The presidents of America’s four major black Baptist denominations on Friday issued a joint statement opposing the war in Iraq, the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General and efforts to divert public funds to private schools.

The leaders said they hoped the statement would expand the discussion of faith and values and have an impact on American politics.

William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., described the shared points of agreement among the four national bodies as “a faith perspective that is quite different” from that espoused by the religious right.

Issued at a press conference, the statement outlined points of agreed actions stemming from forum sessions during a four-day joint board meeting of the four groups in Nashville, Tenn.

The statement, issued through the four convention presidents, also called for extending provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, increased funding for children’s healthcare and “an end to the prison-industrial complex trend.”

The leaders opposed efforts to make recent tax cuts permanent and called for a national living wage. They also called on national leaders to address and invest in aid relief and development for nations in Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America, including increased relief to combat AIDS.

One of the leaders expressed hope that a united voice from denominations representing nearly 15 million African-American Baptists would focus energies toward “some revolutionary change in America.”

“We have the power in terms of black registered voters across the country to make a decisive input to who sits in the White House,” said Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.

“What we have discovered this week is there is strength in numbers,” said Major Jemison, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

“We have come together in one room, and now we speak with one voice,” said Melvin Wade, president of the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America.

The Baptist leaders called for an end to the war and withdrawal of U.S. military from Iraq.

They called the war “a costly and unnecessary military action begun on grossly inaccurate, misconstrued or distorted intelligence against a nation that did not pose an immediate or realistic threat to the national security of our nation.”

The war “is not only creating a hell for the poor in Iraq,” the leaders said, but also disproportionately affects poor and struggling families in the United States, who are more likely than wealthy families to send loved ones into the active military or as reservists or members of the National Guard.

The statement called on President Bush and the Congress to “immediately enact and sign into law an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” which is set to expire in 2007.

Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists struggled to give substance to the right to vote guaranteed by the 15th Amendment, they noted. “Yet each election cycle reveals disturbing evidence of continued and deliberate efforts to intimidate, discourage or suppress voting by people of color, senior citizens and people of limited income and impaired physical ability.”

“Democracy in the United States deserves at least as much attention as democracy abroad,” the presidents stated.

They called on the Senate to vote against the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General over his views supporting use of torture against prisoners of war. “Cruelty is not moral or just no matter who tries to give it legal sanction,” they said.

They declared “full commitment to the public education system” and a belief that public schools are threatened by “deliberate attempts to divert public monies and resources to private schools,” including vouchers and charter-school incentives.

“We are wholeheartedly opposed to the effort to privatize public education and believe the Bush administration’s Leave No Child Behind Law fails to address the needs of children in public schools across the nation,” they said.

They also labeled “immoral” efforts to “undermine the safety net for children through block grants, budget cuts, caps or freezes in child healthcare programs such as Medicaid and the Children’s Heath Insurance Program.”

The leaders called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for crimes and opposed privatizing of construction, operation and administration of prisons. States should address the problem of repeat offenders by a system of education and job retraining, rather than just building more prisons, they said.

They opposed efforts to make recent tax cuts permanent and said that a nation that can afford to spend $200 billion in Iraq can afford a national living wage for its own people.

While supporting relief efforts for tsunami victims in Asia, the leaders urged equal attention to suffering nations like the Sudan and Haiti. “As religious leaders, we urge our national leaders to give equal development and aid to global suffering in black nations, rather than intimate by their actions that black suffering is somehow not as deserving of relief and black aspirations for development not as deserving of support.”

More than 10,000 delegates attended at least part of the first-ever joint winter board meeting of the four groups, which have splintered over various organization and philosophical differences during the last 90 years.

The presidents said plans would be developed for future joint gatherings, probably before the presidential elections in 2008. “This is not a one-time event,” the NBCUSA’s Shaw said.

Asked about the possibility of a formal merger, Shaw said, “There is in the will of God a thing called the fullness of time.” Crediting the Holy Spirit with bringing the four groups together for the initial meeting, he said, “What the Holy Spirit will work out in terms of structural relationship, we will leave up to Him.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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