An African Methodist Episcopal bishop said yesterday that his church will attempt to register every black resident over the age of 18 to offset the small voter turnout that provided the Republican victories across the nation in November.
"We are told that there was a mandate to take the country to the right," said A.M.E. Bishop Frederick C. James. "But how can we call it a mandate when only about 38 percent of the voting-age population took part?"
Bishop James spoke at Bethel A.M.E. Church on Druid Hill Avenue at the start of a five-day meeting of clergy and lay leaders representing some 70 mid-Atlantic congregations of the historic African-American denomination.
Delegates gathered at the West Baltimore church came from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and the District of Columbia, which form the district that Bishop James heads.
The planned voter registration drive -- to be carried out in partnership with other groups, religious and otherwise -- was one of six priorities that the bishop cited for discussion by the 179th Baltimore Annual Conference of the A.M.E. Church.
His other priorities were:
* Evangelism -- preaching the Christian Gospel to the unchurched -- which he said "is always at the top of our list." It includes "making life better for our people," he said.
* Countering "the break-up of our families" and the loss of family values. "People of faith are challenged by this crisis," Bishop James said, noting that "strong extended families" were the backbone of the black community in its troubled past.
* Health issues. "We must deal as a church with strokes, heart attacks, prostate cancer -- a whole group of health problems beyond AIDS and sickle cell anemia -- that are shortening the lives of our people," the bishop said.
* Education. "As a conference, we will provide a focus for our pastors and lay leaders on education outside of our traditional religious concerns -- on the need for better schools for our people, ranging from early-childhood education to specializing in science," he said.
* "The environment and economic justice." Bishop James said these issues are joined for the black community, which he contended is "blighted and slighted" when governmental brings everything from better water to better lighting to more affluent American communities.
Speaking of urban neighborhoods with high percentages of black residents and concentrations of "health hazards," the bishop said, "We're blowing the whistle on this kind of stuff. We want America to respect good citizenship even where there is a lack of economic resources. We have not been guilty of selling out America. The time has come to see more aesthetic improvement in the areas where we live."
Motivating eligible blacks to register and go to the polls is one way to address many of the problems faced by African-American citizens, said Bishop James, who drew a distinction between the "narrowly defined" emphasis on family values in the Republicans' Contract with America and the A.M.E. Church's goal of strengthening black families.
"I am talking about the Golden Rule, about learning how to live together, how to forgive, about basic ethics and morality and manners. I don't understand a culture that spends so much on the wedding of sons and daughters, knowing that they are not going to stay together more than two years," the church leader said.
He added, "I am not talking about using 'the family' to some political advantage. I don't see any part of the so-called Contract With America that I could seriously commend to our people."