The Long and Winding Road: George W. Bush and the African-American Churches

Joseph M. Knippenberg

October 1, 2004

With little fanfare back in late August, two groups of African-American pastors announced their support for the reelection of George W. Bush. In Washington, D.C. on August 20, a group of eighteen pastors from across the country signed on to the National Faith-Based Initiative Coalition. Less than a week later, twenty pastors in Oakland endorsed President Bush because of their opposition to same-sex marriages.

In so doing, both groups joined a handful of other African-American religious supporters of the President, chief among them Reverend Herb Lusk of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, who played a prominent role in the 2000 Republican nominating convention, and Bishop George D. McKinney of San Diego, who is co-chair of the Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches of North America. President Bush also counts as close friends and spiritual confidantes Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church (the single largest congregation in the denomination) and Dr. Tony Evans of Dallas’ Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship.

For President Bush, who captured only 8% of the African-American vote in 2000, these are potentially very significant supporters. After all, historically pastors have been among the most important leaders of the African-American community. And their churches have long served as centers of political mobilization, a fact long noted and exploited by Democratic Party strategists. (Indeed, you will likely find John Kerry in an African-American church every Sunday between now and the election, and it is only in these churches that he invokes religion either in support of his positions or to criticize his opponent.)

That is not to say that the pastors who support President Bush will necessarily bring their congregations with them. Herb Lusk recently confessed to a Christianity Today reporter that views in his congregation were mixed; the best that could be said about his daughter, for example, is that she’s "still deciding." Similar stories abound: Reverend Ron Sailor, Sr., of 2,500 member Christ the King Baptist Church in Dacula, Georgia, has one son (also a pastor) who is a prominent Democratic member of the Georgia state legislature and another who serves on the national steering committee of African-Americans for Bush. Reverend Deanna M. Petit-Sailor, who pastors Christ United Methodist Church in Inkster, Michigan, supports President Bush; her husband is a staunch Democrat.

Nevertheless, the willingness of these pastors to speak out on behalf of Bush may be an indicator of a modest movement away from the Democrats among African-American voters. A Pew poll conducted in late September found 12% support among African-Americans for Bush—not appreciably different from Bob Dole’s share of the vote in 1996—but a surprisingly low 73% level of support for John Kerry. John C. Green’s "American Religious Landscape" poll (completed in May, 2004) showed a six point decline in African-American Democratic identification from 1992 to 2004 (from 77% to 71%).

When he spoke to the Urban League back in July, President Bush asked his audience if it were "a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party?" Introducing a series of questions frequently punctuated by applause, he asked whether "the traditional solutions of the Democrat party [have] truly served the African American community." Citing such programs and issues as the faith-based initiative, government support for homeownership and small business, education reform, the state of the traditional family, the "culture of life," and "a tireless fight against crime and drugs," he urged his listeners to "take a look at my agenda."

The press conferences called by African-American pastors suggest that at least some have taken a closer look and have liked what they see. This isn’t altogether surprising: the Pew Center noted a couple of years ago that there are remarkable parallels between positions taken by white and African-American evangelical Protestants. African-American churchgoers are, on the whole, very socially conservative, opposing gay marriage (for example) by a wide margin. And they have been more supportive of the President’s faith-based initiative than any other single constituency.

But polls also suggest a very wide gulf between white and black evangelicals on the meat and potatoes economic issues, with the latter being much more comfortable with a substantial role for government. Furthermore, despite their opposition to gay marriage, a significant majority (71%, according to an August, 2004 Pew Center poll) of African-American voters do not regard it as an important political issue. By contrast, 67% of evangelicals who regularly attend church say that gay marriage is a very important issue for them.

For those who wish to regard this glass as half full, it is worth noting that 26% of African-Americans think gay marriage is an important issue. If half of them voted for Bush, he would almost double his share of the African-American vote. Such a modest uptick could tip a close state into the Bush column.

Nevertheless, as they have conceded, President Bush and the Republicans have a long way to go. Alphonso Jackson, Bush’s HUD Secretary, was booed when he spoke to the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans earlier this year. His response? "I am pleasantly pleased that I didn’t get more. I have spoken in churches where I got called names." The middle-aged African-Americans attending this conference are set in their ways, he said. "Young black audiences less than 45 years old pay great attention to what I am saying. They’re more interested in economics than emotions. What you saw today is a typical emotional response."

Let me make a very safe prediction: on Election Day, George W. Bush will not get the 30% of the African-American vote he got in Texas in 1998. He will likely do better than he did in 2000 for three reasons. First, John Kerry has only recently recognized that his most important religious constituency is in the African-American churches, not in the left-wing sanctuaries near college campuses. Second, Kerry cannot in any way, shape, or form duplicate Bill Clinton’s performances in those settings. And third, while Bush is no Clinton, he does know how to talk the talk to evangelical audiences.

But like Alphonso Jackson, I’m hopeful for the future. Two years ago I argued that the faith-based initiative provoked so much Democratic opposition because it held out the promise of fundamentally changing the relationship between the needy and the state. Individuals embraced and assisted by a loving community would not long be clients of a welfare bureaucracy. Individual self-reliance—especially when embedded in a vital and vibrant community—is a good thing in itself. It’s bad only for those who want to rely on their clients for votes. And it may prove also to be good for the party that facilitated that independence. Not necessarily this year. But we can, I hope, be patient.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.