Rhythm & Business: God, Money and the Black Vote

By Norman Kelley, Rhythm & Business, 27 Octoer 2004

As the presidential campaign speeds to Election Day, it's interesting to watch Democrats and Republicans jockey to secure the greater share of that crucial black vote. A hot-blooded mixture of conservative religiosity and self-help economics, favored by growing segments of African-American pastors and businesspeople, has become the Republican drumbeat for black America. Meanwhile, Democrats are walking on eggshells. For them, their task is to maintain their hold on black politics by supporting traditional democratic economic programs without isolating a younger generation of independent-thinking, business-savvy African-Americans.

Recently, Alphonso Jackson, Bush's African-American U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development secretary, advised the GOP that it should go after blacks under 40. According to the Associated Press, Jackson argued that Bush's tax-eliminating, pro-business economic policies are better suited for that younger generation of African-Americans. What the Bush administration doesn't advertise about its tax overhaul policy is the way it gives big breaks to the wealthiest Americans, while spreading the burden from the wealthy to the middle class—both white and black.

You can't rise as a class, Jackson said to African-Americans. You have to rise individually. It's what many of the civil rights-era people don't understand. The secretary argued that as long as blacks saw themselves as victims certain black leaders would have a role. By Jackson's calculations, if you vote for a Republican, you're a tough-minded individual. If you vote for a Democrat, then you've been suckered by that party's class warfare rhetoric.

Even more interesting than the GOP reaching out to younger blacks on an economic platform is that party's strengthening coalition with black pastors. The black clergy, a longtime stronghold of Democratic politicians, is rapidly becoming a base of support for the Bush administration and the GOP. Many black pastors agree with Bush's opposition to gay marriage and favor his plan to fund faith-based programs. From nationally renowned pastors like Bishop T.D. Jakes and Boston's Eugene Rivers to a number of reverends leading storefront congregations, a growing number of black pastors are aligning themselves with team Bush.

While African-American pastors have always been interested in economic development, reaching that goal by partnering with the most conservative wings of American politics is new. Rev. Ike, the famed African-American millionaire evangelist, once captured this by saying, One of the best things you can do for the poor is not be one of them.

Now, Rev. Creflo Dollar, an Atlanta-based minister and arguably the most successful black millionaire/evangelist has taken that credo to heart con gusto.

Rev. Dollar is the pastor and CEO of World Changers Church International World Dome. In an Oct. 11 New Yorker magazine profile (Pray and Grow Rich), journalist Kelefa Sanneh listed the assets of his prosperity theology: 340 employees; annual budget of about $80 million; two private planes and two Rolls-Royces (one of which was given to him on Pastor Appreciation Day, which Dollar himself began).

In this theology, faith and wealth are inevitably intertwined through intercessory prayer. And it seems that Dollar has hit on a winning formula given that his assets and dollar-brand style has won over hip-hoppers. Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris and 50 Cent see him as a hip-hop icon. Why? He's getting paid and that's a core hip-hop value. And Dollar is a slick performer who delivers the goods like any black Alpha male in politics, business or entertainment.

Dollar is a far cry from a Martin Luther King Jr., a minister who died trying to help sanitation workers obtain decent wages. Today, the sons and daughters of such workers would probably be in Dollar's congregation going over debt-canceling scriptures. Interestingly, Dollar (his real name) sends mixed signals with his call for debt-canceling scriptures and his life style of classic conspicuous consumption. And he can afford it because he has a base of suckers, uh, acolytes who are willing to live vicariously through him.

For Dollar, and other ministers like him, a main piece of the Christian mandate is to get rich. That prosperity theology advances itself (and Dollar's bottom line) through videos, books, pamphlets, magazines, television and radio products. In reality, it all fits into the pattern and practice of the Head Negro in Charge syndrome, in which performance, usually by self-aggrandizing individuals, engage in symbolic acts rather than actually solving problems, improving people's lives or helping others improve their situations. The black preacher, conservative or liberal, for better or for worse, is the foundation of African—American political culture. And unfortunately, black preachers are more and more not only the chief repository of the HNIC syndrome, they are also profiting from that position.

All who carry on this syndrome—Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Russell Simmons, Cornel West, and Dollar—understand that there's a sucker born every minute. And in this election season with the financial stakes so high, you just happen to be standing there with Dollar's hands in your pockets.