MAXWELL:  Black churches’ bad tradeoff

4/10/2005 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

In trying to figure why so many black pastors are adopting issues and causes dear to white evangelicals, I realized that, more often than not, these black pastors hope to score points with the Bush administration and, therefore, increase their chances of winning big bucks from the president’s “faith-based initiatives” program.

With their own church-sponsored social programs costing large sums, some black ministers are lining up for a federal handout. For his part, Bush, along with other Republicans, gets the conservative black Christian vote.

What is the tradeoff in this scenario? What is the cost to the black church’s traditional mission and its viability in the communities it serves?

Second only to the family, the black church always has been the most significant institution in African-American life. Until recently, the concerns of the black church and those of the black community were indistinguishable. When, for example, lay residents put issues such as health care, unemployment, education, crime and health insurance at the top of their agenda, the church concurred.

Now, as many ministers pursue federal money for their faith-based programs, some congregations are morphing into hotbeds of conservatism. One pastor, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., of the Hope Christian Church in College Park, Md., sashays around the nation touting a GOP-lite scheme he calls a “Black Contract With America on Moral Values.”

His priorities _ abortion and same-sex marriage _ typify those of his peers who have aligned with Republicans.

Similar motivations may have spurred Jesse Jackson’s belated intrusion on the circus surrounding Terri Schiavo. Jackson used to be the most insistent voice urging the Democratic Party to stay focused on issues of social and economic justice. But in Pinellas Park, Jackson literally put himself arm-in-arm with leaders of the Christian conservative fundraising machine.

Liberal pastors, such as William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, argue that black neoconservative ministers have bought into a phony, white evangelical agenda that sidesteps reality and tramples compassion and common sense.

“My position on same-sex marriage is not that it is the sole determinant on moral issues,” Shaw told the New York Times. “Marriage is threatened more by adultery, and we don’t have a constitutional ban on that. Alcohol is a threat to the stability of the family, and we don’t have a constitutional ban on that.”

Shaw and other liberal clergy believe that the same old intractable problems still plague the nation’s black communities. These problems, liberals say, should be addressed without the distraction of empty words and red herrings such as a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

I cannot think of another problem more pressing than the black male’s failure in our public schools and colleges, as shown in the findings of “Public Education and Black Male Students: A State Report Card,” a 2004 report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. The report tracks school districts’ graduation rates for black males nationally.

Following is a short list of districts and their rates: Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, 19 percent; Chatham County, Ga., 21 percent; Rochester, N.Y., Milwaukee, Wis., and Pinellas County, 24 percent; New York City, 26 percent; Buffalo, N.Y., 27 percent; St. Louis, 28 percent; Duval County, 29 percent; Chicago, Clayton County, Ga., 30 percent; Oakland, Calif., 31 percent; Hillsborough County, 32 percent; Indianapolis, Orange County, Fla., and Palm Beach County, 33 percent; Caddo Parish, La., and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., 34 percent.

Fewer than 1 in 5 black males graduate from high school with the so-called necessities _ college prep courses and a demonstration of “basic literacy” _ to be considered “college ready.” Black males are expelled, suspended and failed at rates five times higher than that of other groups.

Where are the conservative pastors in this crisis _ one that potentially can make the black male even more of an endangered species? Right-wing bromides and hateful rhetoric will not eradicate this crisis.

Properly educating black males should be at the top of the black church’s agenda. But it is not.

If black men are not attending college in respectable numbers, where are they? Too many are behind bars. According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 5 percent of all black men, compared to 0.6 percent of white men, are locked up. In many states, especially in the South, the figures exceed the national average. In 12 states, more than 10 percent of black men ages 18 to 64 are incarcerated. The same percentage is true for those ages 20-29.

Where are black churches in this crisis? Far too many are positioning to grab faith-based money to conduct programs inside jails and prisons. Such work is the easy part. The hard work is on the outside, in the free world where ex-cons need family, community and church support and jobs to normalize their status.

In too many communities, black churches _ having adopted the warped theology of white evangelicals _ shun these men and berate them from the pulpit.

And, now, black America faces the AIDS/HIV epidemic, which threatens our existence as a viable group. The infection rate statistics are frightening. In 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while blacks were 12 percent of the nation’s population, they accounted for 54 percent of the new AIDS cases. (Black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are more likely to die of AIDS than any other illness.)

Homophobic from its inception, the black church has gone AWOL in the AIDS crisis by joining hands with white evangelicals in order to get faith-based lucre.

The major tradeoff is a cynical and self-destructive one: Black men _ already scarce in the pews _ are being pushed further away from the church, the one institution that could make a positive difference in their lives.

Faith-based initiatives will not save black men. They will be saved by initiatives that are based on sincerity, common sense and reality.

Former Times columnist Bill Maxwell is scholar-in-residence at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.