Q & A with Rev. A. R. Bernard

Rev. A.R. Bernard
Would you say that black Christians are breaking with tradition and voting Republican? If yes, why?

A significant number of blacks are reconsidering their Democratic affiliation, as was demonstrated with the voting patterns of this last election. There is a new generation of blacks that have experienced unprecedented education and wealth, and have grown up without the legal and racial barriers of the generation before them. More blacks have become upwardly mobile, and have become more conservative in their thinking because they now have something to conserve. The more you have to conserve, the more conservative you become, hence you witness a shift in values as well. According to the 2002 Current Population Survey, 36 percent of blacks above age 15 now earn more than $34,000 a year.

John Kerry campaigned heavily in the black community’s churches, but media pundits proclaimed President Bush the winner of the Christian vote in '04. What must the Democrats do to capture black christian voters in ’08?

The black community feels that the Republican Party has really been clueless and not as involved as they should have been in the issues that concern the black community. However, Democrats have tended to take for granted the black vote. And as this last election showed, the Democrats cannot take that for granted — They cannot feel that blacks are going to vote Democrat anyway. Again, there’s a whole new generation of blacks. The churches that politicians tend to go to, which are the churches that Kerry campaigned in, were churches that traditionally have been politically involved from a Democrat perspective. There are a whole new set of mega churches that were not even considered by the Kerry campaign, and these are the ones that are making change.

Why are some urban black church leaders breaking with tradition and voting Republican?

The black community has held with traditional values for a long time. There has been this almost paradoxical experience because personally, socially, and with family, they have been conservative. But politically they have voted very liberal. And this new generation of blacks is now questioning the liberality of their democratic representatives.

When we hear about the Christian Right, we think of conservative Midwestern Bible-belters. Is there a racial divide that impedes relations between Bible-belt Christians and black urban Christians?

The new urban black Christian cannot be judged by the Christian Right rubric because, though the urban black Christians strongly identify with Biblical, traditional values, we are still passionate about justice and equity in the society, and feel a responsibility to hold the nation accountable to its principles. You cannot classify the two groups together. The new urban Black Christian is something new.

At Promise Keepers rallies, you have indicted the white church for its absence from the civil rights movement and the black church for being bitter. What needs to happen now in race relations?

The Republican Party has to go back to its roots because the party was started based upon the issue of slavery. You had abolitionists who rallied together, and the party was born. Racial justice was its root. Republicans need to return to that. Regarding race relations we go back to the realization that you cannot have social equality without economic parity — and that is beginning to change within the black community. A significant portion of the community is becoming upwardly mobile while another segment of the community is becoming more impoverished. That’s something that the black community has to deal with, but it expects a response from the white community. At Promise Keepers rallies I have been very strong in my indictment against the white Christian church for its failure to address the economic plight of blacks in this country. There has to be more dialogue, more understanding, and a conscious effort to teach that the Christian faith is multiracial and multiethnic.

Does racial justice as a cause supersede religious affinity for blacks, or vice versa?

Coming out of the history of slavery in America, when Christianity was indeed used by the institution of slavery to keep blacks suppressed, it was difficult to reconcile what was written in the Bible about God being the God of the oppressed while Christianity was the religion of the oppressor. As a result, you had blacks turning to other faiths. The Nation of Islam is a protest against the Christian church of America’s failure to address the needs of the black community. Had the church not failed, I don’t think we would have had a Nation of Islam because, looking back at the history, the Christian church has had the greatest influence on shaping the African-American community. Has there been a need for civil rights to supersede religious affinity? Yes, there has been that need. There is a new perspective in our faith that demands the pursuit of justice and equity as part of our religious experience.

Bill Cosby spoke out against the hip-hop community’s negative influences on African-American youth and received a backlash. Has the Church lost its influence in comparison to hip-hop culture?

Just recently, I had the opportunity to hold in my church the funeral of WU Tang rapper Old Dirty Bastard (O.D.B.). That was quite a stretch since we are a Christian church, and O.D.B. and the rest of the Wu Tang Clan are practitioners of a belief called Five Percenters, which is an off-shoot of the Nation of Islam. The reason we took this on was not just because we were approached by his wife and family, but because it was an opportunity to speak to the hip-hop community. Hip-hop is an art form as is jazz and gospel. Back in the 60s, we had the Last Poets and Nikki Giovanni, who used poetry to express the desires of the community. Hip-hop is just that, but as with any art form, there has to be social responsibility. Some say hip-hop has come of age, but has it really matured? Maturity does not begin with age, but with the acceptance of responsibility. Hip-hop needs to accept responsibility for the lyrics and the lifestyle that they are spreading amongst our young people. Hip-hop has had a positive influence in other ways. Some of the statistics placing black Americans in an upwardly mobile position in American society reflect the success of hip-hop.

The degree to which it influences black culture is questionable. When hip-hop artists pushed the ‘get out the vote’ campaign, with some endorsing the Democratic party, it did not translate into voter turnout. The Church continues to be the largest base in the community, and the black minister is much respected and looked to for guidance in that community.

Where do you stand on the war in Iraq?

In the black community there is more of an individual position on the War. Those of us who hold to a more literal interpretation of the Bible see the Iraq war in a prophetic light. We have members in our congregation who are in the military. We pray for them and hope this war will not be another Vietnam War, that American has learned from the past. We are all for dealing with the balance of power in that region, but not at the long-term sacrifice of American lives.

Rev. A.R. Bernard, Sr. is the founder and pastor of the Christian Cultural Center located in Brooklyn, New York. What started as a small storefront church emerged into a thriving ministry and nonprofit organization with a membership of over 20,000. In his senior year of high school, Rev. Bernard left the garment district for a job at Bankers Trust Company. Beginning as a clerk in the Consumer Lending Division, his hard work earned him a number of promotions leading to operations specialist in the Consumer Lending Division. While a promising career in finance was thought to be his future, Rev. Bernard left the banking world to answer his calling to full-time ministry in 1979.