GOP Sees a Future in Black Churches

Social issues are binding the party with a group once firmly in the Democratic camp.

February 01, 2005|Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Black conservatives who supported President Bush in 2004 and gained new prominence within the Republican Party are launching a loosely knit movement that they hope will transform the role African Americans play in national politics.

The effort will be visible today at the Crenshaw Christian Center, one of Los Angeles' biggest black churches, headed by televangelist Frederick K.C. Price. More than 100 African American ministers are to gather in the first of several regional summits to build support for banning same-sex marriage -- a signature issue that drew socially conservative blacks to the Republican column last year.

Before the meeting, one prominent minister plans to unveil a "Black Contract With America on Moral Values," a call for Bible-based action by government and churches to promote conservative priorities. It is patterned loosely on the "Contract With America" that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used 10 years ago to inaugurate an era of GOP dominance in Congress.

A separate group with ties to Gingrich will announce a similar "Mayflower Compact for Black America" later this month in Washington, which includes plans to organize in key states ahead of the 2006 and 2008 elections. And at the end of the month, the Heritage Foundation will cosponsor a gathering of black conservatives in Washington designed to counter dominance of the "America-hating black liberal leadership" and to focus African American voters on moral issues.

Those events all enjoy support from the Republican Party and its allies in the philanthropic and religious worlds. The meetings have a common goal: to foster a political realignment that, if successful, would challenge the Democrats' decades-long lock on the loyalty of black voters.

The effort has proved so successful already that Democrats who make up the Congressional Black Caucus are quietly expressing alarm -- and planning countermeasures.

"I am frightened by what is happening," said Rep. Major R. Owens, an 11-term Democratic congressman from New York who has been conferring with colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus. "Our party is in grave danger. This Republican movement is going to expand exponentially unless we do something."

In the last seven presidential elections, the GOP's share of the black vote ranged from 8% to 11% nationwide.

But by courting conservative blacks in battleground states -- reaching out through programs such as the president's faith-based initiative -- GOP organizers believe they made the difference that secured Bush's victory in 2004. In Ohio, for instance, a concerted effort increased black support for Bush from 9% in 2000 to 16% in 2004, providing a cushion that allowed the president to win the pivotal state outright on election night. The Black Contract With America will be unveiled by Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a registered Democrat from suburban Washington who backed Bush in 2004 after voting against him four years earlier. He was drawn, he said, to the GOP's social conservatism that he thought reflected the true values of black churches.

In addition to such conservative GOP priorities as allowing workers to create private Social Security accounts and banning same-sex marriage, the Jackson contract deals with some potentially dicey issues for Republicans -- such as restoring rights to former felons. The contract, Jackson said, combines the Bible-based elements of the traditionally Republican and Democratic platforms.

"We crafted this based on the issues that are workable within the current Republican administration," Jackson said. "We're dealing with folks that we now have some access to."

Jackson's enthusiasm for working with Washington's Republican power structure is shared by the party's leading strategists. Today's Los Angeles meeting is sponsored in part by the Traditional Values Coalition, headed by the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, a white evangelical Christian with close ties to White House political strategist Karl Rove, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and other senior Bush administration officials.

Mehlman said Monday that he was in close contact with the organizers of each group and was coordinating with Gingrich and other party leaders.

"It may not be 1,000 flowers, but they're blooming all over the place," Mehlman said of the various efforts. "I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for the party to build on what we've done over the past couple of years to improve our performance in the African American community."

Last week, about two dozen black civic and religious leaders who agree with Bush on moral issues visited the White House, where they received the president's thanks and were urged to support his plan to revamp Social Security.

One who attended the meeting, the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers of Boston, said the post-election period marked the beginning of a "significant transformation" among African Americans, a clear move toward the GOP.

Los Angeles Times Articles