Wednesday, October 27, 2004
While the question of whether the walls between church and state will come tumbling down in American politics causes much discussion across the United States, religious issues are drawing bold lines between the two main candidates in Mississippi's 2nd congressional district.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the progressive Democratic incumbent, represents the belief that while a particular religious faith can guide an elected official, it should not be established as part of the law of the land, while his challenger Clinton B. LeSueur, a conservative Republican, is basing his entire campaign on the idea that fundamentalist Christianity should be more prominent in government.
The race—between two African American Christians—encapsulates a debate that is increasingly occurring through American politics: How strong a role should religion play in government?
From the times of slavery into the Civil Rights Movement, the black church has been integral—often serving as a source of strength and power in an otherwise unempowered community. Any bit of information that needed to be massively disseminated through the community was done so either from the pulpit or among the pews. In fact, many of the religious leaders in the African American community have crossed the line between church and state, creating a trend of political preachers.
Many outspoken black politicians, and theologians, have found themselves in this position, straddling the wall between church and state: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and recently Rev. James Meeks of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago and an Illinois state senator.
Though there are some church leaders who believe that politics have no place in today's pulpit, there are many in the African American community who are guided considerably by their religious fervor. However, with social conservative issues such as gay marriage and abortion thrust front and center in national politics, black voters are being forced to choose between candidates who appeal either to their conservative Christian values or their sense that the government should help assist the poor and needy.
Tough Christian Love
This emerging chasm is nowhere more true than locally in the race between Thompson and LeSueur. Religion plays a prominent role in LeSueur's campaign because, he says, that it was his faith that not only brought him to run in this race but also to become affiliated with the Grand Old Party as a whole. "We in the black community have very strong family and spiritual values," said LeSueur, the son of a preacher in Holly Springs, Miss. These values, he said connects African Americans more closely with the Republican Party.
LeSueur was first attracted to the GOP, though, when he learned that the party supported more tough-love approaches to helping the poor—that is, forcing the poor to help themselves rather than give them too much. When LeSueur was in Washington, D.C., working for USA Today, he said a story came across the AP wire about the 1996 Welfare Reform bill signed by former President Clinton, which was designed to assist many Americans in the transition from welfare to work. Being a member of a family that received government assistance, this bill hit home for LeSueur; he wants to see the cycle of welfare ended.
"When I found out that Democrats were against this bill and Republicans were for it, that is when I began to explore the Republican Party," LeSueur said in an interview. He soon decided that the Democratic Party supported policies that were, in his words, "100 percent against the Holy Bible as it related to the display of the 10 commandments in public buildings, prayer in school, same-sex marriage, etc."
Thompson, who did not respond to requests for interviews for this article, has a solid record as a progressive Democrat in Congress—meaning that he supports policies that help people help themselves, rather than the more "compassionate conservative" approach of cutting back benefits and assistance to force people to do more for themselves—a more liberal approach that has traditionally been appealing in his district, which includes the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country.
Thompson's press secretary Lanier Avant was quoted in The Clarion-Ledger saying that Thompson "believes that Congress would do better to pass legislation that would create jobs, extend health care, and improve education opportunities."Two years ago, LeSueur challenged Thompson and wasn't taken very seriously, including by his own Republican Party. However, he still came up with 43 percent of the vote, albeit with some assistance by a Republican-drawn redistricting map that includes more conservative, white voters. Still, in this election, both parties are taken LeSueur more seriously. In addition to his tenacious campaigning and his young supporters who are canvassing on his behalf, he is also raising more money this year—$301,424 as of Oct. 13 opposed to $97,431 in 2002—which is helping with his name recognition.
Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring said at a press luncheon this week that LeSueur got a good shot at winning. "He is waging a competitive race against Bennie Thompson," he said, adding that "an African American Republican candidate who does not hide from Republican ideas … would send a message across the country."
One idea Republicans have pushed this year is staunch opposition to gay marriage—a "wedge issue" that has proved more divisive than even abortion nor prayer in the schools.
Playing the Gay Card
LeSueur has campaigned heavily against such an expansion of gay rights—an issue that appeals strongly to conservative black Christians. And the issue is resonating: recently Thompson changed his position on the ban.
After long, but quiet support for the idea of gay marriage and civil unions, recently the congressman changed his position on gay marriage, voting along with congressional House conservatives for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages and civil unions (which failed).
In a debate broadcast Oct. 23 on WLBT, Thompson said that it is not his personal beliefs that play into his vote on gay marriage but calls from his constituents who are opposed to same-sex unions. "I listened to my constituents. In this instance, I supported the U.S. constitutional amendment against gay marriage," Thompson said in the debate.
Issues like gay marriage and abortion are well worn by political strategists as a way to sway or divide the black vote. In the upcoming presidential election, some political experts say that blacks are leaning more toward the Republican "value system" and away from Democratic "liberalisms." And it is the issues that are based primarily in religious beliefs—gay rights, abortion, school prayer—that are aiding Republicans in gaining the African American vote.
A poll of more than 1,600 African Americans done by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., research group that concentrates on black issues, found that a greater percentage of Christian conservatives are voting for Bush this year. Though using a small sample of the black community, the report stated that Sen. John Kerry—a Democrat who opposes gay marriage, but supports the right to civil unions—had 49 percent of black conservative Christian support, which was down from the 69 percent support that Gore had in 2000. Bush is receiving 36 percent of support from this group, more than three times the 11 percent he received in 2000.
Black political support may not be so easy to categorize, however. The African American political perspective is often over-generalized and over-simplified in order to fit a particular party's agenda. However, some experts find that this group has a more complicated voice than most realize. Cheryl Sanders, a professor at Howard University School of Divinity, said Sunday on "Speaking of Faith," a public radio talk show: "African Americans seem to have been theologically conservative, meaning conservative in interpreting the Bible, while remaining socially progressive."
Local theologians like Rev. Joe May of Anderson United Methodist Church agree with Sanders' comments. "If you look at the theology of Jesus, you will find that he was about liberation, so it is possible to believe conservatively about religious issues while actively advocating to be liberated," May said.
The Elusive Black Vote
Experts disagree when it comes to the role of religion in this year's presidential election. Some say that in a close race like this one, religion will not be a decisive factor but it might be an important one. Others, though, contend that the issue of religion will definitely be a determining factor in the outcome of the election.
The two primary candidates themselves seem to think so and, in many ways, follow the same split that Thompson and LeSueur. That is, they're both men of faith, but one (Bush) wants his voting base's religious values codified into law (required prayer, gay marriage amendment, outlawing abortion), while the other (Kerry) wants to be guided by his faith, but keep government itself secular so that all religions can co-exist in the U.S.
Kerry also emphasizes the biblical call for deeds. He said in a stump speech in Florida this week: "My faith, and the faith that I've seen in the lives of so many Americans, also teaches me that whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me. That means that we have a moral obligation to one another, to the forgotten, to those who live in the shadows. This is a moral obligation that is at the heart of all—all—of our religious traditions."
Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State does not expect to see blacks turn away from Democrats in significant numbers this year. "If the issue of religion becomes an important one, for Republicans this means working with Evangelical protestants and for Democrats this means mobilizing the black church," he said in an interview. Boston said that the black church as been a major part of the Democratic strategy because traditionally 90 percent of African American tend to vote Democratic. "Democrats feel that the best way to get the black vote to turn out is to go through the black church." Indeed, Kerry has spoken at black churches four Sundays in a row, and now has former President Clinton, who is furiously popular with African Americans, campaigning for him in the final days.
Ultimately, though, the race for both president and the 2nd congressional district will hinge on turnout. Dr. Janice Crouse, of Concerned Women for America, a conservative evangelical group, said that religion will be a tremendously definitive in this race in regard to turning people out. "The evangelical vote will be a determinative vote, especially the evangelical woman vote," she said.
Crouse says that the warping of the line between church and state has been a bogus issue, and it has only been this year that the candidates have talked less about religion, not more. "We are a nation of people of faith, and religion has always been involved in politics," she said.
Boston disagrees, however, pointing out that candidates used to be more prone to assure voters that they would not try to force their religion on others if elected. Now, though, he said that candidates are openly chasing religious votes. "Churches are not allowed to endorse or oppose candidates, yet we know that this does happen, he said, adding: "Two weeks ago John Kerry went to a Baptist church in Miami and was endorsed openly from the pulpit and we have heard examples of Republican candidates having fund raisers in churches. This is a matter for the IRS."
Sanders said on the NPR program that because candidates know that black culture is well rooted in religion that they feel a need to preach to them—a criticism that could be lodged at LeSueur, whose zealous religious convictions dominate his campaign presentations. He is very specific about his religious beliefs, but much more vague about how to create jobs and improve education in the Delta.
For instance, his 90-second speech at the Republican National Convention was primarily a confirmation of his belief that his own district believes in God and so should the nation: "Friends, my part of the country is a place where decent men and women who believe in God and America's greatness work hard to make ends meet. I'm running for Congress to help save our district, state and nation. He continued, "The foundation of this great nation is faith. George Washington said, 'It's impossible to rightly govern the world without God.'"
Stairway to Congress
Some political scholars say that LeSueur's attempts to appeal to the religious sensibilities of African Americans in the 2nd district might be his ticket into Congress. Stephen Phillips, assistant professor of history and political science at Belhaven College, says this voting demographic is beginning to identify more with the socially conservative views of the Republican Party. "I know that Clinton LeSueur is trying to appeal to the African American community on these socially conservative issues and if he succeeds he will win the race," Phillips said. He predicted that the African American vote will possibly began to "split as more blacks identify with the conservative side of issues like abortion."
LeSueur said during the WLBT debate that Thompson was "out of touch with the people." All of his examples pointed strictly to faith-based issues: "In 1999 my opponent voted against 10 commandments being displayed and for same-sex couples to adopt children in the District of Columbia," said LeSueur. "We don't believe in same-sex marriage in the 2nd district or in the state of Mississippi."
Like many fundamentalists, LeSueur argues that the majority should rule in cases regarding religion—the opposite of the constitutional principle of individual rights—that is, the rights of one Jewish (or Christian) child would supercede the desire for 24 Christian (or Muslim) students to hear their faith's prayer every morning on the loud speaker. "I think the great thing about our democracy is while majority rules, everyone is still represented. In that regard, 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. I don't think that they should not able to pray because 15 percent say they don't believe in it and what not."
Thompson argues for the constitutional view that religion religious freedom hinges on disallowing the government from establishing one particular faith: "Religion is a slippery slope for this country because we are a melting pot. I would support a moment of silence in our schools recognizing that there are differences. However when we start dictating prayer in our schools, that creates a problem," he said during the debate.
For now, it's clear that the strategy of using religion as a way to distract voters, especially African Americans, from other issues that have a greater impact on their everyday lives such as economics, education and the environment will probably not end with this election.
See the JFP PoliticsBlog 2004 at jacksonfreepress.com/politics for issue updates, candidate bios, links to their sites and contribution tallies.
This just underscores the fact LeSueur, despite impressive educational credentials, chooses to ignore the the U.S. Constitution, and is unfit for office.