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Black Conservatives in the Age of Obama

The most prominent voices for conservatism in African American communities continue to be those of Christian church leaders.
 
 
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While some white Christian evangelical leaders are trying to broaden their agenda to include poverty, AIDS in Africa and climate change, a group of conservative black Christian church leaders appear more like archeologists; digging into the past to uncover the wedge issues that have been used since the advent of the new religious right. 

In a recent letter to President Barack Obama, Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American with close ties to the Christian right, maintained that same-sex marriage was the No. 1 issue of our times. Jackson, who worked extensively for the passage of California's Proposition 8 -- the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage -- has been in the forefront of the battle to persuade the Washington City Council to reverse its 12-1 vote in favor of a measure that recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other states.

As pastor at New Hope Christian Church in Maryland and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, Jackson has written and spoken out against pending hate-crimes legislation (the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S.B. 909).

"[T]he ultimate issue is going to be that it only takes one or two lawsuits, or the threat of a lawsuit, for there to be a chilling effect on pastors from preaching these passages of the Bible like Leviticus and Romans 1, and many, many other passages as our culture slips more into darkness," Jackson told OneNewsNow, the news service of Donald Wildmon's American Family Association.

Last year, Jackson co-authored (with the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins) Personal Faith, Public Policy, a book in which they wrote that the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights coalition, was "co-opted by the radical gay movement."

And last fall, according to People for the American Way, Jackson "charged that the NAACP had abandoned the black family by supporting marriage equality," and he told an Inspiration TV audience that the NAACP was "crazy" to say gay marriage is a civil right.

In Oakland, Calif., Walter Hoye, a black Baptist minister, was arrested earlier this year in front of the Family Planning Specialists Medical Group for violating a 2008 law that prohibits protesters from being within 8 feet of an abortion clinic.

Hoye calls what he was doing "sidewalk counseling"; abortion supporters call it the "harassment" of women in need of the clinic's services. Hoye, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail but served only 18, was back in front of the clinic upon his release.

Hoye, who is also a chaplain for the National Basketball League's Golden State Warriors, "was recruited three years ago by white Roman Catholic anti-abortion activists who felt an African American man would have an easier time approaching the clinic's many African American patients," the Los Angeles Times recently reported. He is rapidly becoming a national celebrity in anti-abortion circles.

In Houston, Claver Kamau-Imani, who heads the Corinthian Christian Empowerment Church, a small house church in the city, is trying to redefine history.

Kamau-Imani recently caused quite a stir when he put up a billboard in the black community that declared "Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Republican." The billboard was sponsored by RagingElephants.org, which claimed that it was "Leading America's 2nd Emancipation."

"We think it's imperative that [the GOP] try and attract more people from the communities of color to vote their values -- to vote conservative," Kamau-Imani said.  

Black conservatives may be out of step with the African American community, but they have always been hovering about the political landscape, as Deborah Toler pointed out 16 years ago in a provocative essay published in The Public Eye. Over the past three decades, being a black conservative has been a relatively lucrative enterprise, albeit striated with lust, loneliness and loss.

Early on, conservative foundations turned on the financial spigot and funded black conservative organizations, chairs at right-wing think tanks, and the media outlets that readily published their work. Black conservatives became media personalities and pundits.

While black conservatives enjoyed the money, political influence and acceptance from white conservatives, they have often been among a small handful of African Americans in the room, whether during a Christian Coalition Road to Victory conference, a Republican Party convention or rally, and even at this decade's Values Voters Summits.

During a 1996 appearance on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, comedian Chris Rock likened a Young Republican rally to "A Million White-Boy March."

During the presidential election, John McCain/Sarah Palin rallies took on about the same character. And much the same can be said about the Tax Day Tea Party events, as well as the current spate of rowdy shout-downs at town hall meetings conducted by Democratic legislators.      

Although black conservatives scored a few victories -- the  election of Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts in 1994 (the last time a black conservative was elected to Congress), Kenneth Blackwell's victory in Ohio's secretary of state race and Michael Steele's term as lieutenant governor of Maryland -- in general, electoral triumphs have been few and far between.

In African American communities, black conservatives are viewed as outsiders, an "anomaly," with little to no political following. Their longtime opposition to affirmative action, minimum-wage laws, social welfare programs, and their support for privatization, deregulation, a host of Christian conservative "culture war" issues, and so-called muscular foreign-policy initiatives, have put them at odds with the majority of African Americans.  

In the mid-1990s, when Ralph Reed was the executive director of the Christian Coalition -- still viewed at the time by the mainstream media as a media-savvy, politically pragmatic, rising star of the conservative movement -- he came up with a number of strategic initiatives aimed at casting a wider net and expanding the Coalition's power base: Reed advocated toning down the rhetoric and presenting a kinder, gentler media image; he began developing Christian Coalition-type auxiliaries for Catholics (the Catholic Alliance) and building relationships with conservative Jews; and to great fanfare, he announced a project focused on bringing African Americans into the fold through an entity called "The Samaritan Project."

At its annual "Road to Victory" conference in 1994, Reed declared that conservatives would no longer "concede the minority community to the political left anymore. We're players in the Republican Party, and we want to be players in the Democratic Party. The road to that goal is through the minority community." 

At the time of Reed's initiatives, black conservatives were receiving national attention. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that "The Supreme Court has switched directions on matters of race, and nothing illustrates the change more dramatically than the words of its lone black justice, Clarence Thomas, the man who replaced civil rights legend Thurgood Marshall." 

Ward Connerly, then a member of the University of California Board of Regents, was just beginning to make waves "as a new black anti-affirmative action celebrity," theVillage Voice reported.

Kay Cole James, Virginia's African American secretary of health and human resources and the former senior vice president at the Family Research Council, was steadfastly working to implement Gov. George Allen's welfare-reform plans.

Insight magazine, a publication owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, predicted that the number of black conservatives that would run for office would "skyrocket" in the coming years.    

Reed's efforts among black Americans basically came to naught; there was little funding for the project, and even less support for it within African American communities.

Reed soon left the Christian Coalition for greener pastures -- his successful political consulting firm, and then leaner ones -- his relationship with uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff that, at least temporarily, has sidetracked his political career.

A decade later, when Ken Mehlman took over the reins of the Republican National Committee, he tried a different tack. In July 2005, buoyed by the results of the 2004 election, Mehlman addressed the annual convention of the NAACP, and he offered a near-apology for the party's longtime "Southern strategy."

"By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community," Mehlman told the group. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

By 2006, Republicans were hopeful that the Mehlman initiative, the infusion of millions of dollars in Bush administration-directed faith-based money to black church leaders, arranging meetings with the president at the White House for conservative black religious leaders, and the introduction of some "new" faces on the national scene, would result in more black voters turning to the GOP.

But during the 2008 presidential election, many black church leaders -- liberal and conservative alike -- supported Barack Obama.

These days, however, the most prominent voices for conservatism in African American communities continue to be those of church leaders, who, despite tough economic times continue to view abortion and same-sex marriage as vital issues for their communities.

And while it is unlikely that black Christian conservative church leaders' focus on abortion and same-sex marriage will bring African Americans over to voting for Republican Party candidates, in the near future, that could very well provide critical support for future anti-same-sex marriage and anti-abortion state ballot initiatives.   

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.