A tug of war is under way inside black churches over who speaks for African-Americans and what role to play in politics, spurred by conservative black clergy who are looking to align themselves more closely with President Bush.
The struggle, mainly among black Protestants, is taking place in pulpits, church conventions, on op-ed pages and on the airwaves, and the president himself began his second term with a meeting in the White House with black clergy and civic leaders who supported his re-election.
Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., the pastor of the Hope Christian Church in College Park, Md., is part of a new breed of leaders who have warmed to the Republican stand on social values. He paraphrases Newt Gingrich as he stumps the country to promote a "Black Contract With America on Moral Values," whose top priorities include opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.
"Historically when societies have gone off kilter, there has been rampant same-sex marriage," Jackson said in an interview. "What tends to happen is that people tend to devalue the institution of marriage as a whole. People start rearing kids without two parents, and the black community already has this incredibly alarming and, if I may say, this shameful number of babies being born without fathers."
Efforts like Jackson's have brought a sharp reaction from other black ministers, who bridle at putting their energies into fighting same-sex marriage.
"Oppression is oppression is oppression," said the Rev. Kelvin Calloway, pastor of the Second AME Church in Los Angeles. "Just because we're not the ones who are being oppressed now, do we not stand with those oppressed now? That is the biblical mandate. That's what Jesus is all about."
At the heart of the debate, church leaders say, is whether to stay focused primarily on issues like job creation, education, affirmative action, prison reform and health care, which have drawn blacks closer to the Democratic Party, or whether to put more emphasis on issues of personal morality.
"I think there is a movement among African-American evangelicals who are extremely concerned about issues of family and abortion, and our leadership has to do something about that," said the Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II of Philadelphia, who was one of the ministers who met with Bush in January.
Most black ministers have long been aligned with the Democrats. But the White House has been reaching out to sympathetic black clergy - through its stand on social issues, its effort to give religious groups more of a role in providing federally financed social services and ideas like Bush's proposed initiative to counter gang violence, a concern of some black ministers who support him, like the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers of Dorchester, Mass.
Although only 11 percent of black voters cast ballots for Bush, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls, conservatives point out that it was still an increase from the 8 percent in 2000, and Republicans seek to expand those numbers.
Some black ministers say the Republicans will not make headway. Asked if issues like same-sex marriage will galvanize African-Americans, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "Well, they didn't make the Top 10 with Moses, and Jesus didn't make mention of them." Still, looking to bolster their own political power, the leaders of four black Baptist conventions representing 15 million parishioners met in January to fashion their first united stand in almost a century on social and economic issues and to bury past differences.
At the end of their four-day session, the ministers called for an end to the war in Iraq and withdrawal of U.S. troops. They declared their opposition to the confirmation of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general. They stated their opposition to making the president's tax cuts permanent, and warned that reductions in spending on children's health care programs would be "immoral."
They say they are trying to counter the growing influence of white evangelicals in national politics. "They have a strong voice now in national politics, and it would seem they are the only voice," the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, said of white evangelicals. "And the challenge to us is to be a voice that is soundly biblically based and that doesn't provide a blanket sanction to government policy as others have done. This is a dangerous time when white evangelicals dictate government policy."
Some conservative black ministers say, however, that they finally feel as if they have a political home. The Rev. O'Neal Dozier, pastor of the Worldwide Christian Church Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., said that for years he had struggled to organize a local ecumenical group of ministers concerned about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, attendance at these meetings has risen considerably, and Dozier expects 200 ministers, black and white, at the next gathering in April.
"I don't think the old guard is that strong now. We're in south Florida, and south Florida is heavily Democratic, yet the pastors I see are beginning to change, and as a result of them changing, it is going to change their flock," said Dozier. "Every social change has to start from the pulpit."