Escalating its courtship of a politically powerful constituency, the Bush administration is teaming up with some of the nation’s best-known and most influential black clergy to craft a new role for U.S. churches in Africa.
The effort was launched last week, when more than two dozen leading African American religious figures met privately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and senior White House officials at the State Department, according to administration officials and meeting participants.
The hourlong session focused largely on how the administration’s faith-based initiative could be expanded to combat the spread of HIV and provide help for tens of millions of children orphaned by the epidemic across Africa.
Some of the pastors said it was a matter of national security -- that those orphans were susceptible to recruitment by Islamic extremists unless they could be exposed to churches such as theirs.
The gathering yielded no formal financial commitment from the federal government for the Africa effort. But participants said it marked a new era of engagement by black clergy with U.S. foreign policy.
The Rev. O’Neal Dozier, pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., and a longtime Republican, said Rice’s decision to huddle with the pastors gave them a “mandate” to craft Africa policy. He said the group had laid plans to meet again soon with State Department officials.
A senior aide to Rice, James Wilkinson, said the meeting reflected her belief that more African American organizations “need to get involved in the president’s Africa agenda.” Administration officials described it as a natural step in an Africa policy that has gained heightened priority under Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and in the face of the growing AIDS epidemic.
If it goes forward, the collaboration could result in a substantial expansion of black church participation in the faith-based initiative, from a largely domestic focus to a broader overseas portfolio that pastors believe could make hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars available for the churches to combat AIDS and related social ills internationally.
Rice and the pastors discussed the possibility of establishing an office of faith-based initiatives within the State Department that would direct federal funds for overseas aid to church and community groups, as similar offices have done in other Cabinet agencies.
The meeting reflected the expanding relationship between some of the country’s best-known black clergy and the Bush administration -- a relationship that has been nurtured through a White House program that encourages funneling government grants to religious charities.
Illustrating the political benefit of that relationship, White House officials injected some Capitol Hill strategy into the session. They solicited support among the black pastors for controversial legislation that would allow faith-based charities in the U.S. to discriminate in hiring based on an applicant’s religious beliefs -- a provision that has spurred opposition from some Democrats and civil rights groups.
“Compassion has a way of cutting across partisan lines,” said James Towey, the top White House official in charge of the faith-based programs, who asked the pastors to sign a letter endorsing the legislation.
But rather than lowering partisan suspicions, the meeting raised them. The high-level session occurred the same day that the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus conducted a long-planned outreach meeting with 200 black pastors from across the country seeking to solidify bonds between the Democrats and religious leaders. Some saw the State Department meeting as an effort to upstage the black caucus.
It was the latest sign of increasingly fierce competition between Republicans and Democrats for the support of religious voters, in this case a key element of the Democratic base.
Though past White House meetings have drawn mostly Republican-leaning pastors, the State Department session was broader, attracting longtime Democrats such as Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and onetime United Nations ambassador, and administration critics such as the Rev. William J. Shaw, head of the National Baptist Convention.
The meeting was dominated, however, by evangelical pastors -- many of them, like Bishops T.D. Jakes of Dallas and Charles E. Blake of Los Angeles, known to national television audiences.
White House strategists view black ministers as a path into a voter bloc that has traditionally been Democratic but is conservative on social issues such as abortion, school vouchers and same-sex marriage.
A relatively small group of sympathetic pastors has enjoyed extraordinary access to Bush and his top aides. Now, as the GOP outreach grows wider and more aggressive, some Democrats accuse the White House of expanding the promise of government grants to woo political support.
“I am concerned that this may be another enticement offered by the administration to African American clergy along the lines of the faith-based initiative,” said Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Sending U.S. grants to well-established faith-based groups in Africa such as Catholic Relief Services is nothing new. But a former diplomat who handled Africa policy under President Clinton expressed concern about an initiative that might favor denominations that were politically friendly to the administration.
“There is a huge pressing need for care for AIDS orphans,” said Susan Rice, now a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Noting that past high-level meetings had been dominated by African American churches sympathetic to the White House, she said: “It’s important to involve mainline African American denominations ... so that the effort is not viewed solely as an effort at Republican Party base-building.”
Brett Schaefer, an expert on Africa and foreign aid for the conservative Heritage Foundation, applauded the idea of engaging more black churches in the fight against AIDS in Africa. But he questioned the wisdom of using the program to counter Islamic extremism. “The U.S. should be careful that these projects ... be focused on actual assistance rather than proselytizing,” he said.
Several ministers at the State Department meeting signed the letter distributed by Towey endorsing the White House-backed provision on religious hiring, giving the administration a weapon to neutralize opposition to the measure when it comes before the Senate as early as next month.
The pastors’ support “will be very influential,” Towey said in an interview. “They speak with authority on the issue, and they are listened to by a lot of the members [of Congress] that are Democrats.”
The discussion left at least one minister at the Rice meeting with mixed feelings. Shaw, head of the National Baptist Convention and pastor of a church in Philadelphia, said he refused to sign the letter, calling it a “political move.” He also said he was pleased to hear about Bush’s Africa agenda but was worried that the administration’s outreach was more about politics than substance.
“I don’t think [the Africa effort] ought to become simply another exercise of political operations,” said Shaw, whose National Baptist Convention is the largest and oldest African American church denomination, with more than 7.5 million members. “I am not closed to it.... I need to see what fruitful comes from it and how nonpolitical it is.”
The meeting’s guest list seemed like a who’s who of African American religious leaders. Blake is head of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, whose 24,000 members include celebrities such as Denzel Washington and Stevie Wonder. Jakes, who has been a regular at White House meetings, leads Potter’s House Ministry in Dallas, which reaches millions through television broadcasts and massive conferences.
Perhaps the most unlikely guest was Young, a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and past president of the liberal National Council of Churches. Young surprised the audience when he rose to offer an emotional tribute to Rice. Young said it would have been unthinkable during the days of the civil rights struggle to imagine that Rice, a black preacher’s daughter from the segregated South, would become the nation’s top diplomat.
Young, who traveled overseas after the meeting, could not be reached for comment.
Several of the pastors said that interest was growing among their congregants in taking more responsibility for Africa’s welfare.
“We encourage churches to adopt Africa as a priority, just as Israel is a priority for Jewish Americans,” Blake, founder and director of the Pan African Children’s Fund, said in an interview after the White House meeting.
Blake presented literature for Rice and the White House, explaining what he called the “Pan Africa movement” and the work his organization did to help AIDS orphans. He cited the potential benefits that an expanded U.S. church effort would have on the war on terrorism in countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya, where cells of Islamic extremists have been tracked. The millions of orphans in those countries are “susceptible to recruitment” by terrorists and their sympathizers, Blake wrote.
In many ways, the differences over the discrimination issue -- and the dueling meetings in Washington last week -- illuminated the larger tug of war in national politics for the sympathies of black clergy and, ultimately, the electoral support of their congregations.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman maintains a heavy schedule of meetings with black religious and political leaders and travels nearly every week to speak at historically black colleges. In addition, African American pastors are being courted by white evangelical church leaders, including the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who seek -- and find -- allies for their opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights.
In the first years of the Bush administration, many Democratic strategists dismissed the Republican outreach to blacks as pandering. But they no longer wave off its potential.
Some analysts maintain that the GOP’s success in boosting the black vote for Bush in Ohio last year from 9% to 16% -- an increase attributed to outreach to black pastors -- secured the president’s reelection. To fight back, the Democrats and their allies have launched an array of countermeasures, including last week’s conference with ministers and the Congressional Black Caucus.
“We did not want these ministers to be in a position where they come to Washington, meet with the White House and just pass the black caucus,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is heading the group’s outreach to pastors.
Cummings said the caucus was establishing regional forums, which would begin this summer, to educate clergy on national issues.
This month, a separate organization of black ministers backed by the liberal group People for the American Way met to mobilize black church opposition to President Bush’s judicial nominees.
The group met May 6 at the Washington Hilton hotel to hear Democratic leaders, members of the Congressional Black Caucus staff and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People blast Bush administration policies.
The leader of the black ministers’ group, the Rev. Timothy McDonald III of Atlanta, said the effort was necessary to build a “countervailing force” against efforts by the GOP and their allies to woo black church leaders.
“We’re losing ministers every week,” McDonald said.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has hired three new staffers to reach out to faith-based groups, including African American constituencies.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has also joined in the effort. In a January speech at Boston’s Azusa Christian Community Church, Clinton gave an endorsement of the faith-based initiative that sounded as though she were reading from a Bush White House script.
“We cannot come in, through the government, and dictate to faith-based organizations how they should best minister in their streets, and in their churches, and in their synagogues and mosques,” she said. “We need to not have a false division or debate about the role of faith-based institutions; we need to just do it and provide the support that is needed on an ongoing basis.”
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These religious leaders were among the more than two dozen who met last week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and senior White House officials.
Bishop T.D. Jakes
An author of bestselling books, Jakes is also a Grammy-winning gospel singer who was the subject of a 2001 Time magazine cover story titled “Is this the Next Billy Graham?” His Potter’s House church in Dallas has 30,000 members, and his sermons are broadcast nationally.
The Rev. Donnie McClurkin
When he is not ministering to congregants at Perfecting Faith Church in a former supermarket in Freeport, N.Y., McClurkin performs, occasionally sharing the stage with music stars. McClurkin is a Pentecostal minister and a Grammy-winning gospel singer whose work has crossed over to mainstream audiences.
The Rev. Eugene Rivers
Pastor of Boston’s Azusa Christian Community, Rivers earned national attention for his work combating youth crime. He is an advocate of Pentecostal activism and its entry into Africa. Rivers has been a visitor to the White House under Presidents Bush and Clinton.
Bishop Charles E. Blake
A member of the 12-person board of the Church of God in Christ, a denomination with more than 5 million members, Blake launched an organization providing aid to African children. He is the pastor of West Angeles Church of God and Christ in Los Angeles, whose 24,000-member congregation includes celebrities.
Bishop Eddie Long
Senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, Long has an international following. He is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and led a march in Atlanta advocating a constitutional amendment to ban such unions. His TV show “Taking Authority” is broadcast in more than 100 countries.
The Rev. Andrew Young
The pastor, whose previous posts include ambassador to the U.N., Democratic congressman and mayor of Atlanta, has long been at the center of national and international civil rights struggles. He serves as a director of several major corporations and leads GoodWorks International, a consulting firm that promotes economic development in Africa and the Caribbean.
The Rev. William J. Shaw
The Philadelphia minister presides over the National Baptist Convention, a long-standing organization that has had missions in Africa since the 19th century. Shaw has been a critic of the Bush administration, opposing the war in Iraq and the president’s proposed overhaul of Social Security.
Bishop Sedgwick Daniels
Bush had the backing of the pastor in the 2004 election. Daniels presides over Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, a fast-growing church in Milwaukee that has gained notice from Republican and Democratic candidates.
The Rev. Herbert Hoover Lusk II
The senior pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Lusk is a former star running back for Cal State Long Beach who later played for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. His church biography calls him an advisor to Bush.
The Rev. Frank Madison Reid III
Reid is the senior pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a fast-growing church in Baltimore. A fifth-generation minister with degrees from Harvard and Yale, Reid became one of the first AME church leaders to have a syndicated television program, “Outreach of Love,” which has been broadcast nationally for a decade.