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,
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
to bring America under one party rule for Republicans. It was
audacious and a textbook case of brilliant political strategy.
The effort succeeded because it was not met with an equally
audacious democratic response. We now have Governor Schwarzenegger
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 towards 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 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.
November 2000, I personally witnessed the emptiness of church
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.”
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
good for us (African-Americans)."
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.