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Black Power, Revisited

How conservative African-American ministers are changing the political landscape.


The morning service is accentuated with jazz — sparkling Memphis jazz accented by the bass guitar and the easy, feathery tapping of the drummer's cymbals. As members of the congregation sway gently, a restrained Bishop Gerald O. Glenn gives off a humble glow, not unlike the bluesman who awakens to find that his woman has, well, left him.

On a warm Sunday morning in November, the scene befits the iconic pastor of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church, who is addressing his congregation for the first time since Election Day. The church is packed to the gills with more than 1,000 members in attendance; there's a gleeful buzz bouncing around the room; and the ladies are cooling themselves with wooden-handled paper fans passed out by the ushers.

But the shepherd has to get something off his chest. Glenn is an imposing figure, his calm, gentle voice idling softly as he leads the church through a rundown of church business. He tells them that Sen. George Allen, whom he endorsed during the campaign, phoned the day before to thank the bishop.

Political pundits and, of course, black Democrats would say Glenn's endorsement of Allen was simple opportunism. Glenn clearly thought Allen would win, and therefore decided to jump into the fray and position himself and his cause at the forefront of Allen's image makeover. State Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III, one of Richmond's highest-ranking black Democrats, said he did the same in the name of funding for black colleges.

"There is some opportunism going on," clarifies the Rev. Dwight C. Jones, pastor of First Baptist Church South Richmond, and a Democrat in the House of Delegates. "I think that they thought [Allen] was going to pull it out and be able to get the spoils from it — and it was mistake."

No doubt Glenn and Allen are stange bedfellows. In three of his four years as governor, Allen, after all, signed a proclamation designating April as "Confederate History and Heritage Month" a proclamation that Glenn railed against in 2000. But this fall, Glenn had a change of heart, tossing his considerable influence behind Allen — who as a high-school student sported a rebel flag lapel pin, who as a U.Va. quarterback allegedly called his black teammates "n — gers," and who as senator infamously referred to a Webb campaign worker as a genus of monkeys.

Glenn leaves no question where he stands at the Nov. 19 service.

"I ain't taking nothing back," Glenn barks, raising his voice above the jazzy din. "I don't walk away from something just because it isn't popular!" Some stand to show their support, arms outstretched, their heads bobbing in approval.

Most of them are Democrats, card-carrying Democrats who helped usher in Allen's opponent, Jim Webb. But Glenn offers no apologies.

"We're going to be moving into some areas that will make some people uncomfortable," he says. "Jesus was not politically correct."

Glenn certainly isn't. The pastor of this 2,500-member African-American church on the eastern edge of Chesterfield County, off Turner Road, has become the face of a new power in the black community: the Republican minister. An Army veteran who worked as a police officer in his previous life — he also served as director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice under former Gov. Jim Gilmore — Glenn is a steadfast conservative. He believes in reinstating the draft, thinks longtime Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott doesn't care much about churches and is fond of Ronald Reagan. Glenn says the Democrats have taken the black community for granted.

"They can always count on the good ol' colored folks to vote for the Democrat. The Democratic Party has to bear some responsibility for that," Glenn says. "In my police jargon, that's no less than contributory negligence."

There are others like him. In what used to be a purely Democratic stronghold, black churches in Richmond are finding themselves increasingly at the political crossroads. One of the largest congregations, the Rev. Steve Parson's Richmond Christian Center, with more than 4,000 members, is filled with conservative-leaning Democrats, their focus on family and hard work straight out of the GOP bible.

"There are quite a few blacks who vote Republican and have conservative ideals. A majority of the people in our church have those conservative views," Parson says. "I'm a Christian first, and I'm a black person next.

"Yeah, if you got to put a tag on me, I vote Republican."

Glenn weaves his conservatism throughout the service. It's about family ultimately, and African-Americans understand this better than anyone. He pounds his message home by asking the men in his congregation with daughters to stand. Would they mind if their little girls were "shackin' up" with their boyfriends? The hands stay down. How many would prefer their daughters marry instead? The hands go up.

In a bit of twisted logic, Glenn uses this to rile up his congregation — in the name of preserving the institution of marriage.

"Even a dog can make a puppy, but that don't make him a husband," he preaches, pulling out the proverbial mirror: African-Americans may consider themselves liberals, but on the issues that matter most, they pull to the right. In fact, gay marriage may have been the defining issue for the black community in this election, one more powerful than Allen's racial insensitivity, the war in Iraq or even the economy.

On this Sunday, it's the only issue that Glenn's followers jump out of their seats for, raising their hands toward God.

The message appears to be getting through. Churchgoer Sylvester Preston, a longtime Democrat wearing a pleated tan suit with a matching feathered fedora, says he was so conflicted between Webb and Allen that he couldn't bring himself to vote. "I grew up all my life as a Democrat," he says. "If you want to do it right, you've got to look at the good book. To me there is only one God."

Glenn's endorsement of Allen left Preston in a quandary. He found his religious beliefs merging with his politics.

Voting for Webb would have meant voting "against God," Preston concludes, because Webb didn't support the marriage amendment. On the flip side, he wasn't ready to vote for Allen either, even with Bishop Glenn's endorsement. "I didn't vote for either one because I couldn't make up my mind," he says.

When pressed, however, his passion clearly pushes him toward the Republican, who supported the ballot amendment banning gay marriage.

"I don't care if [Webb] can turn this country around," says Preston, a truck driver for Performance Food Group, who is part of the church's Sunday morning security detail. "When he says that he supports gay marriage … I'm not going against God, and that's going against God."

While the black vote clearly went Democratic on Nov. 7 — exit polls show 90 percent of African-Americans voted Democratic — the conservative movement within the black community seems to be gathering steam. Allen didn't make the gay marriage amendment a central focus of his campaign, something that veteran campaign watchers say may have cost him the election. Clearly, it would have swayed more black votes.

The black vote certainly came through this year for Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a nonpartisan advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of often widely labeled conservative issues. This year, the organization championed the gay marriage amendment, an issue widely associated with the GOP, but one she says had broader appeal.

"We always knew that marriage is an issue that crosses party lines, racial lines and faith barriers," Cobb says. "We sought to work with people from all backgrounds because we knew the marriage issue unites."

In fact, black churches played a vital role in the grass-roots campaign against gay marriage in Southwest Virginia, says Roger Pogge, project manager for

"They were key," Pogge says of the black congregations. Cobb, who worked closely with Pogge's group to get out the anti-gay-marriage vote, concurs.

"The response to this issue was overwhelming," she says. "There was no question as to support; the pastors in these communities were often the most vocal. We had folks that were anxious to tell their friends and neighbors."

In the end, CNN exit polls showed 56 percent of Virginia's black electorate voted for the amendment, proving, Cobb says, that "there are so many issues that cross a racial divide, so to speak."

While touting these issues as points of consensus, Cobb isn't ready to concede a broader shift to the right for black voters. "But I think that we saw that on an issue, they voted their convictions, and we hope this is a trend that will continue," she says.

The Republican Party has been reaching out to so-called black conservatives for the better part of a decade, but only in the past decade has the black GOP grown its ranks and influence. It's a natural fit, says Courtney Malveaux, head of the Richmond chapter of the Republican Party of Virginia. "Polling data shows that the African-American community more strongly favors restrictions on abortion, favors traditional family structures including traditional marriage, [and] school choice is certainly an excellent issue," he says.

Still, the party is slowly recognizing that winning over black conservatives also means becoming the party of "economic opportunity." Think Reagan's trickle-down economics without all the focus on giving tax breaks to the rich.

"Most people right now probably think conservatism is about religiosity, about the same-sex marriage issue, or in the case of fiscal conservatives, about safeguarding what you already have," Malveaux says. "That's not the full picture of conservatism by a long shot. … A lot of the differences that people see are the products of the differences of class, and there is still an economic divide.

"Conservatives and Republicans can appeal to the African-American community if we lead with issues, and if those issues speak to opportunity."

The economic divide may be the biggest, and most significant, obstacle for the GOP to overcome in the black community, the very reason most still cling to their Democratic roots. Even as the overall economy appears healthy, there's no denying the widening gap between rich and poor.

Median household income for families with people of working age have continued to fall — today, those families are bringing $3,000 less than they were five years ago after adjusting for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute. This hits particularly hard in the black communities, where those of working age tend to have less education and work in lower-paying and blue-collar jobs, jobs that are moving overseas and being eliminated at home amid technology gains.

At Glenn's church, many in the congregation hold jobs at Philip Morris, and he makes reference to the tobacco giant on more than one occasion during the service. When pressed, the members of the church admit they still lean Democratic, because it's the party of "lower-class people," says Deacon Lindsey Lockett. Ditto for Margaret Bates, an usher at New Deliverance, one of six female ushers resting their feet in the sanctuary hallway during the Nov. 19 service. By 11:30, Bishop Glenn is in all his fire-and-brimstone glory, each swing of the door fills the hallway with his powerful voice. She chuckles knowingly at Glenn's politics.

"To each his own," Bates says of Glenn's Allen endorsement. "But it seems like the Democrats are for middle-class folks."

In fact, some see this new breed of black Republicanism as capitalizing on a weakening black political base. The weakening started, oddly enough, with former President Bill Clinton, whom blacks supported overwhelmingly, says Avon Drake, associate professor of African-American politics at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Clinton, in essence, made race less of an issue for blacks.

"Clinton's language was always sympathetic to the black population. Clinton opened up to black leadership," says Drake, pointing to two key issues that show black politics are less racial: affirmative action and welfare reform. Clinton was opposed to "quotas" and pushed hard for welfare reform, which many "liberal whites" thought was anti-black, says Drake. But the black community didn't flinch.

"They supported Clinton's welfare-reform position," Drake says. "Many blacks have long felt that welfare has had a negative impact on the community. It didn't cut welfare off from blacks right away, and it also opened up the opportunity for blacks to get a skill." Enter Clinton's likeability within the black community, and the racial component that could have ignited the issue was defused.

"It's not always what you do, it's the way you do it," says Drake. "Clinton at least acted like he was doing it for a positive reason."

Statistics show that blacks may also embrace charter schools and breaking the bureaucracy of public schooling if given a choice, says Malveaux, which is something Democrats traditionally oppose.

"Right now, school bureaucracies trap children in unsafe schools in designated districts," Malveaux says. "School choice is about opportunity. Most African-Americans grading their schools would give their schools a grade of C or lower, and most would send our children to charter schools or private schools if we had an opportunity."

All of these trends are pushing the black community to have stronger ties with the church. Glenn's church already operates a private academy, pre-kindergarten through third grade, and Parson's congregation operated a similar school until the funds dried up earlier this year. Financially, both churches are quite healthy.

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has already been in touch with Parson's church. Nationally, the federal office is still reeling from the controversial departure of one of it's top directors, David Kuo, who recently authored a book, "Tempting Faith," claiming the Bush administration used the office to manipulate religious organizations for political purposes.

Now, though, the federal office of faith-based initiatives is attempting to reach out to the black community. In a recent national survey of more than 750 churches by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, researchers found that less than 3 percent of majority black churches were benefiting from the federal program, which earmarks more than $2 billion a year in funds.

Parson has been meeting with federal officials and is hoping to tap into the federal fund as he makes his push to gain control of Cloverleaf Mall in Chesterfield County, where he still hopes to build a 5,000-seat sanctuary amid a major retail and office development. The development would be handled by the church's residential arm, the Southside Community Development and Housing Corp.

But that's precisely what goads Drake. The promise of federal monies from a Republican administration means black ministers may be willing to compromise their politics — and that's not good for the black community, he says.

Ever since Robert F. Kennedy picked up the phone in 1960 and called Coretta Scott King, promising the release of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from a Georgia prison cell, the political power of the black minister has grown exponentially. More so than at mostly white suburban churches, the black minister has an enormous amount of influence over his flock, Drake points out.

"They urged their congregations to vote for Kennedy. Then it was clear," Drake says, "the minister had a lot of influence over the black church."

Shortly after the Nov. 19 service, the churchgoers at New Deliverance gather outside — the temperature already approaching 70. Wide smiles abound when the topic of Glenn's political leanings arises.

"I'm going to be very candid with you — I'm a Democrat," says Veronica Hicks, who operates a group home called Dott's Place. But she admits she voted for Sen. Allen, primarily because of Glenn's endorsement. She's also "definitely thinking about changing" parties and becoming a Republican.

But she's quick to insist that she also voted on the issues. "There was something related to economics," she says. When pressed for specifics, however, Hicks comes up short: "I can't exactly remember."

But at its core, the "weakening" black political base described by Drake offers a window of opportunity for the Republicans, something that could be exposed more prominently in 2008. It's something that Drake doesn't like to acknowledge.

"Republicans have never taken advantage of the potential black vote that they could garner," he says. "What I do see is some small changes in the political unity of the black community."

What's clear is that racial unity is being supplanted with family unity.

Sunday morning service at the Apostle William Carter's home on Dumbarton Avenue in Henrico County is case in point. A somber affair, church members gather on sofas in the family room while the Rev. Carter, founder and head of Cross of Calvary Deliverance Ministries, takes his post on a blue folding chair near the kitchen.

Plans for the ministry are discussed as congregants ask advice on spiritual matters and community outreach. The church is small, but intentionally so, according to Carter, whose ministerial focus is on bolstering the family structure.

It's the black community's innate focus on core family unity — historically perhaps the most important tie in the African-America community — that makes it so important to future conservative election strategies, Carter says.

"There is a large conservative face in the black community," Carter says, declaring the Republican Party's failure so far to tap into that natural resource a result of the party's "own racism that chases African-Americans away."

But even confronted with this undercurrent of perceived racism, some black voters are increasingly inclined to vote for what they see as the lesser of two evils. "There's a whole lot of us who are furious about things that have taken place in America," he says. "We don't want to see America go in a certain liberal direction."

Carter, an ardent George Allen supporter during the election, says he was willing "to sacrifice the [black] caucus because of the marriage amendment."

So, too, were his congregants.

Marie Marsh, 27, is a single woman who says she's "recovering from a life of illegal activities." She says that like herself, black voters — and the African-American community at large — are looking for structure and an example to live by.

She and others at the service in Carter's home say they are a long way off from identifying themselves as Republicans. But whether they are issues voters is hardly in doubt. Even black candidates don't get automatic loyalty from this small group.

"I don't owe a black person a loyalty that says because they're black, I'm voting for them in exclusion of the issues," says Carter to the nods of his flock. "That's not how it works for me. That's not how it works for most people." S

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