Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Is the Black Church Ruining Politics
The Black Church and the Hollowing Out of Black Politics
by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon
"A new generation of corporate-funded and media-anointed Black leaders has grown fat on their ‘faith based" federal subsidies has been raised up."
For some time, the politics of Black America has been the sane left anchor of the wider American polity. The Congressional Black Caucus used to justifiably call itself the "conscience of the Congress." And Dr. King himself once opined that it might be the role of Black activists to "save the soul of America." Sadly, that might be about to change.
Despite the fact that Democratic party leaders have adopted the phony "war on terror" as their own, African Americans who are the party's most loyal constituency, remain overwhelmingly opposed to increased military budgets, to current and further imperial adventures, and the most skeptical of the need for increased surveillance and unchecked police power. African Americans are more in favor of single payer health care, equal funding for public education, and increased federal aid to ensure affordable housing than anyone else. For more than a generation we have been and remain the most likely to join unions, and we have the least confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice regime.
"If this new wave of African American leaders have their way, the politics of Black America will soon ape the undemocratic and bigoted worst of white America."
But while grassroots Black opinion is relatively stable, the politics of Black American "leadership" is definitely shifting. A new generation of corporate-funded and media-anointed Black leaders, among them a fair number of Republican leaning preachers grown fat on their "faith based" federal subsidies has been raised up. They are decisively uncoupling themselves from the progressive tradition of previous African American leadership, and from the Black Consensus itself. If this new wave of African American leaders have their way, the politics of Black America will soon ape the undemocratic and bigoted worst of white America.
Damning evidence of this trend surfaced just before Christmas in an obscure Georgia political journal. Vernon Jones, Black two-term elected CEO of the state's second largest county, was being urged by his advisers to run for Congress in the Democratic primary against freshman Congressman Hank Johnson, the man who replaced Rep. Cynthia McKinney in 2006. Vernon Jones' trump card, according to the advisers, was the backing of prominent Black pastors who would urge their people to vote against the incumbent black representative on the sole grounds that he is a Buddhist. Thus cynical Black ministers are poised to encourage and exploit religious bigotry in Black communities for their own economic and political gain. This is how low the Black church, the historic cradle of grassroots leadership since slavery, has sunk.
Quite apart from his eagerness to ride to Congress on religious intolerance, the political career of Vernon Jones is more than a little odd. A Black Democrat in roughly the same suburban Atlanta district that elected Cynthia McKinney to six terms in Congress, Jones admits voting for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and publicly flirted with switching to the Republican party in 2002 and 2003. The biggest contributors to his current political campaign are the family, employees and lawyers of Mel "you pay a little more, you get a little more" Sembler, a former chief fundraiser for the 2000 Republican National Committee. Sembler is a real estate developer with billions of dollars in projects ranging from big box retail stores to office towers and luxury condos in Dekalb County GA, where Vernon Jones is the county CEO.
Most observers agree that Vernon Jones is only pretending to run a doomed and desultory statewide campaign for the Democratic nomination against Georgia's odious Saxby Chambliss. From his traveling to DC to meet with Chambliss on the eve of his announcement to his posturing as a self-described conservative Democrat, to his support of current and future wars abroad and questionable police practices at home, and his endorsement of the regressive and harebrained "Fair Tax," Jones' stands on the issues place him far to the right of Democratic voters, let alone Black ones in Georgia or anyplace else. That he has nonetheless managed to carve out a political career as a nominal Democrat at all speaks to the hollowness of Democratic party politics, to its distance from the lives and concerns of Georgia Democrats, most of whom are African American.
There is no shortage of political issues that affect African American voters and communities in places like Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago or Atlanta, matters about which they care deeply. But the near disappearance of local news coverage makes those issues invisible. In particular, the absence of news on Black-oriented commercial radio, which reaches more than 80% of African American households, has shriveled and shrunk the space for public discussion of issues inside the Black community to nearly the vanishing point. Ongoing public policies of ethnic cleansing and gentrification, through such means as local tax policies, bond issues and the federal HOPE VI program are being implemented in every city in North America including Atlanta, which has had Black mayors since the mid 1970s. But you will search the broadcast and print media, including Black-owned or Black-oriented media in vain for news and analyses connecting the dots and explaining how public resources and revenue are diverted for these purposes. Similarly, Black opposition to the war in Iraq, though all but universal among African Americans, is virtually invisible even in Black-oriented media.
"The absence of news on Black-oriented commercial radio has shriveled and shrunk the space for public discussion of issues inside the Black community to nearly the vanishing point."
In this context of content-free urban politics, the intervention of right wing Black ministers on behalf of Black candidates flush by corporate and sometimes Republican cash can make political careers and set political agendas. Atlanta's Bishop Eddie Long, whose ministries are believed to have benefited from more than a million dollars in Republican "faith based" government subsidies, has been a vocal supporter of and a consistent donor to Vernon Jones over the years, giving more than the legal limit on at least one occasion. There is no doubt that Eddie Long is one of the local pastors expected to boost Jones from the pulpit because his opponent is a Buddhist.
He won't the only one. In 2006, people close to Bishop T.D. Jakes are said to have proposed a meeting with Rep. Cynthia McKinney offering to support her against Hank Johnson for the same reason - because Johnson was a Buddhist. Vernon Jones has until May to declare what most believe is his real target - the seat once held by Cynthia McKinney. With a ton of money and big-time ministers behind him in the news-free environment of present-day urban politics, he could well succeed.
"Sad to say, quite a few Black ministers will be on board for this," Dr. Kenneth Samuels, pastor of Victory For The World Church in Stone Mountain GA told us. "I can't think of anything more un-Christ-like than targeting a public servant not because of his performance, but because of his religious beliefs. It's un-Christian in that Christ gave his life not for Christians, but for the world."
The same unholy alliance is at work in Memphis TN, where white Rep. Steve Cohen succeeded Harold Ford, who may have been the worst Black congressman ever. Ford rushed to Bush's side to be first to support the invasion of Iraq. He offered himself as the swing vote to Bush's Social Security privatization scheme and, in an attempt to jack his share of the white vote, even claimed his own Black grandmother was white. Ford now chairs the DLC. Organized Black Baptist pastors who supported this clown's career and now endorse Ford's chosen successor Nikki Tinker, have ceaselessly fanned the flames of anti-gay bigotry in their attacks against Cohen, claiming he is utterly unfit to represent Black Memphis in Congress even though Cohen scored better on the CBC Monitor Report Card than half the Congressional Black Caucus.
The fears of those who predicted that billions of dollars in faith-based subsidies distributed by the Bush Administration to churches across the country would build a Republican patronage machine in white constituencies, and severely blunt the prophetic edge of the Black Church, may be coming to pass. Where once Black pastors were among the few who could speak truth to power with little fear of economic retaliation, many may now have ministries with governmental funding streams to worry about, while the least principled among them have been emboldened to ape the talking points and political interventions of white right wing ministers. In the current context, given the flood of corporate money available to pliant African American politicians, and the lack of local news coverage that might facilitate their being held accountable, the interventions of the Black Church into politics only threaten to take those politics further and further away from the desires of African American constituencies.
"The least principled among them have been emboldened to ape the talking points and political interventions of white right wing ministers."
"Some of us in the Church are coming into political involvement from the wrong perspective," concluded Rev. Samuels of Stone Mountain GA. "We've abandoned the models of Dr. King, a Christian, and of Malcolm X, a Muslim, who taught that we are all children of God. God is a God of us all. To approach public policy in a way that seeks to have one's doctrines legalized and mandated into law is antithetical to the tradition of the prophets, who stood for equity, for justice and for liberation.
"Right wing Christians are trying to narrow Dr. King's Beloved Community into a community of Christians alone, and then only a certain type of Christian. It speaks to a lack of spiritual insight, a dearth of theological training, an absence of community focus. We must not let this happen."
Can I get an amen?