Black Democratic leaders are openly talking about the importance of faith, opening the door to pro-life Democrats, and changing the culture of violence in hip-hop music, indicating a more open posture toward conservative values among the party’s most loyal voting bloc.
“I think there is a resurgence of a values movement [in the black community]; I don’t know that it is a conservative one,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of New York-based National Action Network.
Mr. Sharpton met with Federal Communications Commission members yesterday to urge them to consider his proposal for a 90-day radio and television broadcast ban of music and videos by artists who commit criminal acts of violence.
“We are talking about actual personalities employed by or on federally regulated radio stations inciting violence by booking rival acts and having airtime for one artist to [denigrate] another, and something has to be done,” Mr. Sharpton said.
While the role of conservative ministers and black Republicans has risen sharply in the past five years under President Bush pushing his agenda for a social and moral values movement, black Democrats are showing signs that the heat is on them.
However, Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat and vice chairman of his party’s caucus, said the values have been in his party all along.
“There is no debate in this country about what our values are; the debate is over stewardship and who will best lead with these values we have,” Mr. Clyburn said. “There are political movements like calling the House back to deal with the Schiavo case was all about politics and that memo [Republicans] sent around saying the issue would be a good political issue against Democrats, but not values.”
Still, the 18 members of the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus that did vote on the legislation to summon Terri and Michael Schiavo to House hearings split 50-50.
Mr. Clyburn, who is an African Methodist Episcopalian, said Christian values have always been a part of his life, but said as a Democrat he developed a “tremendous respect” for the separation of church and state: “We felt that was sacred and we didn’t wear our religion on our sleeves.”
“Then all of a sudden last November here we are being painted as the devil incarnate. … What happened was the election and that rhetoric last year freed us — at least I feel like I’ve been freed — it freed us to speak openly about our values system,” he said.
Mr. Clyburn has been tasked by his party to reinvigorate faith discussions and stances against abortion in the party. In press interviews this week, he predicted that in the coming years people will see more pro-life Democrats being able to speak up without fear of reprisal from the party elite.
Black conservatives disagree with Mr. Clyburn and say the heat is definitely on the party.
“The younger African-Americans who really are not familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, those 35 and under, who are clueless about the pressures and violence that took place are looking for something totally different,” said Vivian Berryhill, a Republican and founder of the National Coalition of Pastors’ Spouses.
“The challenge is how will the Democratic Party be able to maintain an African-American base for whom the civil rights mantra of ‘we shall overcome’ doesn’t even resonate,” she said.
She said young blacks are largely college educated or entrepreneurs interested in homeownership and lower taxes, and that the Republican ownership society message is “tickling” their ears.
“Therein is where there is concern because the Al Sharptons and Donna Braziles and Jesse Jacksons are from the old school and they need a new message for younger blacks,” Mrs. Berryhill said.
The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a prominent conservative talk-show host, said Democrats do fear the growing number of conservative black ministers speaking out in favor of Republicans.
“Without a doubt, the Democrats are in fear of conservative black ministers because a lot of the time the congregation will follow their pastor,” Mr. Peterson said in an interview.
“Some of them are moving more conservative because of the social issues, and some for the faith-based funding, but regardless, if black folks move away from the Democratic Party then they will never win another election.”