A conservative appeal to black churches for racial reconciliation

February 27, 1997|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Just as it took President Richard Nixon to open the door to China, will it take the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed to open the door between white conservatives and the African-American masses?

Some will find the idea laughable. As the executive director of the Rev. Pat Robertson's very big, influential and conservative Christian Coalition, Mr. Reed has vigorously opposed mainstream civil-rights leaders on such issues as affirmative action and welfare reform.

But the idea of Beijing hosting the notorious red-baiter Nixon sounded laughable, too, until it happened. At least, Mr. Reed has a shorter leap to make than Nixon did.

Mr. Reed has long called on white Christian conservatives to make amends for centuries they spent on the wrong side of black liberation.

In his 1994 book, ''Politically Incorrect: The Emerging Faith Factor in American Politics,'' he wrote that historical cooperation with slavery and segregation ''undermined the moral authority of religious conservatives as they have sought to redress other forms of social injustice -- abortion, euthanasia, religious bigotry -- in recent times.''

To plug the gap, the coalition has announced Samaritan Project, multiracial program to rejuvenate low-income, inner-city neighborhoods.

Conservative compassion

Headed by an African-American, the Rev. Earl Jackson, the coalition's national liaison for community development, the Samaritan Project offers compassionate conservatives a chance to put their money where their mouths are.

Among other ideas, it proposes a new multiracial partnership to revitalize local churches and rejuvenate the national debate on racial justice.

It commits the coalition's members and its network of 125,000 churches to raise funds for partnerships with 1,000 inner-city churches by the year 2000, particularly those churches that are helping at-risk youths.

On racial justice the coalition plans a May conference in Baltimore to which black and white church leaders from across the nation are invited to hammer out an agenda for cooperation ''across racial and cultural lines.''

After the church burnings

In a conference call with me and six other newspaper columnists last week, Messrs. Reed and Jackson said the project was inspired by the organization's successful call for white churches to help rebuild black churches destroyed in last year's wave of church burnings.

So far, they said, they have raised $850,000 and given away most of it in grants averaging $20,000 per church to 40 congregations.

''African-American leaders were far more receptive than I ever thought possible,'' Mr. Reed said. ''I never asked people whether they were Democratic or Republican or liberal or conservative. It has changed us. God took a tragedy and turned it into something good.''

The help could hardly go to a better place. The black church has been the black community's most durable and liberating institution through times much tougher than these. Black church leaders were the core of the abolitionist movement, the civil-rights movement and countless independent, self-help neighborhood housing and social service programs.

Unfortunately, their successes usually wind up on the back pages of local newspapers, if anywhere, making a very small blip the media's or the public's radar screens. The Christian Coalition can bring the communications network that can help black churches feel less isolated.

Society's cynicism

It can also bring public attention that can help change society's prevailing cynicism about the ability of poor people to help themselves. Publicity does have its virtues. Assignment editors who yawn at the efforts of a little church here or there suddenly perk up when Ralph Reed holds a press conference.

On the less noble side, there is no question that conservatives hope the Samaritan Project will improve not only their moral authority but also their political clout. In return, the coalition hopes it can win black support for an array of ideas liberal leaders tend to oppose: school vouchers, a tax credit (not just a deduction) for charitable donations, tax breaks to encourage business investments in depressed areas and vouchers for schools and drug-rehabilitation programs.

Each of these ideas is currently being proposed in various forms in the House by Oklahoma's J.C. Watts, Congress' only black Republican, and in the Senate by Republican Dan Coats of Indiana.

So be it. Black church leaders will have to decide for themselves whether the Samaritan Project is manna from heaven or a Trojan horse. In the meantime, I am delighted, after years of racially polarized national politics, to see conservatives compete with liberals for black support. It's also refreshing to see churches take the lead again for racial reconciliation. We can use a few miracles.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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