Interracial Alliance on the Religious Right

December 05, 1993|By SARA DIAMOND

Critics of the Christian right have long accused the movement of representing all-white constituents who care nothing about the concerns of minority citizens. But surveying the top-ranking evangelical broadcast networks, or attending the evangelical ''mega churches'' across the country, reveals that ''racial reconciliation'' is now the movement's primary mission for the 1990s.

On a recent evening program on the northern California-based United Christian Broadcasting network, black co-host Charlene Jackson told of her experience with a stern-looking Korean grocery-store owner who had refused to exchange money by hand. Her guest, Rev. San Han, explained Koreans' tradition of showing respect by not touching strangers. Explanation gave way to laugh- ter and a brief discussion of the common hardships endured by blacks at the hands of slave masters and by Koreans under Japanese occupation.

Similar frank interracial exchanges frequently air on other Christian broadcasting stations. Trinity Broadcasting Network features black TV evangelists Fred Price, Carleton Pearson and E.V. Hill, who command wide audiences of whites and blacks alike. According to the newsletter Religion Watch, all three are at the forefront of a new generation of preachers guiding televangelism in the wake of the scandals of the late 1980s.

At ''camp meetings'' where born-again Christians spend a few days in resort hotels hearing gospel music and high-powered preaching, Oral Roberts and other evangelical celebrities increasingly share the pulpit with up-and-coming black ministers.

The drive toward racial and ethnic diversity among evangelical Christians is facilitated, to some extent, by the fact that so many diverse groups share common religious ground. When it comes to fervent worship services and reliance on the Bible, Baptists and Pentecostalists have more in common with each other than they do with main-line church goers, irrespective of race. Black and white evangelicals already share a history of denominational styles. And three decades' worth of Roman Catholic ''charismatic renewal'' have also brought some Latino worshipers into closer contact with white Protestant evangelicals.

What motivates many white evangelicals to cross racial and ethnic lines is a genuine concern to redress historic racism. The magazine Christianity Today recently devoted a special issue to airing complaints by prominent African-American ministers about racism in evangelical churches. ''Racism -- in the world and in the church -- is one of the greatest barriers to world evangelization,'' the magazine's co-founder, Billy Graham, argued in a concluding editorial.

Along with the moral imperative, activists also see clear political advantages to reaching out beyond their traditionally white, middle-class constituencies and generating a more ''mainstream'' public image. Christian-right leaders are actively recruiting black clergy, in particular, to promote their political agenda.

The Traditional Values Coalition has produced a home video entitled ''Gay Rights, Special Rights,'' featuring minority clergy who warn that passage of gay-rights laws will undermine the legal status of racial and ethnic minorities. The coalition hopes to strain alliances between black and gay civil-rights groups.

Two years ago, the Traditional Values Coalition mobilized black clergy to lobby against a gay-rights bill in California and in favor of Judge Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. Since then, Pat Robertson's more influential Christian Coalition has adopted its own recruitment strategy based on racial diversity, with an even broader legislative agenda that attempts to link moral and economic issues.

Declaring that the Christian right will no longer ''concede the minority community to the political left,'' Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed recently announced plans to begin advertising on minority-owned radio stations and sending

literature to black and Latino churches. The coalition's Christian American newspaper ran a front-page photo of a black family to illustrate a new poll showing that black and Latino respondents hold conservative views on the issues of abortion, homosexuality, crime, welfare and affirmative action.

A recent report to the American Political Science Association on 1992 voting patterns found that for the first time religious fervor is a better predictor of political participation than religious denomination. But whether the new-found inclusiveness of Christian evangelicals will lead to new political alliances that transcend race remains to be seen.

Sara Diamond is the author of ''Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right.''

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