All Souls to the Polls

American politicians, of all races, do not know how to address the concerns and needs of black voters without making a mad dash to the church pulpit. The tradition of candidates for county sheriff or President of the United States visiting black churches has become a parody, an insult to the intelligence of black voters, and an activity of questionable political value.

In 2003 the right wing succeeded in recalling the elected Democratic governor of California, Gray Davis. Their goal was to push the state with the most electoral votes toward George W. Bush. (After all, it will be hard to cheat in Florida twice.) The recall was another skirmish in the war to bring America under one party rule for Republicans. It was a textbook case of brilliant political strategy. The effort succeeded because it was not met with an equally audacious democratic response. Gov. Schwarzenegger is in office in part because of the Democrats' ineffectual outreach to black voters.

The plan to reach black voters consisted of the same stale strategy. As usual, no black Christian in the state of California was safe from the clutches of Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson or Al Gore. On the Sunday before Election Day all three ran from church to church, appearing with preachers and singers in choir robes, exhorting the faithful to vote against the recall. Schwarzenegger won of course, and proved that last-minute church hopping is not the grand political strategy it is made out to be.

The political appeal of the black church is obvious. An appearance before a large congregation is one-stop shopping for likely voters. A connection with the pivotal role played by black religious leaders is an undeniable benefit for candidates. Black leadership is still skewed toward the clergy. The only black men to run for president, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are both reverends.

But the history of the black church should not be an excuse for laziness and lack of imagination in making political appeals to the black community. While the presidential candidates campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire they held pancake breakfasts, firehouse chili feeds, school auditorium rallies and luncheons in living rooms. The candidates ought to know that black voters also have living rooms and their neighborhood schools would be excellent sites for political events. Our activities do not begin and end at the church door and those who do not attend church are equally entitled to know what politicians are proposing for their communities and for the nation.

During the 2000 presidential elections the NAACP created the slogan "Get all souls to the polls." The words were harmless enough, but a poor substitute for speaking to the needs of black voters, who always provide Democrats with the necessary margin for electoral victory. It is imperative for everyone to go to the polls, and special appeals to a variety of constituencies are an American tradition. But those appeals should be made all year long and should not exclude astute and concerned citizens who don't have a church home.

In November 2000, I personally witnessed the emptiness of church-centered thinking in a political campaign. On the Sunday before Election Day, opera singer Jessye Norman arrived in my Harlem church near the end of the service. Sister Norman was in the sanctuary to encourage voter participation. I am sure her intentions were righteous, but an opera singer performing "Oh, Freedom" was somewhat bizarre and unintentionally amusing. I give Ms. Norman credit for her desire to strengthen democracy, but her time would have been better spent elsewhere. The members of my congregation are frequent voters who do not need exhortations from opera singers to vote, particularly in a presidential election year.

One New Hampshire pastor made a very vocal point of chiding those who use his church and others as backdrops. Rev. Arthur Hilson is the pastor of New Hope Baptist church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In December of 2003 the reverend had one political visit too many when he castigated politicians who "pimp the black church."

"When you come, come honestly ... come speak to us as you speak to America," he said. "Don't feel that you have to have a special message for us because what is good for America is good for us (African-Americans)."

Rev. Hilson's point is well taken. Black voters should not be treated as after thoughts when the polls show a tight race. If we were approached by the Democrats in a meaningful way there wouldn't be panicked visits to black churches two days before ballots are cast. After the failures of November 2000 and November 2002 the Democratic Party ought to have learned the value of addressing black American concerns. Instead there is still a fear that connecting with blacks will alienate whites. Terry McAuliffe and other leaders must remember that no one wants to be called for a Saturday date on a Friday night. It is disrespectful and always produces an excuse to stay home.

Margaret Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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