect aid through the federal faith-based initiative.
Ray, a registered independent, says he does not exhort his congregation to back any candidate, and he has given money to both parties.
Black religious leaders who backed Kerry said that, in Florida in particular, they had trouble recruiting fellow ministers to get out the vote for Democrats, despite simmering anger in the black community there over the disputed 2000 election. The Atlanta Rev. McDonald, who heads the Democratic-leaning African American Ministers Leadership Council, said that faith-based money played a part.
“We had a real hard time organizing ministers in Florida, harder in 2004 than in 2000, because more money had been circulated,” McDonald said. “They just weren’t showing up at the meetings anymore.”
If Republicans get their way, it will be even harder in 2006. Already, they are laying intricate plans to encourage greater black migration to the GOP.
As he prepares to step down this week as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie says he will stay on as a consultant to the party specifically to recruit black voters. He predicts the GOP presidential nominee could win 30% of that constituency in 2008.
Next month, a coalition of clergy and conservative Republican leaders will unveil grass-roots action plans in states with competitive congressional races. A separate coalition of evangelical groups close to the GOP is planning a series of regional meetings for black preachers around the issue of gay marriage, starting Feb. 1 in Los Angeles.
The most visible mobilization could come in Washington later this year, when Congress once again considers an expanded faith-based legislative package now being negotiated by Towey and others in the White House. The debate could force beleaguered Democrats, eager to build support with religious voters, to decide between the appeal of Bush’s initiative in some neighborhoods and lingering concerns over its constitutionality.
In Bishop Daniels’ office at Holy Redeemer in Milwaukee, visitors are left with little doubt about the church leader’s 2004 political leanings. On the wall, beside a collage of an Afrocentric Jesus, hangs a photo of Daniels with the Bushes at the White House and another picture of Daniels sitting around a conference table with fellow ministers and Bush, Rove and Towey.
Asked if he had voted for any Republicans before Bush in 2004, Daniels replied, “Tommy Thompson,” referring to the moderate former governor of Wisconsin. He said his thinking began to change in the 1980s, when his church first opened a parochial school and stepped to the front lines of a nationwide battle over vouchers. “This is not some new conversion,” Daniels said.
Daniels said he backed Bush purely on issues, including the faith-based initiative, same-sex marriage and school vouchers. Despite his endorsement, Daniels said, Democrats such as Sen. John Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean campaigned at his church last year, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared on Kerry’s behalf.
“I cannot say to you that I would not support anything Democratic in the future,” he said.
Then, holding a worn, soft-cover Bible in his left hand and tapping it with his right, he added: “Where I am, the No. 1 thing is this. This is what I believe. This is what I embrace.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Federal funding to organizations by five Cabinet agencies amounted to nearly $1.2 billion in 2003.
Funding given to faith-based organizations (In millions)
Health and Human Services (75 programs) $567.9 Housing and Urban Development (12) $532.1 Justice (22) $51.6 Labor (28) $11.3 Education (3) $6.8
Note: Does not include grants from agencies for which figures are unavailable
Source: White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives