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Bush Rewarded by Black Pastors' Faith

His stands, backed by funding of ministries, redefined the GOP's image with some clergy.

January 18, 2005|Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

MILWAUKEE — Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, one of this city's most prominent black pastors, supported Democrats in past presidential elections, backing Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

This fall, however, the bishop's broad face appeared on Republican Party fliers in the battleground state of Wisconsin, endorsing President Bush as the candidate who "shares our views."

What changed?

After Bush's contested 2000 victory, Daniels felt the pull of a most powerful worldly force: a call from the White House. He conferred with top administration officials and had a visit in 2002 from the president himself. His church later received $1.5 million in federal funds through Bush's initiative to support faith-based social services.

Daniels' political conversion, and similar transformations by black pastors across the nation, form a little-known chapter in the playbook of Bush's 2004 reelection campaign -- and may mark the beginning of a political realignment long sought by senior White House advisor Karl Rove and other GOP strategists.

Daniels says it was not the federal money that led him to endorse the Republican candidate last year, but rather the values of Bush and other party leaders who champion church ministries, religious education and moral clarity. It was evidence to many religious African Americans that the GOP could be an appealing home.

That's exactly the way many conservative Republican and evangelical leaders hope the faith-based program will work.

"The political benefits are unbelievable," says the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, which helped shape the administration's faith-based strategy and the GOP's outreach to black Christian voters. "The Democrats ought to have their heads examined for voting against this."

The money that flowed to Daniels' church was part of a broader effort inspired by Bush's contention that religious groups can do a better job than government in providing such services as counseling, education and drug treatment. In 2003, the administration awarded more than $1 billion to hundreds of faith-based groups, some of which hadn't received such public funds in the past.

The White House adamantly denies that the faith initiative is a political tool. But the program has provoked criticism that the GOP is seeking to influence new supporters, especially African Americans, with taxpayer funds. The Rev. Timothy McDonald of Atlanta, a prominent black minister with Democratic ties, dubbed the program an "attempt to identify new leadership in the black community and use the money to prop these people up."

There's no question that the faith initiative -- combined with the administration's support for banning gay marriage and promoting school vouchers -- has already helped reshape Bush's image among some traditionally Democratic African Americans. And the change in black support on Nov. 2, though only a 2-percentage-point increase nationwide, helped secure Bush's reelection victory. The gains were greater in battleground states.

In the crucial state of Ohio, where the faith-based program was promoted last fall at rallies and ministerial meetings, a rise in black support for Bush created the cushion he needed to win the presidential race without a legal challenge in that state.

Now, Republicans are plotting further gains using the faith program as one major entry point. Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd says that as early as 2006, Republican Senate and House candidates could win a quarter of the African American vote. The long-term goals, he said, are even more ambitious.

That would be a dramatic rise from the 11% of the national black electorate that went for Bush last year -- a projection that even some of the most enthusiastic Republicans, such as former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, caution could be overly optimistic.

Yet even a modest shift in the voting patterns of the minority group traditionally the most loyal to Democrats could transform the dynamics of American politics, giving Republicans an edge for decades.

Expanding a Tradition

The idea of directing government funds to church-related organizations is as old as the Republic. After the Revolutionary War, taxpayer funds supported church hospitals for soldiers. Government support to church-related charities has continued ever since, and expanded under the Clinton administration.

President Bush wanted to go further, knocking down some of the traditional restrictions on funding religious groups.

The political appeal of this approach was clear one Sunday two weeks before the election in the west-side Milwaukee neighborhood where Daniels' 8,000-member church is located. Lying amid abandoned warehouses and modest homes, the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ is instantly visible, a $25-million complex including a school, health clinic, credit union, senior housing complex and -- soon -- a retail center and water park.

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