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FIRST-PERSON: The black vote & the Republican Party

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–The 2004 election will go down in history as one of the most decisive ever.

President Bush received an impressive majority of the popular vote, the likes of which has not happened since the election of his father in 1988.

Throughout the campaign, the Republican Party placed before the electorate referenda that included strong leadership, the war on terror and victory in Iraq. At the top of that list was family values and morality.

Though there were other issues placed before American voters by the Democratic challenger just as pressing, none were more pressing for a plurality of the voters than morality. Looming in the background of the ever-changing possibilities of American life was and is the question of whether two people of the same sex ought to be “married.” In light of recent questionable judicial moves favoring same-sex “marriage,” President Bush pushed this issue to the forefront of his campaign agenda and it resonated with his evangelical base and 11 percent of African American voters.

Historically, African Americans are conservative, but have traditionally shown unbroken loyalty to the Democratic Party. It is notable, however, that 11 percent of the African American vote represents a 2 percentage point — or 22 percent — increase in votes for the president than he received in the 2000 election. And according to Joe Davidson of Black Entertainment Television (BET), African American voters in some places, like Ohio, gave Bush 16 percent of their votes, a significant increase over what he received in the 2000 election.

On July 23, when Bush appeared before a meeting at the Conference of the National Urban League, he was only politely received. He asked them whether “it is a good thing for the African American community to be represented mainly by one party” He also asked, “Does the Democratic Party take the African American vote for granted?” Legitimate questions, but it did not appear at this gathering in Detroit, Mich., that Mr. Bush had sold the Republican Party to African Americans as an alternative to loyalty to the Democratic Party.

The shift has jolted Democrats on at least two levels: the cross-over of so many African American voters means that Democrats did not connect with a growing number of this constituency. Perhaps the African American vote is no longer a faithful staple to be taken for granted. U.S. Rep Jesse Jackson Jr. admits that the “Republicans’ culture war” was a key factor in Bush’s victory, and, of course, exit polls and statistics bear him out.

In the aftermath, Democrats are quick to criticize. They say the Bush campaign scared people with constant reminders of terrorism, future handling of the war in Iraq, and the scepter of tax increases. The campaigns were both serious and vigorous, but rather than bemoan the Bush victory, it might be more useful for Democrats to ask themselves why their agenda is so unappealing and out of step with the concerns of many African Americans, and, indeed the majority of the electorate.

But I dare not agree with them that it was fear that propelled black voters and evangelicals — many of which were black — to the polls. Rather, for nearly a decade now, there has been a quietly simmering cauldron in the midst of the black community. It is the bold and troubling binary connection that gays and lesbians have made of their fight for minority protection status by the federal government to that of the struggle for civil rights by blacks.

Black leaders have not widely addressed this issue. Nevertheless, according to Bishop Harry R. Jackson of Hope Christian Church in College Park, Md., the “issues such as abortion and gay marriage were the most important of this election” for him.

For all evangelicals who voted, the issues of cultural preservation were very important. Democrats should take a close look at the truth. It was the desire to see that marriage will always be protected in America as the union between a man and a women and that abortion will cease to be an option to unwanted pregnancies that compelled Christians of all groups to vote. It was faith — not fear — that drove them to the ballot.
Terriel R. Byrd, whose column appears monthly in Baptist Press, is associate professor of religion and director of urban ministry studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd