Black churches weigh value, risk of political messages

Some pastors opt to keep politics away from pulpit after Rev. Jeremiah Wright

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By TODD JOHNSON

The Rev. Keith Gordon of Pilgrim Baptist Church on the South Side describes his Sunday sermons as verse-by-verse Bible teaching.

Gordon, who grew up in Englewood, said his job at the pulpit is to defend against sin, not necessarily to address social issues. Another black Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., became nationally known for some of his past sermons criticizing U.S. policy and the government when videos of those sermons surfaced during the presidential primaries in the spring. Wright had been Barack Obama's pastor until the presidential candidate broke ties with the South Side pastor after more recent comments by Wright over the summer.

Wright spoke at Northwestern University earlier this month, insisting that even Ray Charles could see how several news organizations had misrepresented his messages and beliefs. Gordon, 38, said he cannot afford a similar scenario.

"It might come back to haunt you later on," said Pilgrim's pastor of the last two years. "And by haunt I mean you never know what other people might interpret or assume we're saying. Anything can be misconstrued."

Vincent Wimbush, religion professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., explained the standards for black pastors are different because history has taught society to fear strong, independent black males.

"Someone has to take the time to get to know the textures and rhythms that are part of black life and a black church," Wimbush said. "The onus is not on Wright to be weak and appease others. [Society] needs to come to terms with what it is that makes them fearful in the first place."

Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidential election to Barack Obama two weeks ago, pursued and received an endorsement from the Rev. Rod Parsley of Ohio in February. In his 2005 book "Silent No More," Parsley claimed Islam was an "anti-Christ religion." McCain later distanced himself from Parsley, as Obama would from Wright. Press coverage of the Parsley comments ended more quickly than the coverage of Wright.

A study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found the No. 1 campaign news story from January to May was the Wright-Obama relationship. Clifton Caldwell, pastor at Bethsaida Missionary Baptist Church for seven years, said the realities of black ministers are different from their white counterparts when it comes to including potentially controversial secular comments in their pulpit orations.

"The perception is more hatred [of us] than anything else," Caldwell insists. "When a white preacher is controversial, it's in line or in tune with the Holy Spirit."

Some political scientists note how Republicans used Wright's aggressive style of preaching to elicit fear from certain voting blocs.

"I would say there are plenty of uneducated white voters who have no idea what the difference between Wright and [Nation of Islam Minister] Farrakhan is," said Andrew McFarland, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "To them, I think the position of black militancy is of concern ... and certainly, Wright embodied that."

The guilt-by-association charge is nothing new for politicians, but academics are unclear whether or not Obama's election will do anything to change this.

"If [Obama] has a successful term, that could do a lot to put rest to that argument," said J. Harry Wray, professor of political science at DePaul University. "What we saw [in this election] was a more tolerant electorate, but it is not to say these things can't emerge again."

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