When a group of Columbus ministers complained to the Internal Revenue Service that two central Ohio evangelical megachurches were engaged in unlawful political activity, the pastors of those churches countered with a simple question:
What’s the difference between what we’re doing and what black churches across America have done for decades?
“The short answer is that there’s not much of a difference,” said John Green, a nationally recognized expert in religion and politics at the University of Akron. “The black churches have been very political places. They routinely have invited candidates to speak from their pulpits, and there’s a long tradition of political activity.”
The IRS and the Revs. Russell Johnson, of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, and Rod Parsley, of the World Harvest Church near Columbus, won’t comment about whether an investigation has been launched into allegations that the churches played partisan politics, namely by favoring GOP gubernatorial nominee J. Kenneth Blackwell, and thus risked their tax exemptions.
But what Johnson and Parsley did differently from most black churches, Green said, is call attention to their political activities with a series of high-profile public events featuring Blackwell, including a rally at the Statehouse.
“A lot of churches have done political activity in the black community for a long time, and the difference here may have more to do with profile than the activity itself,” Green said.
Blackwell’s closeness to the religious right, coupled with his uniqueness as the first black gubernatorial nominee in Ohio history, have magnified the importance of race and the role of black churches in the Nov. 7 showdown against Democrat Ted Strickland, an ordained Methodist minister.
Since 2004, when President Bush galvanized religious conservatives to narrowly win Ohio and retain the presidency, the increasing political activism of churches has been a phenomenon that both parties have tried to exploit in the governor’s race.
The campaign is being fought most intensely in black churches, where Blackwell, in part because of his race, sees an opportunity to pick off voters who largely have supported Democrats since the 1960s.
“No African-American politician I know of can win without the support of the black church,” said the Rev. Lorenzo Norris, pastor of the Concord Baptist Church in East Cleveland. “That’s where the campaign will be waged.”
Blackwell was winning 15 percent of the black vote in the two most-recent Dispatch Polls. Only 6 percent of black Protestant voters are Republican, compared with 55 percent of white evangelical Protestants, the poll shows.
But otherwise, the two groups express strikingly similar views on many contentious religion-and-politics issues. For example, 62 percent of black Protestants say their religious beliefs play a very important role in how they vote; 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants say the same. No other religious group topped 40 percent.
About two-thirds of black Protestants and a little more than three-fourths of white evangelicals express worry about candidates who don’t pay enough attention to religion and religious leaders. No other religious category has even a majority that feels the same way.
Political activism in black churches took root in the struggle for equality and justice and the need for safe havens from bigotry.
“The African-American church historically has always been at the forefront of the political, social and economic issues of our people,” said Bishop Timothy Clarke, senior pastor of the First Church of God on the East Side.
“We have not done it because it was politically advantageous; we have done it because it was historically needed. When we did not have a voice, when we did not have a political platform, we had our church.”
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, of Cleveland, whose 11 th District is 52 percent black, is used to debating issues with political foes in the sanctuaries and basements of black churches. Trying to bamboozle audiences in such forums is fruitless, she said.
“People in African-American churches are well-educated and well-schooled on a lot of issues, particularly the bread-and-butter issues,” Tubbs Jones said.
Politicians allowed to address black congregants are wise to support economic opportunity, the minimum wage, fair sentencing, second-chance opportunities for felons, fair housing and minority-owned business development, Tubbs Jones and McMickle agreed.
The Rev. Raymond Bishop Jr., pastor of the 2,300-member Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Toledo, said Blackwell struck a chord Oct. 1 when he stood in the pulpit there and discussed “the moral challenge facing the African-American community.” But Blackwell scored even more points by using his own life as an example of what can be achieved by assuming personal responsibility.
Through the decades, black congregations have deciphered the code used by their pastors to indicate whether they support a candidate. For example, a candidate invited to the pulpit is viewed more favorably than one who merely is recognized in the congregation.
“There are signals by which a minister will say he believes this is a better candidate and can do so without losing or impairing the church’s IRS tax exemption,” Tubbs Jones said.
Although political activism by black churches long has been accepted and expected, McMickle said the complaint filed against the two central Ohio megachurches could have a chilling effect.
“What the African-American churches have done has either been under the radar screen until now or is just beginning to come to light in terms of IRS vulnerability,” he said. “So a lot of people are becoming more cautious and careful.”