When I served as campaign media guy for Mayor Gene Sawyer’s 1989 attempt to retain his office on the fifth floor of City Hall, it was my pleasure to travel with Hizzoner as he made the Sunday rounds of black churches. It was an all day event.
I say “pleasure” because I am a total fan of black gospel music. I cannot get enough of Mahalia Jackson. Having grown up in the sonorous monotones of Gregorian chant, I find the foot stomping, hand waving, and sweaty swaying of the black Baptist tradition entirely uplifting. In terms of religious preference, I am as black as Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Father Michael Pfleger. Okay … maybe not as black as Pfleger.
Traveling with Sawyer was also politically enlightening. At each stop, Sawyer was presented to the throng in characteristic black minister style, with the over-the-top introduction punctuated with endless audience responses of “amen” and “you tell ’em, bother.”
Typically the minister would praise the good work of the Mayor, remind the audience that he is a “brother.” He would call on the assembled to spread the word to all the neighbors. It was not the word of God he was promoting, but the message of the campaign. Get out and vote “for our man Gene.”
The Mayor would then say a few words about the campaign, the issues, and the need to get out and vote for him. In some cases, a “special collection” was taken to be handed over to one of the Mayor’s aides.
Often during these Sunday services, three little words would pop into my mind – Internal Revenue Service. Clearly, the black churches were grossly violating federal laws governing 501(c)(3) tax exempt institutions. To be tax exempt, you must avoid partisan politics.
Despite this common knowledge, the black ministry has always enjoyed an informal political exemption from the law. Black churches were routinely used by candidates, Republican and Democrat, as political platforms. We were just too politically correct to call in the feds. After a couple hundred years of slavery, and another hundred years of segregation and prejudice, we were entirely too guilt ridden to point an accusatory finger at the black God merchants.
Now cometh, Barack Obama. Obviously, he is the darling of the black ministry. However, he brings more public and media attention to the black churches than any previous candidate – even the Almost Reverend Jesse Jackson. This in turn is raising the questions of propriety and legality to new heights.
Ironically, it is the liberal attack on Jerry Falwell, and the religious right, that will make the case against the liberal and black churches today. Barry Lynn, the head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, lead the successful effort to get Falwell’s tax exemption canceled for a couple years. Today this unabashed left-winger is parsing his own eloquent arguments in an incredulously inept defense of churches serving as liberal political platforms. He is trying to sell a difference with out a distinction.