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Black Civil Rights Leaders' Real Concern Over Bush's Meeting With Black Pastors

The Black Civil Rights Establishment is shaken. If there was any doubt over this possibility, it was removed late last week after President-elect Bush met with a group of Black ministers in Texas. After that meeting, and for the first time in recent memory, many in Black America's traditional civil rights leadership, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, actually bent over backwards to warn of the dangers of religious leaders working with politicians. This type of talk came from several leaders who do just that, for a living.

The angle being spun by Rev. Jackson and some other civil rights leaders was that it might be dangerous for Black churches to accept money from the state and federal government to solve social problems because the government, in exchange for financial grants, may influence such a religious institution in a manner that is inconsistent with its principles.

We found that reasoning to be peculiar, largely because the most prominent leaders in the civil rights movement have the abbreviation "Rev." in front of their names and because these same leaders have shepherded organizations that have accepted government largesse for years, not to mention the fact that these same "religious leaders" every 2 to 4 years, bring politicians into their congregations and even into their own pulpits to make political pitches to audiences gathered together to partake in prayer and worship services.

Come now. Something else lies beneath this resistance and inertia that has suddenly gripped Black civil rights leaders and Black politicians when the subject of faith-based institutions working with government comes up.

We think we picked up on just what that might be over the weekend, when we tuned in to Both Sides With Jesse Jackson on CNN. The shows title was, "Can Religious Programs Solve America's Social Ills?" and one of Rev. Jackson's guests was Black America's most noted political scientist, Dr. Ronald Walters.

At a certain point in their conversation, Rev. Jackson raised a question regarding charitable choice - a program that was part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, signed by President Clinton, which allows religious institutions to compete for government contracts to provide services that used to be provided exclusively by the Federal government, under the old welfare program.

Here is the exchange (from CNN transcripts):

REV. JACKSON: Dr. Ron Waters, what does charitable choice churches mean?

PROF. RON WATERS, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well first, I think, Reverend Jackson, the whole attempt to meet with faith-based organizations, going around legitimate African-American leaders, really ought to be called into question. Because that's sort of like going in the side door of the black community and not going in the front door. So right up front I think we ought to say that was wrong. That was a tactical error on the part of George Bush to do that.

REV. JACKSON: You mean when he met with congressional leaders in Washington but didn't include the congressional black and Hispanic caucus, congressional leaders, met with religious leaders first, that is suggested to you?

WATERS: That's right, because that's -- that's kind of like winning an election, coming to Washington and meeting with the cardinal or meeting with the head of the Washington Cathedral before you meet with the president or the Congress. No one would do that. They would meet with the political leaders. And our community, our community has a leadership structure with some integrity.

We beg Dr. Walters' pardon on several fronts.

First, is the Doctor suggesting that in the Black community, the Black politician is a more respected, influential and powerful figure than the Black preacher? If he is we can't imagine how he would support that assertion. Second, what makes Black civil rights leaders and Black politicians more legitimate than several of the pastors who attended the meeting with President-elect Bush and who have a noted track record of pastoring congregations into significant levels of self-improvement, and economic and community development? And third, we were not aware, as Dr. Walters seems to be, that their was a leadership hierarchy in Black America that White politicians were obligated to respect and bow to, and if there is in fact such a protocol arrangement how long has this been the case?

And we certainly were not aware of any side door and front door by which those outside of the Black community could enter.

Dr. Walters and several Black civil rights leaders are clearly framing President-elect Bush's meeting with Black preachers as a military maneuver against a "Black nation" which we find interesting, since civil rights leaders, overwhelmingly have opposed Black nationalism more than any group of Black leaders in this country.

Has President-elect Bush now turned Black political scientists, civil rights leaders and politicians into Black nationalists?

Not just yet, we think.

What we read in Dr. Walters' analysis and in the subject and tone of Rev. Jackson's program is that an established community of Black leaders is feeling its grip slip a bit. After a thirty-plus year investment in the Democratic Party, Black civil rights and political leaders are beginning to see diminishing returns. And the recent decision by many Black leaders to meet with Bush is an indication that not every Black leader feels that they have to go through Rev. Jackson and the traditional Black civil rights leadership in order to gain access to the White political establishment. It is certainly possible that President-elect Bush has his own reasons for seeking a partnership with Black spiritual leaders but why is the concept of the prophetic community and political community coming together all of a sudden a problem a problem for Black leaders?

Since the 1960s we have watched Black preachers shuffle up to the White House, particularly after riots, to meet with Presidents, and rarely, if ever to do the advising. Perhaps the strongest argument to be raised against the Black religious community dealing with America's political establishment is the track record of the relationship between Black pastors in the civil rights movement who have allowed themselves to be used by the Democratic Party, the office of the Presidency and members of Congress in exchange for a few crumbs and access and nearness to power.

After all, that really, in large part, is what the Black political establishment has had a monopoly on and is scared of losing - access to White political power. This has very little to do with the supposed concern that Black civil rights leaders have with the blurring of the lines between church and state that the charitable choice program allegedly produces.

We actually have picked up a whiff of envy and jealously in the comments of many Black leaders who oppose the Bush meeting with the Black preachers. We detected the same when Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) publicly stated his admiration, respect and a desire to meet with Nation Of Islam Leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan. It was only several weeks after the proposed meeting became public, and after they were approached by the Nation Of Islam's publication The Final Call, that a handful of Congressional Black Caucus members offered quiet support for the proposed meeting.

This "fear" of the separation between church and state is not the product of independent thinking on the part of Black leaders but rather, is the work of White secular humanists and organizations who hold sway in the Democratic Party, and who will raise a red flag whenever they hear the words, "spiritual"; "faith-based"; "God"; "Jesus"; or "Muhammad".

White secular humanists may have a problem with religion in a political context but the history of this country demonstrates that the Black community shares no such misgivings.

Hopefully Black civil rights leaders, especially those who have achieved their "political" standing by nature of a religious base, will understand this and put the interests of their community ahead of the partisanship, patronage, and access to power that they may have gotten too comfortable with.

Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, December 26, 2000

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