Black ministers should see warning in Rollins' claims


Edward J. Rollins now claims the Republican Party did not pay black ministers to suppress the black vote in the New Jersey gubernatorial race earlier this month.

In fact, Mr. Rollins -- who had been the campaign manager for Republican Christine Todd Whitman -- has retracted his earlier story in as forceful a manner as possible: Trust me, he now says, because I lied.

Ms. Whitman narrowly defeated incumbent James J. Florio, garnering an estimated 25 percent of the black vote.

Mr. Rollins' retraction makes it unanimous: Mrs. Whitman denies the payoffs. Black ministers in New Jersey deny it. And the Democratic Party, which has challenged the election results in court, now concedes it has no evidence of wrongdoing, other than what Mr. Rollins told reporters at a breakfast meeting in Washington after the election.

But despite those blanket denials, an awful lot of people remain convinced the payoffs occurred. A bunch of us were discussing the New Jersey scandal at Leroy's barber shop on York Road yesterday.

The consensus: The pulpit is for sale.

"I don't want to cast aspersions on any of those ministers, because I don't know them personally," says Leroy. "I'll just say that I believe that sort of thing happens all of the time. It happens everywhere. Ministers have got their hands out, just like everybody else."

Of all of the principals in this scandal, the black clergy may be the most injured by Mr. Rollins' "little jest." The black church has always been the strongest, most enduring institution in the black community. It was the engine that propelled the civil rights movement. The clergy spearheaded efforts to create institutions such as traditionally black colleges and hospitals. The clergy provided most, if not all, of the first few generations of black political leadership.

But just as the church deserves credit for nurturing the community's strengths, it also deserves some of the blame for failing to marshal an adequate response to the community's problems: drug addiction, violence, unemployment and the dissolution of the family.

Mr. Rollins' tale of pulpits for sale hits black ministers at their most precious, yet most vulnerable resource -- their already eroding moral authority.

Yet, local clergymen say they have weathered such charges before.

"There is a love/hate relationship between the black community and the black preacher," says the Rev. Frank M. Reid 3rd, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church. "Ministers historically were always the butt of jokes and allegations: that we are womanizers, that we are for sale, that we drive big cars and line our own pockets at the expense of the community.

"At the same time, however, folk understand that the black ministry is still the strongest institution we have. We owe nothing to nobody. They still turn to us for moral leadership because they understand that we are the only independent voice in the community."

Added the Rev. Walter Thomas, pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church: "Regardless of the chinks in our armor, folk know that we -- more than anyone else -- are not afraid to speak the truth. We are not afraid. We cannot be compromised.

"The thought that struck me when I first heard what Rollins had said is that he obviously thought he could make such spurious allegations with impunity," says Mr. Thomas.

"It illustrates why conservatives have never been able to make in-roads in the black community: They think of the black church as a toothless tiger. Liberals, for all of their faults, at least recognize that we are a powerful instrument of social change."

The clergymen I spoke with all vowed they would not be intimidated by this attack on their collective reputation. They promised to continue to fight for the uplift of their communities.

But Mr. Rollins' original story -- true or false -- ought to alert black ministers to the danger of cutting too many deals, of forming too many alliances with questionable people, of getting caught up in playing the political game at the expense of their responsibilities to provide moral leadership.

I have heard this preached from the pulpit many times: When you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas.

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