Reverend Al Sharpton is sipping hot chicken noodle soup on a Monday morning in a Manhattan studio before his daily ABC radio show. The soup will hopefully soothe his voice, which is raspier than usual. Sharpton has good reason to be hoarse: For the last four months, the 52-year-old Democrat has been traveling around the country, hammering home a message to African-American clergy and their congregants: "Don't believe the hype.''
The 'hype', as Sharpton sees it, is the GOP's massive outreach to that stronghold of the African-American community, the black church. Over the past few years the Republicans have been making inroads with conservative black churchgoers, thanks to the party's stands on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. "Whether the mainstream knows it or not, African Americans have always been very morally conservative,'' says the Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity Baptist Church in Chicago. "Issues regarding family and values are something our grandparents always had and instilled in us. The GOP finally found a way to take advantage of those feelings."
Republicans garnered a smaller percentage of the black vote in '04 than the Democrats, but it was a bigger slice than in prior elections. And many believe that helped tip the balance in favor of George Bush, who received more than 11 percent of the black vote--two percent higher than in 2000. In the critical swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the campaign focused on issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and school vouchers, he received 16 percent of the black vote. This time around, a chastened Democratic party is fighting back with its biggest weapons: chief among them Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. "We didn't see it coming this last time. We didn't see them using the church and the morals of the church to win votes," Sharpton says.
At a time when black leaders with civil rights pedigrees like Jackson and Sharpton are being overshadowed by flashier mega-church pastors like Bishops T.D. Jakes of Dallas and Eddie Long of Atlanta, halting that trend may be trickier than Sharpton thinks. While he's been appearing at roughly two to three churches a week since mid-summer, the mega-church ministers routinely speak to 20,000 followers in one Sunday morning service. Sharpton says he and Jackson both fear that the mega-church movement is so focused on capitalistic ventures that they've forgotten the social-justice movement altogether. "You're talking about ministers that are following in the footsteps of notable white ministers, and that means the legacy of social justice from a civil rights view is not being considered,'' he says. "These ministers are allowing moral and social issues to become confused. I speak at churches as often as I can, hoping to make sure people understand what's happening. The end of the war in Iraq, higher minimum wages and affirmative action--those are our issues right now. Not same sex marriage or even abortion.''
And what do black voters care about in 2006? They are bitter about the administration's handling of Katrina. The Iraq war has become increasingly unpopular as soldiers from their communities return home in coffins. And the Mark Foley scandal has shaken the GOP's hold on the "values" banner. In an Oct. 2 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Rev. Romal Tune, co-chair for FaithfulDemocrats.com, called for the resignation of all members of Congress who knew about Foley's cyber-stalking of underage male congressional pages. In the letter, co-signed by 17 prominent black religious leaders, Tune wrote, "the bitter irony is that the leaders of a political party that emphasizes family values may have deliberately betrayed those values for political gain. This is a moral failure---and a symptom of a Congress that has lost its moral compass.''
Of biggest concern to the Republicans are voters like A.R. Bernard, pastor of the 26,000-member Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. Bernard, who refers to himself as a conservative, voted for Bush in 2000, but now believes that "Bush has had a number of opportunities to show his support for African Americans and fell short of the mark in a very big way.'' Bush's handling of Katrina was his biggest blunder, Bernard, 53, says. "I think many of us were waiting to see how he handled that moment and he failed us.'' Last month Bernard's church hosted a town hall discussion in the parking lot with Democratic politicians running for office in Brooklyn. "We invited the Republicans, but only the Democrats responded,'' Bernard says.
Perhaps to gird against the loss of former supporters like Bernard, Republicans have been looking beyond black churchgoers in 2006. "We're using all types of methods to attract the black voter,'' says Tara Hall, head of community outreach for the RNC. "Not just churches, but black colleges and other community-oriented places.'' The Republicans haven't been talking nearly as much about gay marriage as they did during the 2004 race, though maybe they should be: recent polls indicate that nearly 80 percent of black voters oppose gay marriage, and religious conservatives have been re-energized since last month's high-court decision in New Jersey that paves the way for gay marriage or the civil equivalent. "If the same-sex marriage issue is on the political landscape in the elections, more blacks will vote Republican,'' says the Rev. Dwight McKissic of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Tex. "Blacks who voted Republican made the difference last time and they can do it again.''
Bishop Long of Atlanta has been very vocal in his position against gay marriage, going so far as to host a number of marches against the practice at his New Birth Ministry Baptist Church. The stance prompted an angry exchange between him, Sharpton, Jackson and Louis Farrakhan late last year at a conference at New Birth. Speaking from the pulpit, Jackson asked the congregation how many of them actually knew someone gay who was getting married. No one in the room raised their hand.
Jackson then replied, in a reference to the Republicans: "Is it worth sleeping with the enemy?"
Many black Democrats like to claim that the appeal of the GOP isn't as much values as it is money--namely faith-based funding from Washington. "Clinton had faith-based initiatives as well, but his were more socially oriented and it was never as much money,'' says Sharpton.
"The perks were never as good as under Bush. Bush has made giving handouts a business deal with the devil.'' Milwaukee Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, whose church has received more than $2 million in federal faith-based monies, endorsed Bush as "the candidate who shares our views,'' and two weeks before the 2004 elections he allowed his pulpit to be used by Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, one of Bush's most prominent African-American advocates. Reverend Herb Lusk II gave the invocation at the 2000 Republican convention; his Philadelphia church has received $1 million in federal funding to help low-income Philadelphians. Long's ministry in Atlanta received a $1 million faith-based grant in 2003 from the U.S. Administration of Children and Families. Black churches have also been prime targets for the $786 million that Bush wants Congress to spend on school vouchers. "It's clear to me what's happening with these ministers,'' says 44-year-old Sam Roberts of Arlington, Va. "I know many of them have changed political affiliation because of the money, but my 84-year-old mother doesn't understand that. It's gotten to the point where when I go church, I don't know who's giving the sermon: My pastor or Bush.''
Conservative black ministers who've supported Bush and the GOP staunchly insist there is no quid pro quo. "We have the right to support whomever we think represents the values we value,'' says Long. "He has very deep religious convictions and knows that the church has been more effective than government in changing communities. But Long adds: "We're not going to agree on everything any president put forth. It's not about Republicans and Democrats: We support who believes in what we believe in when it comes to the Bible. We have to have to have options."
For Democrats, the option they want black churchgoers to consider is this: Come back to the fold. "We thought we had a certain demographic in our pocket and we found out last election that we don't," says a party spokesman who didn't want to be named. "We don't consider it taking a group for granted, but we do feel we neglected some of our base.'' Says Sharpton: "I do know we won't let it happen again."