During the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Rev. Al Sampson helped to organize Chicago’s Black Mobilization Committee Against the War and regularly opened his church to anti-war rallies and other progressive actions. His Fernwood United Methodist Church, on Chicago’s far South Side, showed films like Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism and Fahrenheit 9⁄11.
And Sampson’s church is just one of many in Chicago that aggressively confronts the Bush administration’s cynical attempt to capture black mind share with its focus on God, gays and vouchers.
As I noted in my last column, the GOP is trying to hitch a ride on Christian piety into the black community. But that ride is getting rather bumpy. In January, an unprecedented gathering of the nation’s four largest black Baptist groups issued a joint statement that basically repudiated the thrust of the GOP’s outreach efforts. The group gave short shrift to issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, heavily pushed by Bush’s evangelical supporters.
And that was intentional. The Baptists sought to convey their irritation with the GOP’s focus on such peripheral issues rather than on the real concerns of black Americans. The joint statement represented the National Baptist Convention (NBUSA), the National Baptist Convention of America Inc., the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc. and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America. The NBUSA is the largest black religious group in the nation, with 7 million members. Together the four groups represent about 15 million black Baptists.
“My position on same-sex marriage is not that it is the sole determinant on moral issues,” NBUSA President William Shaw told the New York Times. “Marriage is threatened more by adultery, and we don’t have a constitutional ban on that.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, himself a Baptist minister, was a special speaker at the January convention. In a recent interview, he explained to In These Times how he helped unmask the GOP’s distracting tactics. “I asked them [the thousands of delegates] how many wanted a higher minimum wage, a stable Social Security system, more effective affirmative action and an end to the war in Iraq, and thousands of hands were raised,” he said. “Then I asked them how many of them were in churches that blessed same-sex unions, and no hands went up. ‘Now,’ I asked them, ‘how did that get in the middle of our agenda?’”
Jackson’s rhetorical question directly revealed how the GOP seeks to employ symbol over substance, and it may well have been instrumental in framing the group’s final statement. The first item of the nine-point statement made clear that these black Baptists were far from the Bush plantation. “We call for an end to the war in Iraq and withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Iraq,” it reads. Other points call for the extension of the Voting Rights Act, opposition to the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, “full commitment to the public education system,” and opposition to school vouchers. The statement characterizes the administration’s budget cuts in Medicaid and the CHIP program as immoral, calls for an end to the prison-industrial complex and … well, you get the point. These are not Bush folks.
And since this group represents, by far, the largest number of African-American Christians, it’s safe to say that the black church has not yet fallen under the faith-based spell of the GOP. The Republicans’ stress on hot-button cultural issues has swayed some individual black believers to the right, but that’s nothing new.
“When Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner heard the voice of God telling them to stand up and fight for freedom, there were other black Christians (Africans from the continent who were also in bondage!) who felt that liberation was not as important as cooperation,” wrote the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. in a recent editorial in The Trinity Trumpet, the publication of his church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He noted that many in the black church also were critical of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Cooperation was the agenda for those black Christians, not liberation,” Wright wrote. The GOP is hoping that faith-based funding will sweeten the pot for that kind of cooperation.
But the party seems to be overreaching. The brazen linkage of faith-based goodies to GOP allegiance has troubled black religious conservatives. “Federal grants will change the way churches think about how to serve their communities,” wrote Star Parker, a prominent black conservative, in a February 1 syndicated column. “Time, energy and creativity will no longer be focused on coming up with creative solutions to problems but on how to structure programs to qualify for grants.” She added, “It’s the nature of politics that money and favors go hand in hand.”
If faith-based funding smells like bribery even to some of Bush’s strongest supporters, its rancid odor is likely to keep the GOP stuck on the black church’s back steps.