WASHINGTON — Escalating its courtship of a politically powerful constituency, the Bush administration is teaming up with some of the nation's best-known and most influential black clergy to craft a new role for U.S. churches in Africa.
The effort was launched last week, when more than two dozen leading African American religious figures met privately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and senior White House officials at the State Department, according to administration officials and meeting participants.
The hourlong session focused largely on how the administration's faith-based initiative could be expanded to combat the spread of HIV and provide help for tens of millions of children orphaned by the epidemic across Africa.
Some of the pastors said it was a matter of national security -- that those orphans were susceptible to recruitment by Islamic extremists unless they could be exposed to churches such as theirs.
The gathering yielded no formal financial commitment from the federal government for the Africa effort. But participants said it marked a new era of engagement by black clergy with U.S. foreign policy.
The Rev. O'Neal Dozier, pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., and a longtime Republican, said Rice's decision to huddle with the pastors gave them a "mandate" to craft Africa policy. He said the group had laid plans to meet again soon with State Department officials.
A senior aide to Rice, James Wilkinson, said the meeting reflected her belief that more African American organizations "need to get involved in the president's Africa agenda." Administration officials described it as a natural step in an Africa policy that has gained heightened priority under Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and in the face of the growing AIDS epidemic.
If it goes forward, the collaboration could result in a substantial expansion of black church participation in the faith-based initiative, from a largely domestic focus to a broader overseas portfolio that pastors believe could make hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars available for the churches to combat AIDS and related social ills internationally.
Rice and the pastors discussed the possibility of establishing an office of faith-based initiatives within the State Department that would direct federal funds for overseas aid to church and community groups, as similar offices have done in other Cabinet agencies.
The meeting reflected the expanding relationship between some of the country's best-known black clergy and the Bush administration -- a relationship that has been nurtured through a White House program that encourages funneling government grants to religious charities.
Illustrating the political benefit of that relationship, White House officials injected some Capitol Hill strategy into the session. They solicited support among the black pastors for controversial legislation that would allow faith-based charities in the U.S. to discriminate in hiring based on an applicant's religious beliefs -- a provision that has spurred opposition from some Democrats and civil rights groups.
"Compassion has a way of cutting across partisan lines," said James Towey, the top White House official in charge of the faith-based programs, who asked the pastors to sign a letter endorsing the legislation.
But rather than lowering partisan suspicions, the meeting raised them. The high-level session occurred the same day that the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus conducted a long-planned outreach meeting with 200 black pastors from across the country seeking to solidify bonds between the Democrats and religious leaders. Some saw the State Department meeting as an effort to upstage the black caucus.
It was the latest sign of increasingly fierce competition between Republicans and Democrats for the support of religious voters, in this case a key element of the Democratic base.
Though past White House meetings have drawn mostly Republican-leaning pastors, the State Department session was broader, attracting longtime Democrats such as Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and onetime United Nations ambassador, and administration critics such as the Rev. William J. Shaw, head of the National Baptist Convention.
The meeting was dominated, however, by evangelical pastors -- many of them, like Bishops T.D. Jakes of Dallas and Charles E. Blake of Los Angeles, known to national television audiences.
White House strategists view black ministers as a path into a voter bloc that has traditionally been Democratic but is conservative on social issues such as abortion, school vouchers and same-sex marriage.
A relatively small group of sympathetic pastors has enjoyed extraordinary access to Bush and his top aides. Now, as the GOP outreach grows wider and more aggressive, some Democrats accuse the White House of expanding the promise of government grants to woo political support.