Black church study classifies few congregations as activist

Report finds clergy in wide disagreement over political issues

April 20, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Three decades after the height of the civil rights movement, fewer than 10 percent of African-American churches can be considered activist congregations, deeply involved in public policy issues including education, welfare reform and affirmative action, according to a national survey released yesterday.

Black clergy are also sharply divided over such issues as welfare reform, school vouchers and government grants to faith-based institutions for charitable work, the survey showed. At the same time, the poll, conducted by a researcher based at Morehouse College in Atlanta, showed an increasing involvement by black clergy and churches in electoral politics.

The survey of 1,900 clergy from across the country is part of the preliminary findings of the Public Influences of African-American Churches Project at Morehouse. The findings were released at the beginning of a three-day conference with researchers and church leaders on the civic role of churches and church leadership.

The project is one of several studies of the nation's diverse religious traditions funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia.

According to the survey, fewer than a quarter of the clergy, about 90 percent who identified themselves as pastors, reported that their congregations had been directly involved in the past 10 years with any of a list of public policy issues, said the Rev. R. Drew Smith, project director.

Fewer than 10 percent of a sub-sample of 300 clergy indicated they frequently lobbied public officials or frequently participated in the activities of advocacy organizations, Smith said.

"We seem to find there is a small cohort of activist churches at the forefront of public policy where African-American churches have been involved," Smith said at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

Smith noted one exception to that pattern: About 40 percent of the congregations said they had been engaged in education policy.

About 29 percent said they were involved in civil rights work and about 25 percent said they had been active at some level with welfare policies.

But even on these issues, there is a diversity of opinion among clergy. A quarter of those surveyed in the smaller sample said they strongly favored vouchers that would use public tax dollars for private education, while 46 percent strongly disagreed with the policy. When asked about programs like President Bush's faith-based initiative, which would direct federal money to religious institutions that provide social services, 21 percent strongly favored the proposals; 39 percent strongly disagreed.

Smith also found that a growing number of churches appear to be devoting their resources to the electoral process. About two-thirds of the churches indicated they have assisted with voter registration drives in the past decade, and half gave voters rides to the polls on Election Day.

At a town meeting that accompanied the release of the survey, several clergy decried the lack of activism among their church colleagues. The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Pentecostal minister from Dorchester, Mass., who has been publicly supportive of President Bush's faith-based initiative, was suspicious of the clergy's self-reporting of their social activities, saying they tend to "over-report and under-perform."

As an example, Rivers recalled a conversation with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in which the Massachusetts lawmaker acknowledged that black churches had almost no input on the discussion on welfare reform. Rivers contrasted that with the lobbying by the National Council of Catholic Bishops. "They were in everyone's face on the welfare reform act," he said.

The Rev. Barbara Reynolds, a pastor and syndicated columnist, decried the excessive emphasis on praise and worship in churches, to the detriment of social action. "I see all the showmanship and the showwomanship. I think it's a scandal," she said. There is no mention, for example, of misogynistic lyrics in hip-hop music, or the crisis of AIDS in this country or in Africa.

"You can go from pulpit to pulpit, church to church, you don't hear a discussion of AIDS," she said. "Because when it comes to sex, it's like the `Silence of the Lambs.'"

But Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by his father, said even during the civil rights era, only a small percentage of black churches were the most actively engaged.

But he acknowledged that churches could do much more. "If our churches were doing their jobs, every issue that affects the African-American community would pretty much be resolved," he said.

The Rev. William Whatley, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Newark, N.J., and black church liaison of the National Council of Churches, cautioned that the church's mission is at its core religious, not political or social.

"We can never forget the vision of the congregation and the pastor is to come from another place other than public concerns," he said.

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