Black churches and US politics. Jackson benefits from network of religious support

The Rev. Otis Moss Jr. stood in front of his pulpit discussing security and the placement of television cameras. Everything had to be just right for Sunday. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was coming to preach a sermon. The scene at the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland is being repeated in black churches throughout the United States. This network of churches is providing major support to the Jackson campaign as it rolls through the presidential primary season. (Rough campaigning in Indiana, Page 5.)

Here in Cleveland, for example, the support from black clergy is nearly unanimous, Mr. Moss says. ``I have not found a single black pastor in the Cleveland community who is not supportive of the Jackson campaign. There must be one or two somewhere, but I haven't found them.''

The support these clergymen provide takes many forms. At a hastily arranged breakfast April 23, 100 black ministers from this area discussed how they could support the Jackson campaign. Among the items on the agenda: get-out-the-vote efforts and fund raising.

``Registering people to vote is something the churches are involved in,'' says the Rev. Paul Sims of Fort Worth, Texas. ``There has been a lot of that.''

But changes in the tax code have made church-based fund raising more difficult, he says. Churches avoid taking up collections for candidates, because they could lose their tax-exempt status, he adds. Many churches simply encourage members to give on their own.

But the biggest contribution by church members is their time as volunteers, when they distribute literature and man campaign phones, the Rev. Mr. Sims says. Sims, himself, was active in the Texas primary and is now volunteering an additional three weeks to help the Jackson campaign in Ohio and California.

The churches also provide a platform for black politicians. Here in Cleveland, Jackson's sermon to an overflow audience at Olivet could hardly have been better timed for the avid campaigner. It was just two days before the Ohio primary and at the same church where Martin Luther King had often preached when he came to Cleveland.

This mixing of religion and politics is frowned upon by many mainline (and mostly white) churches. But among blacks, it is not at all unusual. At election time, black politicians often make the rounds of churches, being seen and, sometimes, saying a few words.

``The `abundant life' that Jesus talked about is more than just the spiritual side of life,''' says Eddie L. Robinson, pastor of the Delaney Memorial United Methodist Church in Gary, Ind. ``It's the gospel in action.''

The Rev. Mr. Robinson says he dislikes political speeches during the Sunday service. But ``if for me the message of a politician seems to be contradicting what I understand to be the good news of the gospel, I feel an obligation to share that with my people,'' he adds.

That attitude has a long history in the American black church, stemming from slavery days. In that era, the church was the sole institution over which black people could exercise control. ``The church was the black man's school, his lyceum. ... It provided all the services that he could expect to have,'' says C.Eric Lincoln, a Duke University sociology professor and author of some 20 books on race and religion.

Even today, the church remains a focal point of a large portion of black society - certainly that part of the black community that votes regularly, Dr. Lincoln says. ``It would be unrealistic to separate the black church from the black man.''

That is why so many black politicians have come through the church - from Dr. King to US Rep. William Gray III (D) of Pennsylvania, and, of course, Jesse Jackson himself. As these blacks gain political office and build a political base independent of the black churches, however, there is little agreement about what will happen to the churches themselves.

``The black church will play a vital role [in the election] of our first black president or vice-president,'' Lincoln says. But he says a slow decline in the political influence of the black church is inevitable.

Moss, on the other hand, sees the churches expanding their influence as black politicians move into greater positions of power.

``We recognize the dangers of both a state religion and a church controlled by the state,'' the minister says. But ``if we had not been advocates, there would have been no advocates. And that becomes our peculiar assignment: To be advocates of liberation, equality, and social justice.''

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