In the early months of 2004 I read the Black Commentator’s analysis of the corporate-Republican campaign to create the perception of an alternative, conservative Black leadership. At first I thought this laughable. But such a campaign was taking place in my own hometown, Philadelphia.
Suddenly I began reading op-ed articles in the Black newspapers expressing a right-wing ideological view on every subject from public education to Social Security. The authors were largely unknown in the African American communities. On one Black radio talk show a young, articulate minister joined the staff as a co-host. His purpose was to “promote balance.” He prided himself as a conservative promoting the welfare and uplift of Black people. At the same time he supported the Iraq war, denounced the Democratic Party and spoke against abortion and same-sex marriage. He was the first in a long line of Black clergy that I would hear endorse Bush for re-election in the Democratic city of Philadelphia.
Then there was the new leadership of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. Bishop Ernest Morris, the new president of the organization representing over 400 African American Christian congregations, was leading the group in a new direction — “faith-based initiatives.” Pennsylvania’s Republican Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum offered the organization a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for a two-year job training program. At the formal presentation of the grant, Specter told the audience how he and Santorum had “gone to the wall” to obtain the grant. He added that there could be a second $4 million grant in the future if both senators were re-elected. Specter was later endorsed by the organization and narrowly defeated his Democratic challenger Joe Hoffel. There were growing complaints from members that the entire scenario was not in accordance with the bylaws.
In 2000, the Rev. Herb Lusk, former football star and presently pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church, gave the invocation at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The church received a $1 million grant in 2002 to help low-income Philadelphians pay their mortgages. In 2004 Lusk invited Bush to speak at a spiritual rally at the church and gave Bush a bear hug on stage as well as his endorsement. While some members applauded, others were visibly uncomfortable.
In 2005, on the eve of the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, Greater Exodus Baptist Church hosted “Justice Sunday III.” It was broadcast on all the Christian television channels, telling viewers to contact their senators and ask them to support Alito. There was the Rev. Lusk on stage, right in the middle of the Christian Right leadership. Said Jerry Falwell, “We’re looking at what we started 30 years ago, a restructuring of a court system gone awry.”
Facing criticism from other Black clergy, Lusk said, “I will not apologize for having a relationship with the most powerful man in the world [Bush].” And I thought their relationship was based on their mutual abhorrence of abortion and same-sex marriage, not power! I guess more grants “to help the poor” are on the way.
In 2003, $1.2 billion in federal funds was given to faith-based organizations from five federal departments: Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor and Education. Most of these funds went to African American and Latino faith-based groups. Programs in the battleground states received the most money. Bush denies that the faith-based initiative is being used as a political tool. But in 2001 he promised to “end discrimination against church-connected social service providers.” Whatever happened to the separation of church and state as written in the U.S. Constitution?
In the mid-1990s the Bradley Foundation, a right-wing Milwaukee think tank, came up with a two-part plan to break the historical unity of African Americans: vouchers and faith-based initiatives. The plan was conceived by Bradley Foundation CEO Michael Joyce and later adopted by the Republican Party leadership. The plan is now being executed.
Historically, African American voters have supported the most progressive and advanced candidates and issues presented to them regardless of political party. That is why African Americans changed en masse from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party when Franklin Roosevelt came along with the New Deal.
With the takeover of the Republican Party by the ultra-right in 1980 and its attack on affirmative action, public education, voting rights and all entitlements, life for most Black people became more difficult. Seeing little to gain from Republicans, they became part of its opposition. The ultra-right would have to find a way to break the unity of the Black electorate at the ballot box if it intended to hold absolute political power. By using Bible scripture as the appeal and faith-based dollars as the incentive, today’s Republican Party could form an alliance with the most conservative section of the Black religious community.
The leadership of the Pentecostals was the most enthusiastic about supporting Bush in 2004. Church members were directed on how to vote “in order to be saved.” Bush was referred to as a “man of God.” In service after service, using the most explicit terms, abortion and homosexuality, rather than abandonment by the government, were blamed for the deterioration of the Black family and community.
Was the ultra-right Republican Party successful in breaking the unity of the Black electorate in 2004? Is there a perception of a new, conservative Black leadership?
The results of the 2004 election say, “No way.” Yes, Bush received more Black votes in 2004 and his percentage of Black votes increased by 2 percent. But in spite of many obstacles — organized suppression of the Black vote, widespread election fraud, John Kerry’s lack of interest in the plight of African Americans and a lackluster Democratic campaign — 89 percent of Black voters said “no” to Bush and the Bush agenda. The new Black conservatives can’t be called leaders, because they have few followers. Even Black Republicans know their party is making no real effort to recruit Blacks to promote racial diversity. It wants only to promote the illusion of racial diversity. Dixiecrats like Trent Lott did not switch to the Republican Party to be with Black people.
Shamelessly, the Republican Party has used religious faith to confuse and exploit people for political gain. It has manipulated voters through their religious faith to vote against their best interests. It has used our tax monies for its political payoffs. This is disgraceful and illegal. But the fightback has begun.
The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity just voted out its conservative leadership and elected the Rev. James Moore as its new president. Said the Rev. Shine, a past president, “Rev. Moore’s election means restoring the organization to its former status as a formidable advocate for social justice and civil rights.”
At a convention of 10,000 Black Baptists, opposition to the Iraq war was declared and a call was made for a higher minimum wage, universal health care, investment in public education and aid for Africa.
It would be wrong to write off African American churchgoers as political conservatives. Most are part of the working class and will support their interests if approached with the truth. We need an all-people’s coalition to “throw the bums out,” and religious people must be a part of that coalition along with labor, the peace movement, the environmentalists, African Americans and all oppressed people. Let us begin now with the 2006 elections.
Rosita Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the PWW editorial board.