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Black churches shift away from politics

c. 2008 Religion News ServiceCLEVELAND _ The preacher’s voice rises to a booming pitch. Near the end of his sermon, the Rev. David Cobb Jr. runs down a list of politicians in mesmerizing, rapid-fire rhythm:“You don’t really need Bush. You don’t really need Cheney. You don’t really need Palin. You don’t really need Biden,” he […]

c. 2008 Religion News ServiceCLEVELAND _ The preacher’s voice rises to a booming pitch. Near the end of his sermon, the Rev. David Cobb Jr. runs down a list of politicians in mesmerizing, rapid-fire rhythm:“You don’t really need Bush. You don’t really need Cheney. You don’t really need Palin. You don’t really need Biden,” he thunders to his flock at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Cleveland. “You don’t really need Obama _ I know that makes a lot of you all mad.”There is a dramatic pause.“All you need is Jesus Christ.”It will not make the evening news, or receive thousands of hits on the Internet, but Cobb’s sermon is reflective of a new class of black preachers, many of whom would rather teach the Bible than endorse a candidate from the pulpit.Black churches still support voter registration drives and welcome candidates at worship services. And preachers still discuss social and political issues, such as same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq, that may influence the way some members of their congregations vote.But churchgoers rarely hear the fiery political oratory that grabbed headlines when sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surfaced during the Democratic primary. In addition to denouncing America, Wright, then pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, attacked Hillary Clinton and supported Barack Obama’s candidacy from the pulpit.For the most part, black churchgoers do not want to be told whom to vote for. In a 2008 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 36 percent of black Protestants said churches should endorse candidates.The black church has been involved in political life since the end of the Civil War. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other pastors used the church to shake the nation with demonstrations and sit-ins during the civil rights movement.Now the tide is shifting away from political activism.Among the reasons are the shrinking number of politically active pastors such as Wright and the Rev. Jesse Jackson; the growth of megachurches, whose large congregations seek spiritual rather than political growth; and the rise of a prosperity theology that focuses on personal health and wealth rather than social change.There is also something more _ a belief among many black clergy that their role is to equip their members, rather than tell them how, to change the world.Young pastors like Cobb, 35, were raised in the post-civil rights, black-power era and say the House of God should not be a House of Politics.They have seen politics fail to change the social ills of cities. They believe building faith, not political power, will propel church members into their communities to feed the poor, care for the sick and shelter the homeless.“I feel like my job as a pastor is to empower people,” Cobb says. “No matter who is in office, you will survive.”The Rev. Marques Fletcher, an Atlanta preacher who led an evangelism conference at Emmanuel, says the first priority of the church is to be a witness to Jesus Christ.“I speak to the heart of the word of God. The new generation of pastors, we don’t become politicized,” Fletcher says.To a greater extent than other congregations, black churches do push people to the polls using bulletins and sermons and offering rides. This practice evolved from the days when some blacks were denied the right to vote through the 1960s. But only a small remnant remains of the civil rights-era ministers who would speak out at great risk against discrimination and government injustice, says the Rev. Marvin McMickle, the pastor of Cleveland’s Antioch Baptist Church, who has run for office himself.There are several reasons for this decline in political activism.Blacks are joining megachurches at a much higher rate than whites and nationally make up an estimated 25 percent of those congregations. Taking political stands comes with special risks in these large churches that attract both Democrats and Republicans.“I don’t endorse any candidate,” says the Rev. R.A. Vernon, pastor of the Word Church, a megachurch with thousands of members in suburban Warrensville Heights. “I want to hold them all accountable.”Prosperity theology, in which faith is often equated with wealth, is winning increasing numbers of converts with the success of prominent black TV evangelists such as Creflo Dollar, who presides over a media empire at his Atlanta-based World Changers Church International. Critics say the theology tends to blame the poor for their poverty rather than lead pastors to be political advocates for the needy.All church leaders also are mindful of Internal Revenue Service investigations into the tax-exempt status of churches accused of overstepping political boundaries.“You can’t endorse candidates,” says Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College in Maine. “Literally, that old model is being clamped down on by the IRS.”At Emmanuel Baptist, Cobb does not preach prosperity theology, nor does he have a new sanctuary in the suburbs to attract more-affluent members. Cobb stays away from politics because he wants the 200-some people in the pews each Sunday to take responsibility for their own decisions.“What happened back in the ’60s and ’70s is people took the preacher at his word,” Cobb says. “I want them to be intelligent about the decisions that they make.”(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)That means all decisions, from politics to finances.Cobb holds seminars on financial education and computer literacy. He recently had church members sign a card indicating they pledged to improve specific parts of their physical and financial health.“I don’t feel it’s my job to tell people to vote for Obama or McCain,” Cobb says. “My job is to reveal truth.”Members support his decision, even with Obama’s historic run.Emmanuel trustee Doris Jamieson, an Obama supporter, says she would protest if Cobb endorsed him or any other candidate from the pulpit. “We’ve come a long way,” she said, “and we have minds of our own.”(David Briggs writes for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.)KRE END BRIGGS1,050 words, with optional trim to 925Photos from Emmanuel Baptist Church are available via