Race to the Right

Recruiting blacks will force the Christian Coalition to confront the tension between its two goals: to be religious and to control the political agenda.

Image: Antonin Kratochvil

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When the Christian Coalition decided in 1994 to woo black voters, it turned to Hollywood and hired a former Disney marketing executive, Stephan Brown.

Brown’s tenure in the job was brief and unsuccessful; within 18 months, he was asked to resign. The problem? Marketing, Brown says. The coalition, usually an eager seeker of publicity, was keeping a remarkably — and to Brown, foolishly — low profile on its new endeavor. Coalition leaders refused, for instance, to make hay of the eviction of Alan Keyes, the black Republican presidential candidate, from the March 1996 GOP debates in Atlanta. To Brown, that was a no-brainer. “The PR opportunity that existed there — to stand up strong for a black man — was to me irresistible.” The coalition recruited blacks, paid their way to its conferences, and welcomed them to its annual get-out-the-vote Road to Victory conferences. But it kept all this activity very quiet.

How things have changed. Last June, the coalition’s executive director, Ralph Reed, held a highly publicized meeting in Atlanta with civil rights leaders and with several pastors of churches that had burned. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois, he apologized for conservative Christians’ past sins and pledged to raise $1 million to help restore the burned churches. (To date, the coalition has raised some $850,000.)

This past January, Reed went public in an even bigger way. At a press conference, surrounded by black conservatives, he announced the coalition was leaving the “safety of the suburbs” for the inner cities. In addition to continuing its traditional battles over abortion and a balanced budget amendment, Reed said, the coalition was launching a “Samaritan Project,” putting its organizational muscle behind proposals such as economic empowerment zones, scholarship programs for low-income children, and a $500 tax credit for those who donate time and money to poverty-fighting organizations. He also announced that in May the coalition would sponsor a special Congress on Racial Justice and Reconciliation.

Reed’s move was reviled by such critics as the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights leaders. There’s good reason for their cynicism: Coalition members have their roots in the groups that first got involved in educational politics by setting up so-called Christian schools to evade desegregation. The coalition is the successor organization to the Moral Majority, whose founder, Jerry Falwell, attacked Martin Luther King Jr. every chance he got (attacks he has more recently recanted). And this is the crowd that hijacked the 1992 Republican National Convention, cheering on speakers like Phyllis “no more big tent” Schlafly and Pat “take back our culture” Buchanan. “These are the circles that were once bastions of segregation,” says Rice University professor William Martin, a historian of the religious right.

The coalition’s recent record is no more reassuring. “They support tax relief for the rich and welfare for corporations, but cutbacks for the poor,” says Southern Christian Leadership Conference national president Joseph Lowery. “They’re not for accessible health care. They’re not embracing affirmative action. They’re not dealing with capital punishment and racism in the criminal justice system.”

Other religious leaders, however, have voiced a cautious “wait and see” note of approval. “I don’t think the Christian Coalition is insincere,” says Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical preacher. “But they’re not biblical. They’re political operatives, insiders, power brokers. They’re playing hardball politics.”

Even the Christian Coalition’s most sympathetic observers scoff at the notion that the organization is making this move purely out of the goodness of its heart. “There is a huge untapped black evangelical constituency out there, and they don’t have to be in the pocket of Jesse Jackson and the Democratic Party,” says Michael Cromartie, director of an evangelical studies project at the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Reed himself has danced around the question of whether the effort to court blacks is really just a way to garner more votes for conservative Republicans. “An attempt to convince blacks to register Republican would fail,” Reed told reporters at the January press conference, avoiding the obvious point that you don’t have to register Republican to vote Republican.

But reaching out to blacks could win more than just black votes, notes Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard. “The Christian Coalition has always been very astute — especially Ralph Reed — about melding into the larger institution,” she says. “I suspect the real goal is to make it look like they’re not racist in the eyes of swing voters.”

Yet to argue that this outreach is nothing but a cynical effort to advance a conservative political agenda is to miss a much larger, and deeper, point: There are real changes going on here.

Blacks’ loyalty to liberal politics is fading, and it’s precisely the faith-based nature of the coalition that appeals to them, says Yale professor Stephen Carter. “By most measures that sociologists of religion use, African-Americans are the most religious group in the Western world.” Carter says he’s met black liberals who “felt people in liberal political organizations didn’t trust them because they were openly evangelical. They felt their faith was mocked, and if they had to choose between their faith and their politics, they would choose their faith.”

For their part, white conservative Christians around the country have been swept up in a wave of repentance over the gulf separating white and black Christians — a gulf for which they are increasingly willing to admit they carry much of the blame. The church burnings, and the anger and sorrow they unleashed, made this movement visible, but it started earlier. One much-discussed incident occurred in 1995, when Don Argue, the new president of the National Association of Evangelicals, fell to his knees at a conference of white and black evangelicals and asked forgiveness for white evangelicals’ sins against blacks.

If the Christian Coalition, too, has been touched by this deeper movement, then its racial outreach could — just possibly — be more than vote-getting; it could — just possibly — mark the beginning of a real shift in racial and religious politics in this country.

It was in trying to figure this out that I put in a call last fall to Earl Jackson, the Boston-based activist who succeeded Brown as the Christian Coalition’s community development liaison. Given the magazine I was representing, I was expecting roadblocks — to put it mildly. But he returned my call promptly. Yes, he would send me information. And no, he didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t watch him in action.

It wasn’t that easy, of course. Jackson is a spur-of-the-moment traveler. When I flew south in mid-November to talk to Christian Coalition members, I still wasn’t sure my plans to hook up with Jackson would materialize.

As I traveled, the apostle Paul’s words about the church being “one body” rang uncomfortably in my head; I realized I was in much the same boat as the people I was writing about. They, out of their Christian faith, were trying to find common ground with people with whom they shared little except that faith. And I, out of my Christian faith, was trying to find common ground with them. I am a liberal New York Episcopalian, active in a largely gay parish. How on earth was I going to find any kind of shared vocabulary or understanding with Bible Belt Baptists and Pentecostals?

Not easily. I never met so many people so convinced they had a lock on the truth. Janice Johnson, the white legislative director of the Tennessee chapter of the Christian Coalition, sat across the table from me in her spotless kitchen, fixing her eyes on mine. “The answer to injustice lies in the conservatives,” she said. “The liberals have just created more of a problem. Look at the inner city: It’s a matriarchal society. Men are just a hood ornament. It’s a nightmare. And this is the liberal solution.”

The only reason the whole country doesn’t support the coalition, she told me, is that the liberal press lies about it: “The people who oppose us don’t want the truth to get to people.” But Scripture was used to oppose integration, I argued. “I never heard any religious arguments against integration,” she countered.

Gary Ellis, a black Pentecostal pastor from Tennessee who participated in January’s press conference, shared this same, under-siege mentality: “We can be called Bible-thumpers, hypocrites, and extremists, but nobody ever calls gay pride week radical or extreme. People aren’t offended when gays bash Christians, but as soon as Christians say anything negative, they’re called nasty.”

Hezzie Warren, a stocky, black, retired foundry worker who now serves as the associate pastor of Nashville’s Spruce Street Baptist Church, was the only coalition member I met in Tennessee who seemed to see both sides. Like Ellis, he had been eagerly recruited to the coalition’s ranks. “It was exciting, putting Christianity and politics together, and seeing all these true believers coming together,” he said. But the Gingrich revolution scares him. “I felt like if Dole and Gingrich got together, they’d have set black people back 200 years.” In fact, he confessed, he voted for Clinton. “I wanted to slow them down.”

I arrived in Tuskegee, Alabama, to finally meet Jackson, feeling not very Christian and more confused than enlightened. Jackson had come to Alabama to help local Christian Coalition leaders with racial reconciliation. He was holding a series of such meetings, and to judge by the one I attended, his troops need all the help they can get. For the first half of the meeting, Jackson couldn’t get anyone in his entirely white audience to speak up.

It’s not because they don’t care. “I have a real heart for this,” said June Russell, whose husband, Bob, chairs the coalition’s Montgomery County chapter. “But I’ve never understood what to do.”

The meeting produced a few ideas — meetings between black and white pastors, a campaign for school vouchers. But a month later, Bob Russell was still waiting for directives from Jackson before taking any action. “Why can’t you go ahead yourselves?” I asked. “Possibly we could,” he replied, “but Earl is the person on the national level, and I would like his guidance so we know we’re not going off on a tangent.”

I was reminded of the Road to Victory conference I attended, where get-out-the-vote game plans littered the halls. “The reason we have been so successful,” the coalition’s national field director, D.J. Gribbin, told me in December, “is that we are extraordinarily good at telling people what to do next.” But there is no crib sheet for reconciliation.

One of the major obstacles to the coalition’s efforts at reconciliation, even among members, is the perception that the group is nothing more than the Republican Party at prayer. Blacks will not turn to the coalition in any sizable numbers until it shakes that image, says Peter Gomes, the black, gay, Republican minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church. “The Democrats have taken the black vote for granted for over 60 years,” he says, “and as they mature politically, blacks want something to show for that loyalty. But they don’t see the Republicans, who demonize affirmative action, as an alternative. If the Christian Coalition can be seen to be a place that says a curse on both your houses, I think many black people would like to be a part of that third force.”

Coalition officials from Reed on down insist the organization is nonpartisan. But at the Road to Victory conference last fall in Washington, D.C., one Republican politician after another offered wink-wink, nudge-nudge promises of nonpartisanship and then proceeded to lambaste the Democrats.

“Coalition members know, deep in their hearts, that the dead are not raised by politics,” says Michael Cromartie, who says that the coalition should cut the flags and patriotic music out of its Road to Victory conferences. “They should not be confusing the City of God with the city of man.”

Is it possible that reaching out to African-Americans could force the coalition — always uncomfortably poised between religion and politics — closer to the religious side of the balance? To be successful, it must, argues Martin Luther King Jr. historian Taylor Branch. “It would turn the Christian Coalition on its head,” he says. “But if it fails, it will prove what I suspect, which is that they aren’t very religious.”

The day after the Tuskegee meeting produced my first chance to get acquainted with Jackson. Lawrence Haygood, Jackson’s point man in Alabama, drove him down to Coffee Springs to see the Haygood family’s church, to which the coalition had donated $25,000. I invited myself along for the ride.

By his own account, Jackson is stubborn, ambitious, and willful. But there’s something attractive about him, too; his theology may be rigid, but his demeanor is open and soft- spoken. In all our arguing, I never felt bludgeoned. And he can poke fun at himself: Talking of his conversion while a student at Harvard Law School, he told me he reached a point where he couldn’t talk about anything but Jesus. “When I walked down the hall, it was like the parting of the Red Sea. Everyone wanted to get away from me.”

We spent the day arguing over everything from sex to scriptural authority. At one point he brought up the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, which conservative Christians bitterly opposed. Weren’t you shocked, he asked, at the idea of Jesus having sex? Not particularly, I answered, although I couldn’t believe anybody would follow someone as lugubrious as Scorsese’s Jesus. He pursued the issue: Don’t you believe that great art can only be created with the purpose of ennobling and inspiring us? No, I said, I believe great art is created for sheer delight in its creation. As God created the world, I might have added, but I didn’t think he’d buy the analogy. To him, as to most of the folks I met on this trip, the world is not full of the grandeur of God. It is at war with God.

But I was beginning to understand why they feel that way. Jackson has a list of public school horror stories: the day his fourth-grade daughter came home with a sexuality survey that asked if she knew about wet dreams; the disdain that greeted his offer to give a talk about Christianity after the students had heard talks on Wicca and astrology.

What’s harder to take is the black-and-whiteness of their views. Jackson insists he’s not a fundamentalist. But at his church, Bible study sessions have a leader, and arguments about faith aren’t tolerated. “We tell them if they want to do that,” he says, “to go to seminary.”

After dropping Jackson at the airport, Haygood joined me for dessert. He had spent the past 24 hours flattering Jackson and the coalition, as he did again at the January press conference, where he hailed Reed — in a widely quoted remark even Jackson calls “unfortunate” — as the leader the black race has failed to find among blacks. But alone with me, he put on a different face. He mocked the theology of Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition’s founder; he didn’t seem to think abortion or homosexuality was a big deal.

Haygood told me he’s challenging the coalition to live up to the goals Reed sets in his recent book, Active Faith, which pledges to fight for civil rights and care for the poor. “If the Christian Coalition doesn’t move in that direction, it is doomed,” he said. Haygood’s push for aid to organizations similar to the community college he runs led to one plank in the coalition’s platform on inner-city issues: a pledge to raise as much as $10 million to help inner-city churches reach out to at-risk youth.

Haygood may be self-serving (his coalition involvement has gone hand in hand with his fundraising efforts for his college), but his concern for economic issues is genuine and shared by many black conservatives. Alan Keyes told me that conservatives are right to focus on moral issues in the inner cities. But, he added, they also need to focus on access to capital. “Many conservatives don’t understand how the latter translates into the former.”

And that ties in to the question that’s been nagging at me ever since the Road to Victory conference. In some ways, Christian Coalition activists are a very sheltered bunch. They rarely spend much time with people who see things differently. That’s the organization’s whole vote-getting pitch, as I learned when I went to a get-out-the-vote workshop at the Road to Victory conference. We were told: Don’t waste time trying to convince people you’re right; identify the people who already agree with you, and get them to the polls.

But in trying to recruit blacks, coalition members are reaching out to people whose experience of life is dramatically different from theirs. It’s not just that blacks have had to deal with discrimination whites have never faced. They’re also, notes Gomes, more sophisticated than many conservative whites, not necessarily intellectually, but experientially. “Black people have had within their communities a high level of diversity,” he says.

A few weeks later, Jackson and I continue our conversation in his Boston office. I ask Jackson about the Tuskegee meeting and the coalition members’ need to be told what to do. “I am a little concerned,” he admits. “I can’t talk to everybody in every state. But I’m beginning to think I may not see anything happen unless I’m on the ground.”

Christian Coalition officials promised him that their local volunteers would only need to be pointed in the right direction, he says. “I won’t say I’m disheartened, but it has made me spend more time thinking about what I’ve got to do. No one wants to be set up to fail.”

He insists coalition leaders are strongly behind him, though the only one he talks much about is Gribbin, his immediate boss, who is white. “D.J. has been the human face of the Christian Coalition for me,” he says. “I don’t know that anyone else would have been able to persuade me [to take the job].”

Not Reed? Jackson smiles broadly, but says nothing.

Jackson would like to see the coalition take strong stands on issues such as police brutality and economic development. But his approach, like that of conservatives in general, leans heavily on private charity and personal responsibility.

The conservative pitch, as Jackson makes it to me, isn’t — as it’s so often described — about blaming the victim. It’s insisting that there is no need to be a victim. Life is hard, but it’s the only one you’ve got, so go for it. That’s an appealing message, says Gomes. “White social conservatives have been very successful in suggesting that affirmative action is nothing more than another form of servitude, a kind of demeaning of black folk.”

So far, though, the coalition has failed to attract a significant number of blacks. What will it take, I ask Jackson. “Racial justice, however you define it, is going to have to be at the very top of the coalition’s list of priorities,” he says. How does he define it? “Making sure there is equal opportunity, and bringing the full weight of the law on people who engage in discrimination.”

And where exactly does that stand on the coalition’s agenda? He gives me the same you’re-not-going-to-get-me-to-fall-into-that-trap smile he’d used to answer my question about Reed. “It is on the list,” he says after a pause. “I don’t think it’s on the top. Part of my job is to fight to help that happen.”

Will it ever be a top priority? That, of course, is the key question. Though Reed describes the Samaritan Project as “expansive and bold,” it is in many ways just a hashed-over version of proposals that have been floating around Washington for several years now: vouchers; economic empowerment zones; support of faith-based drug treatment programs; a tax credit, not a deduction, for charitable contributions.

Nor is it clear how much of its formidable lobbying power the coalition will actually put behind this project — repeated calls to both Reed and coalition lobbyist Heidi Stirrup produced no response. Jackson, though, predicts that at least some of the proposals will end up as litmus tests in coalition voter guides.

Gribbin insists the coalition is both maturing and broadening. “You will see more of a concern for social justice, for helping the poor outside of the welfare state,” he says. “There is a need to have a social safety net, but you can’t have Americans saying, ÔI paid my taxes, therefore I don’t need to be concerned.’ We need to figure out a way for the community to be linked back into providing for the homeless.”

What if he — and Reed — actually mean it? “A possibility too often given short shrift,” says Rice University’s Martin, “is that Reed may be entirely sincere about this. If we take the views he’s written in his books at anything approaching face value, we see considerable development here.” Still, Martin points out, Reed is severely limited in how fast he can move. “Reed might want to move in a different direction, but he’s pressed from above and below. My guess is that he is at times uncomfortable with the kinds of statements Pat Robertson makes. And at the same time, the range of issues about which the coalition’s members can get worked up is pretty short; and once you get off that short list, they kind of roll their eyes.”

At any Road to Victory conference it is obvious the coalition’s most ardent troops, the brute muscle of the organization, are absorbed not by racial reconciliation but by abortion. About a quarter of the audience at last fall’s conference chose Jackson’s reconciliation panel as the moment to take a coffee break.

It is possible that this lack of hardcore enthusiasm at the grassroots — and not insincerity — is the reason for the coalition’s halting, hot-and-cold approach to this issue. Reed may be having trouble turning this battleship around. The coalition is nowhere near as monolithic, or as tightly controlled, as popularly imagined. It does not have thousands of churches in its back pocket; most conservative pastors are leery of getting deeply involved in politics. Reed’s original pledge to raise money for burned churches through church offering plates fell flat. The organization had to do a mailing to raise the funds.

Even among those members who most ardently support reconciliation, few have begun to count the potential cost of change. “These people are absolutely sincere,” says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank that studies the right wing. “But they’re hampered by an incredible naïvetéZ. They don’t assume they’re going to have to give up any privilege in the bargain.” Real reconciliation, he adds, “is like bungee jumping without a safety cord. There’s cross-cultural dissonance, wildly mismatched expectations, and the risk of saying something that will be completely misunderstood.”

One thing, though, is clear: The left and right paradigms regarding race in America are shaking up, which leads to the most intriguing question of all — what happens if the Christian Coalition succeeds in its goal of attracting large numbers of African-Americans? Won’t that very success force it to change, to reflect the perspective of those it’s recruited? Most of the white coalition members I talked to don’t begin to envision that possibility, but Jackson does. Of the symphony of tensions that make up the Christian Coalition’s racial outreach, that, perhaps, is the most interesting. If Jackson is to be successful in the long term, he must not only reach downward, to the coalition’s troops, and outward, to its hoped-for allies, but upward. He will have to persuade the coalition’s leadership — not just Reed but also Pat Robertson — to change its priorities. That will be worth watching.

Ann Monroe is a New York-based freelance writer. Her last story for Mother Jones investigated Social Security reform plans.


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