Conservative Black Clergy Make Waves from Pulpit

Black churches, often a bastion of groups calling for change and reform, have seen the recent rise of a few prominent conservative black pastors. In many cases, their work has energized, and divided, their congregation — and the split has spilled over into politics.

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The African-American church has long been the pointy end of the sword in the civil rights movement. Social justice, economic opportunity, access to schools, black preachers and parishioners brought these issues to the streets. But when George W. Bush arrived in the White House, a new kind of black preacher stepped forward, a conservative who looks at those issues very differently, a preacher who feels that home in the Republican Party and is a special guest there.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Let me take you, through the magic of radio, to two different churches on two different Sunday's, hundreds of miles apart. First to Philadelphia and Pastor Herb Lusk preaching that everything comes at a price.

Pastor HERB LUSK (Greater Exodus Baptist, Philadelphia): When you go in any hotel you want because you got money, somebody paid for it. Am I right about it?

(Soundbite of congregation cheering)

Mr. LUSK: When you get a job where there ain't no black people on the job but you, it's because some black person paid for it.

(Soundbite of congregation cheering)

Mr. LUSK: Am I right about it?

(Soundbite of congregation cheering)

HAGERTY: Now off to Atlanta, where Pastor Timothy McDonald is warming to his message.

(Soundbite of church music)

Pastor TIMOTHY McDONALD (First Iconium Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia): (Singing) Somebody paid the price a long time ago. You can't go to the restaurant just because you want to go, somebody paid the price a long time ago.

HAGERTY: Sound similar? Maybe, but listen a little longer and you'll find these pastors are worlds apart. On this Sunday, at Greater Exodus Baptist in Philadelphia, Reverend Lusk has special guests, two men, both of them white, sitting in the second row, not moving a muscle until Lusk points them out.

Mr. LUSK: Focus on the Family, the president of Focus on the Family is here today. Jim, stand up Jim Daley.

HAGERTY: Daley and his colleague, H.B. London, represent perhaps the most powerful evangelical organization in the nation. Focus on the Family is mostly white and Republican. But Lusk tells his congregation that these are brothers, and white evangelicals should be not shunned but embraced.

Mr. LUSK: Listen to me, folks, a house divided against itself cannot stand. And what your pastor's trying to do is to build bridges, not walls but bridges, there are people on the other side that love Jesus just as much as we do.

HAGERTY: It would be hard to imagine anyone from Focus on the Family sitting in First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. Here's Reverend Timothy McDonald preaching with glee about President Bush's plummeting poll numbers. And railing against the discrimination he still sees in society.

Pastor McDONALD: (Singing) This society, it's trying to destroy earth. This system is trying to keep us apart, but God is still in charge.

HAGERTY: There's a battle going on for the heart and soul of the black church. Leading the insurgency, Bishop Eddy Long in Georgia, Harry Jackson in Maryland, Jessie Peterson in Los Angeles and Reverend Lusk in Philadelphia.

Pastor LUSK: The church has no choice but to be on the side of marriage. The church has to be on the side of life. And so if the Democratic Party is pro-gay marriage, then that means that I'm going to be on the Republican side.

HAGERTY: Lusk's story echoes many of the new breed of pastors. He worked in his stepfather's shop next to their house in Memphis, Tennessee, making barbecue sandwiches. He played running back in college and went on to play professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles. Now 53 and leading a 2,000 member church, Lusk has also embraced a different approach to government, a more Reaganesque, get the government off the backs of the people sentiment, which leads him to a different kind of activism.

Pastor LUSK: Active in that we're getting people off welfare, active in that we're finding people good jobs, active in that we're telling people how to get out of debt. We're active. We're in the streets, but in the right places at the right time.

HAGERTY: The '60s approach is dead, he says.

Pastor LUSK: The time of just screaming and yelling and marching without dialogue is, it just doesn't work anymore. I think we have to take another approach.

Pastor McDONALD: That's a bunch of hogwash.

HAGERTY: Timothy McDonald in Atlanta embodies the old style preacher.

Pastor McDONALD: There must always be a dissenting voice and the church and the community of faith has pretty much always been a minority voice. And when we allow our voices to be co-opted by a particular administration or by a particular party, then you become a tool of that party.

HAGERTY: For decades now, black preachers modeled themselves after Martin Luther King and McDonald is one of them. At 51, he's too young to have marched with Dr. King, but he served in the civil rights organization King founded. McDonald says it's fine to cite the Bible about personal morality and responsibility. But he says defending the poor, the widow, and the orphan, that's biblical to.

Pastor McDONALD: There are some pastors, because of their conservative theological training, who believe in this personalized salvation, who believe that everybody should pull him or herself up by their own bootstraps. The problem is there's so many of us in America who don't even have boots.

HAGERTY: McDonald says he's not at all sure that the problems blacks really care about will be solved by sidling up to conservative Republicans and white evangelicals.

Pastor McDONALD: They want African-Americans to support their agenda, abortion anti-abortion, homosexuality issues, definitely against gay marriage. But when African Americans said okay, now we want you to support our agenda, what's going on with our criminal justice system? What's going on with poverty in America? Then again, the evangelicals, they dummy up. They don't have a clue.

HAGERTY: So the lines are drawn, very old lines, according to Professor Fred Harris at the University of Rochester.

Mr. FRED HARRIS (University of Rochester): Ideologically it goes back to the historic debate between W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington around the turn of the century about what to do about the onslaught of racial discrimination.

HAGERTY: Dubois said blacks must demand basic civil rights from the government. Booker T. Washington believed the best way is to earn them. The tension was on both ends and means, social justice versus personal morality, protesting in the streets versus pulling yourself up by the boot straps. The fight then is not just for the soul, but also the vote of African Americans.

Fred Harris says while the Democrats still draw 90 percent of the black vote, they better listen up.

Mr. FRED HARRIS: I think that Democrats, particularly white Democrats, have been quite comfortable in going into black churches the Sunday before the Tuesday election, giving a stop speech and that being it.

HAGERTY: Or as Timothy McDonald puts it --

Pastor McDONALD: One party takes us for granted and the other party just takes us.

HAGERTY: The Republican's full court press began in 2000, when George Bush began wooing black conservatives with his own message of faith and redemption. Day one of the Republican National Convention, which was reputed to have more minority performers than delegates, who appeared but Herb Lusk, preaching from his pulpit via satellite feed.

Mr. LUSK: Mr. Bush, we are praying for you, keep the faith. We love ya. And we love you because we know that you have a testimony.

HAGERTY: Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher says pastors like Lusk are still few and far between. And the GOP is not making inroads, he says. President Bush in 2004 drew a smaller percentage of black voters then Bob Dole did in 1996. All that's happening, Belcher says, is that Republicans have seen an opening --

Mr. CORNELL BELCHER (Democratic pollster): -- where they can try to splinter off a larger percentage of African American votes. I mean, let's be clear, I mean, they're not trying to win a majority of African American votes, nor do they need to win a majority of African American votes. They're looking for targets of opportunity.

HAGERTY: Which, it turns out, isn't such a bad strategy. In the key state of Ohio, for example, 16 percent of African Americans voted for the president two years ago. Ohio had an amendment on the ballot to ban gay marriage and African Americans are the most conservative of all groups on that issue.

In the past, says Joe Watkins, a black pastor and a consultant to the Republican National Committee, Democrats could count on African American preachers to subtly or not so subtly point their members toward the D column.

Pastor JOE WATKINS (Republican National Committee): But that's changing now. The Republicans have taken it upon themselves, very wisely, to reach out to the black community, and specifically, to go to black churches to get the message out and to say, you know what? We believe that you agree with us on a lot of issues. And there's no good reason why you ought not be supporting candidates who agree with you on the issues that you know and we know matter.

HAGERTY: Like abortion and homosexuality. And on economic issues, the Bush White House once again teamed up with black churches and rolled out the faith-based initiative. The idea was to urge churches to compete for government contracts to serve the poor. But some say it's got an invidious effect.

Pastor McDONALD: It's hard to bark when there's a bone in your mouth.

HAGERTY: Pastor Timothy McDonald.

Pastor McDONALD: If you've got a bone in your mouth, you don't bite or bark at the hand that is feeding you and that puts the church at risk. That puts our prophetic role at risk. And those of us who are still sort of on the cutting edge are trying to just share that information with our brothers and sisters and to tell them that the black church is not for sale.

Pastor LUSK: That is real funny. I mean, if I were for sale, it sure wouldn't be for $1 million.

HAGERTY: Herb Lusk says he's happy to receive government money. His church, he says, is much better at knowing how to serve his neighborhood than some remote government agency. As to selling out to the Republicans, he calls it ridiculous talk.

Pastor LUSK: You're talking to a man, who was a professional football player making quite a bit of money and who left that money in the prime of his career. I left it. I left fame, I left fortune, I left resources in order to serve my people. No amount of money will ever change that. I can't be bought.

HAGERTY: Lusk knows he's still out in front of his congregation. He jokes that 99.9 percent of them vote Democratic. He says he's been called an Uncle Tom more times than he can count, but he believes that one day he'll be seen as a pioneer.

Pastor LUSK: 10, 15 years, 20 years from now, we'll have this discussion, and you and I will laugh because what will happen is the numbers are going to change. In the future, I don't think that there will be 90 to 95 percent African Americans in one party. We're smarter than that. It's just going to change. It has to.

HAGERTY: Which is precisely what the Republicans are banking on, thus reviving a debate that is ebbed and flowed since reconstruction. Who represents the soul and the interest of black Americans?

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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