For black ministers, political tone shifts

Black political leaders in Boston reflect on worries about a changing relationship with clergy in the US.

A recent conference on black leadership in Massachusetts moved from candid to heated only after the last question of the weekend. By the time Ken Reeves sat down, he had released a wellspring of frustration.

Mr. Reeves, a former mayor of Cambridge, was distressed not over relations with other races, but with fellow blacks - specifically those who occupy local pulpits. When he voiced concern that black ministers were associating with conservative interest groups, he was met with loud applause and waves of approval.

The conference organizer, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (D), was prompted to admit that she had purposely left the subject off the agenda because emotions were running high.

Tension between black clergy and black political leaders, while not new, has rarely reached such a pitch. At the root of today's divide are two key questions in the nation's "culture wars" - whether gays should be allowed to marry and whether religious-backed social programs should be eligible for federal funding.

The rift underscores the growing complexity of African-American politics, and the unique role the black clergy plays in American life.

While some blacks complain that their ministers have been "co-opted" by conservatives, others say such accusations amount to an effort to shoehorn all blacks into one place on the ideological spectrum. "The black church has a relatively conservative theology if you ask them about the Bible, and an incredibly radical social theology," says Massachusetts state Rep. Byron Rushing (D). "This combination makes them very politically useful."

The Hub is home to some of the most high-profile black ministers in the country, several of whom have worked closely with the Bush administration on implementing faith-based social programs. Others are part of what Republican Gov. Mitt Romney calls his "kitchen cabinet" - an informal but influential circle of advisers.

When several of these ministers recently joined the Roman Catholic Church in opposing gay marriage, it seemed to many black political leaders that their clergy had been abducted by America's right wing.

Then again, the intertwining of black ministers and the political process is not new. Mr. Rushing remembers seeing photos of Boston Mayor James Michael Curley courting black ministers' endorsements in the 1930s. President Clinton publicly turned to black clergy for guidance after his impeachment.

Since the New Deal and the civil rights movement, the allegiance of black ministers to the Democratic machine has been axiomatic. "When it comes to Democrats requesting a chance to speak, black preachers have very few qualms," says Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington.

But that nearly universal allegiance may be shifting. President Bush, some experts suggest, has been able to leverage the heavily religious tone of his administration toward securing more friends and political allies among black ministers.

His main tool: funding for "faith-based" programs. Two years ago, the Black Ministerial Alliance (BMA) here received $2 million in funding. About 10 area churches serving primarily black parishioners received much of the money. The grants have propped up the profile of Boston pastors in Washington and across the country. Beneficiaries include the Rev. Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, and the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, head of the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge. Mr. Rivers is a close ally of the Bush administration, and Mr. Brown is a member of Governor Romney's kitchen cabinet.

Many black political leaders believe the ministers are helping Republicans win approval of policy that is not in the best interests of most blacks. By participating in the faith-based program, for example, they suggest ministers are undermining other federal programs more likely to direct money toward minorities.

They also believe their actions will translate into votes for Mr. Bush and other Republicans. "The political side of this is inescapable," says Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP.

While most pastors do not offer formal endorsements, many do so tacitly by inviting them to a service. "We do have a regular parade of people appearing for services running for various kinds of offices," says the Rev. Kenneth Henry, professor emeritus of church history at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

Others talk from the pulpit about a political leader's philosophy. "Those politicians who respond to and ally themselves with the social teachings of the Bible will resonate with some of my members," says Brown of the Union Baptist Church.

Brown was one of a handful of black clergy here who spoke against gay marriage. His participation was viewed by some as a payback, in part, to the Boston Catholic Archdiocese, which had contributed at least $200,000 to his effort to assist churches damaged by hate crimes.

Black ministers say their views are squarely based in the Bible, and that most of their parishioners agree with them. "The black church is a very conservative institution," says the Rev. Wesley Roberts, president of the BMA.

Many ministers here bristle at being criticized for having white political allies. "There are black political leaders who continue to make charges, particularly when we don't agree with them, that we're being manipulated by white people," says Brown. "But it's funny that when they make their alliances with white people, they can't be questioned."

Many experts, including Mr. Bond, who teaches US history at the University of Virginia, emphasize that most black ministers were not active in the civil rights movement and that their political contribution may be fading. But that's not to say the black ministry won't have considerable influence.

"Nobody speaks to as many black people on a regular basis as the black minister," says Mr. Henry.

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