GOP seeking ghosts in black pews and voting booths

In the three years I have lived in Palm Beach County, I have met legions of people who have stopped their subscriptions to the Palm Beach Post, in large part because of the newspaper's relentless attacks on religious believers who take a traditional approach to faith and morality. I started out trying to calm these people down, assuming they were blowing things out of proportion. Well, I finally broke down and stopped taking the Palm Beach Post the other day. I can't defend it anymore, especially on its coverage of religious and cultural issues. It shows no interest in diversity, zero evidence that it wants to be fair to competing religious voices.

So what do I do with my journalism students? As it turns out, the Sun-Sentinel down in Fort Lauderdale has made a strategic decision to try to attract readers in Palm Beach County, so I'm giving them a try. It helps that they have a veteran religion writer -- James Davis -- whose work I have followed for quite some time. It seems like a pretty normal paper for progressive South Florida, but it does offer interesting voices a chance to make a case for a variety of beliefs. Amen.

For example, this past Sunday reporter Gregory Lewis took on a hot election-year topic down here in the kingdom of chads -- Republican efforts to court African-American voters. The story was pretty straight forward, which meant it quickly ran into the ghosts in the pews and, thus, voting booths. Lewis gets right down to business in the lead paragraphs:

The Rev. O'Neal Dozier recently spent a weekend knocking on doors in West Palm Beach's black community canvassing votes for President Bush.

"The results were very mixed," said Dozier, pastor of Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach. "At one house they'd tell you, `I'm not interested. I'm going to vote for Kerry.' But at the next house, they would sit and listen."

Dozier, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to Broward County's judicial nominating committee in 2001, said his pitch might emphasize the Republican Party's abolitionist roots. If the family regarded themselves as Christians, he would focus on the president's opposition to homosexual marriage and abortion.

Over and over, religion hooks keep showing up in this political story.

It's clear that loyalty to the Democratic Party remains high, but not as high as it once was. Lewis quotes a DC think-tank study indicating that blacks between the ages of 51 and 64 had shifted their support this year from 75 percent Democrat and 5 percent Republican, to 66 percent Democrat and 12 percent Republican. The issues that are peeling away some some black voters are religious and moral, including the tricky issue of government vouchers that help parents evacuate their children from low-grade public schools.

Some leaders in African-American institutions, such as churches, think the Democrats take them for granted. Some believe that the Democrats are automatically hostile to any public action that seems "faith-based." Some think it's time to spread their chips around on the political game board.

But the religion card is crucial. Jamaican-American Andre Cadogan, chair of the Black Republican Caucus of Palm Beach County, throws down these fighting words:

"We're all Republicans," Cadogan said. "Some of us are aware of it and others are not. The values of Republicans are shared by blacks. We agree on church, faith-based initiatives and the sanction of marriage."

So far so good. What bothered me about this piece was that it never dug into the reasons that so many other black voters stay loyal to the Democrats and, in many cases, believe they have faith-based reasons for doing so. In other words, if this is an emotional topic in these church pews, let us hear from the preachers on both sides. Let both choirs sing.

Then it would help to dig deeper into the black church's struggles to address the shattered lives of many of its families, especially the painful fallout of so many young black males growing up with little or no contact with their fathers. What do the black Republicans say about that? What do black Democrats have to say about that?

So it was a good story. Now let's hang on for the other side. I expect high-ranking Democrats to be in those pulpits sooner, rather than later.

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