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Theology Thursdays: Some Black Churches Back Away From Politics by Ira J. Hadnot

The Southern black church, once the engine of voter registration drives and other civil rights efforts, has been largely transformed, political historians say.

Instead of political power, many of the most prominent black churches now focus mainly on building wealth. The so-called "prosperity ministries" began blossoming in the Reagan era, matured in the late '90s and have grown, in many cases, into megachurches.

Their approach to ministry, experts said, has influenced black theology, political participation and delivery of services in poor communities.

Megachurches such as the Potter's House in Dallas, Atlanta's World Changers Ministries, Chicago's Christ Universal Temple and Los Angeles' Crenshaw Christian Center preach a theology of material prosperity, teaching that God didn't call his children to a life of poverty.

As a result of these and other changes, the generation that fought for voting rights for blacks -- and that used the church as a center for mobilizing popular will -- now watches, often with a tinge of disappointment, as seminars on tithing and fiscal management replace candidate forums and other overtly political activities.

"The message has moved from community empowerment to individual prosperity," said Fredrick Harris, a political scientist at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

"The thinking is that if individuals rise, so will the rest of the community. That is a complete reversal from the mission of the black church during slavery, Reconstruction and civil rights," said Harris, who has researched the church's influence on black political behavior.

Some observers say that the "corporate nature" of many black churches means new generations of members -- the children and grandchildren of civil rights activists from the '50s and '60s -- lack basic skills, or interest, in political participation.

What's lost, said Harris, is the opportunity for "lay church people to gain valuable skills in organizing and learning how America's political system works."

Once, he noted, "the black church was needed for education, social justice and political activism, because segregation had shut black people out of the mainstream of American life. The church was the only institution then -- and still is in some marginalized communities."

With the presidential election months away, organizers nationwide are working overtime to register black voters and encourage them to turn out. The work is harder, some say, if black churches are largely engaged in other activities.

Some black pastors have no practical use for politicians in their pulpits.

When Democratic candidates were calling on black churches during the primary season -- a campaigning tradition that goes back decades -- some religious leaders said no to "photo ops" in their churches.

One, the Rev. Arthur Hilson of New Hope Baptist Church in Portsmouth, N.H., accused those candidates of "coming in here to pimp the church." Most politicians, he said, were far more interested in getting their photos taken with a black pastor than in hearing what that pastor had to preach.

The Rev. Albert T. Wilkins, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Pascoe, Wash., said, "It seems the black church, and not just in the South, has retreated from its historic role. There seems to be an incredible level of ambivalence towards politics.

"We are watching long fought-after rights deteriorate because we as believers haven't been active in putting our beliefs on the line."

Besides nondenominational megachurches, the fastest-growing faith groups attracting black Americans are Pentecostal churches, Islam and Catholicism, Harris said. These traditions have not historically encouraged political activity from the pulpit.

Not all black churches have become apolitical. In particular, political engagement remains an ideal among smaller congregations "headed up by young brothers who are fired up about political activism," said Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. The coalition formed in 1976 to fight apathy among black voters.

"The young ministers," she said, "know that blacks under 35 represent the lowest voter registration and participation levels. They are pushing the envelope on political involvement."

During the last presidential campaign, Republican strategists hoped black pastors would embrace George W. Bush's faith-based initiative. The plan seeks to fund social service programs through private groups, such as churches. Harris said participation in the initiative may have had the effect of "silencing some black activist pastors who accepted money and now cannot be vocal in criticizing or praising the president."

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. agreed. "We have pastors who will not speak to power with conviction because they have their partnerships," he said.

"If they praise too much, they look like sellouts. If they criticize too much, they risk the funding."

Note: This article first appeared in The Dallas Morning News

Thursday, August 12, 2004

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