An island in a sea of pastel suits, alligator shoes and elaborate pocket squares, the Rev. Jeffrey Bryan stood out at a meeting of black ministers for his simple fashion choice: Denim shorts and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the face of presumed Democra
HAMPTON, Va. He’s posted campaign signs and even has snapshots of himself with Obama, who once made a stop at his Newark, N.J., church. But that’s as far as he’ll go to show his support %uFFFD there will be no sermons peppered with “Obama in ’08.” “It’s a historical time for black people, we cannot ignore what’s going on,” said the pastor, who was nonetheless resolute that “you can’t tell people who to vote for.” In the black community, the pulpit has long played a powerful role in shaping voting decisions. But the role of the church in politics has been under increased scrutiny since uproars involving prominent pastors. Now, as the nation stands closer than ever to electing its first nonwhite president, pastors face a delicate balancing act: Maintaining the church’s historical status as a bridge between blacks and politics, while being careful not to overstep their bounds %uFFFD even at a time when their considerable sway with black voters could help shape history. At an annual minister’s conference in Hampton this week, a gathering of roughly 7,500 pastors, faith leaders agreed they would continue pushing for Obama, personally supporting the candidate whenever they can. But they were unanimous in saying they would steer very clear of anything that could be construed as endorsement and were careful to frame plans for support as a private choice. The Rev. William B. Moore, a Philadelphia pastor, said he’s helped organize voter drives in his congregation, given money to the campaign and posted an Obama ’08 sign. But he didn’t plan much else. “The black church has, over the years, made that distinction between church and state and God and state. I think the media has made it more than it really is,” he said, later adding, “We know how to walk that line.” The Hampton Ministers’ Conference, which began in 1914, gathers church leaders to discuss issues of faith and relate them to daily life. As Obama claimed the delegates necessary to secure the Democratic presidential nomination before a crowd of cheering thousands in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, the energy rippled through the conference. Just a year earlier, the Illinois senator used the conference to challenge the Bush administration for failing to diffuse a “quiet riot” of discontent brewing in black America. By midweek, pastors openly supported Obama’s historic candidacy %uFFFD but chose their words carefully. Many said they personally endorsed him, but stopped short of saying more. Robert Franklin, head of Atlanta’s Morehouse College, urged pastors to seize the spirit of the day %uFFFD one of interracial cooperation %uFFFD in a speech Tuesday. “That’s part of the attraction of Sen. Obama,” he said afterward. “He gets that.” Later in the week, Franklin warned churches against endorsing a candidate. Federal tax rules bar nonprofits from engaging in partisan activity. His comments reflect a changing landscape in which churches, long an unchallenged force in politics, have come under increased scrutiny. This election year has seen an effort by the IRS and church-state separation watchdog groups to significantly step up their monitoring of churches and other nonprofits. Obama’s own denomination, the United Church of Christ, was investigated and quickly cleared by the IRS for hosting the candidate at the religious group’s national meeting last year. Meanwhile, pastors’ sermons are being posted on YouTube and analyzed for any clue to the values of the candidate. Obama distanced himself from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after video snippets of Wright’s sermons were broadcast and the clergyman made contentious public appearances. Obama recently left the Chicago congregation where he had been a member for over 20 years. John McCain, the certain Republican presidential nominee, has had his own pastor troubles. He accepted, and then spurned, prominent Texas preacher John Hagee’s endorsement and later rejected Ohio Pentecostal pastor Rod Parsley’s endorsement because of their controversial remarks. Some pastors at the Hampton conference wouldn’t talk publicly about politics, fearful of hurting their church. One reverend who didn’t want to be identified told an Associated Press reporter he believed some churches might increase security and monitor for recording devices during Sunday morning services. Some criticized media coverage they say focused on black ministers doing something white ministers have done for years. Michael Battle, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, pointed to ministers like Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. “For a long time those preachers have been very,very engaged in this effort to get people to register and to vote for the candidate of their choice %uFFFD so it is not new to the black church, nor is it new to the white church, to encourage participation in the democracy,” Battle said.
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