Religious Right Plays the Race Card

After several years of hit-and-miss contact with the black community, the religious right is once again knocking on church doors and courting mainstream African Americans. This time they are looking for recruits for the right's anti-gay army, enlisting them as supporters and spokespersons for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

This move is not exactly unprecedented; recent history contains several examples of failed attempts by religious right organizations to engage African Americans.

In January 1997, Ralph Reed, then the executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, launched the Samaritan Project, an unprecedented outreach initiative aimed at the African American community. Reed touted the effort as a bold new direction for the fundamentalist evangelical organization -- at the time the top religious grassroots group in the country.

Laced with proposals for abstinence-only sex education, "hope and opportunity scholarships" (also known as school vouchers), a $500 tax credit for donations to religious groups serving the poor, and empowerment zones for poor areas, Reed's Samaritan Project was, in reality, a rehash of the Coalition's legislative agenda. Reed left the Coalition in September 1997, and by January of the following year, the organization severed its ties to the Samaritan Project.

Promise Keepers, the once powerful men's movement that in recent years has nearly dropped off the media's radar screens, was founded in the early 1990s by former Colorado head football coach, Bill McCartney. "Race reconciliation" was a cornerstone of the organization's agenda. "The Spirit of God clearly said to my spirit, 'You can fill that stadium, but if men of other races aren't here, I won't be there, either,'" McCartney said.

PK spokesperson Tony Evans, an African American and a confidant of President George W. Bush, called the Promise Keepers movement an effort to "establish a church where everyone of any race or status who walks through the door is loved and respected as part of God's creation and family." "Race reconciliation" was less about racial justice and fundamental issues of institutional inequality and more of the "can't we all just get along" variety of reconciliation."

"Race reconciliation" was a catchy slogan, but throughout the 1980s and 90s, religious right groups like the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition consistently opposed civil rights legislation and supported the apartheid government of South Africa, according to Andrea Smith in ColorLines magazine. "Meanwhile," Smith writes, "the workforces at "evangelical institutions remained staunchly segregated."

A Question of Rights

The most common argument being trucked out by the constitutional amendment advocates for the African American community revolves around the question of civil rights. For this mother of all wedge issues, right-wing opponents are focused on convincing mainstream and traditionally Democratic Party-oriented African Americans that gays are sullying the history of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. by linking the battle for same-sex marriage to the decades long and bloody fight for civil rights.

Anti-gay marriage activists are experiencing some success bringing African Americans on board, especially amongst the clergy. The New York Times recently reported that The Alliance for Marriage, the "multifaith, multiethnic coalition that oversaw the drafting of the text for the constitutional amendment now before Congress, includes among its founders bishops from the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ, two historically black denominations."

In early March, Genevieve Wood, of the conservative Family Research Council told an audience of black evangelical ministers and lay persons that she needed their support because gays were "wrapping themselves in the flag of civil rights." Wood pointed out that she could argue "against that....but not nearly like you all can."

In recent weeks, Tony Perkins, the FRC's president, has gushed over support he is receiving from African American pastors during his vigil at the Massachusetts State House after the state Supreme Court ruled that excluding gay couples from civil marriage violated the state constitution.

On March 10, Perkins wrote in his Washington Update that he joined "a national alliance of black pastors at the Boston State House" for a press conference that drew major media coverage. "African-American pastors from all over the country explained that homosexual 'marriage' is not a civil rights issue," Perkins wrote.

Perkins claimed that the pastors were shouted at by a "trio of lesbians," and he offered his "sincere appreciation to these Godly men for standing on the front lines of the battle and boldly affirming the union of one man and one woman, not only here in Boston, but in their home communities as well."

Where's the Balance?

Donna Payne, a board member with the National Black Justice Coalition, a black gay and lesbian organization, is working to make inroads with liberal black clergy members.

"We have to find ministers who will stand with us," Payne told the New York Times. "We have to at least try to bring some balance to the discussion." Payne admitted that while this issue is certainly not the same as "back-of-the bus and Jim Crow....it's discrimination all the same."

While conservative efforts to recruit African Americans have generally borne little fruit in terms of support from black voters, right-wing foundations have established and funded a number of black-run conservative organizations, and supported a coterie of black conservative intellectuals, radio talk show hosts and pundits.

Given their overall political agenda, it isn't surprising that black conservatives -- who manage to get a disproportionate amount of face-time on media outlets like the Fox News Channel -- are eager to speak out against same-sex marriage. Star Parker, spokeswoman for the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, told the Washington Times that "the black community itself is just finding out that the homosexual movement has been using the civil rights movement to (promote its) agenda. And the black community is saying 'Absolutely not.' "

The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, of Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, said "We were discriminated against simply because we were black, not because of who we had sex with. The homosexuals are just jumping aboard the civil rights movement for their own personal gain."

Possible Backlash

What about mainstream African American Democrats? At a March town hall meeting in Jackson, Miss., where John Kerry appeared to link the battle over same-sex marriage to the struggle over civil rights, two African American members of Congress wondered whether his comments might create a backlash against the Kerry candidacy.

"The civil rights movement was more of a movement for the equal rights of all Americans: education, voting rights, jobs," Rep. Arthur Davis (D-Ala.), told The Washington Times. "Whereas gay rights in terms of gay marriage is a movement for a special group of Americans. So I would not compare civil rights with gay rights." Rep. Bennie Thompson agreed and said that he was surprised by Kerry's comparison of today's battle for gay rights with the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.

Will support in the black community for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage fracture the long-time black/Democratic Party coalition? Could this single issue take precedence over the many other issues where African Americans fundamentally disagree with conservatives? That, of course, is what the religious right is hoping for.

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