Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a Maryland pastor who bridged faith and politics, emerging as a fiery voice for Black evangelicals while championing conservative positions on same-sex marriage and abortion, advocating for criminal justice reform and serving as a spiritual adviser to President Donald Trump, died Nov. 9 at his home in Silver Spring. He was 67.
He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2005 and had a stroke later that year, but recovered to continue preaching. Rickardo Bodden of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, confirmed the death but said he did not know the cause.
As senior pastor at Hope Christian, Jackson led a Pentecostal congregation of about 1,500 members and built a national profile through radio commentary, magazine columns and television appearances. He called himself a "Biblical conservative and social reformer," accused liberal Black ministers of being out of touch with their congregations and founded the High Impact Leadership Coalition to bring together evangelical pastors.
Jackson cited biblical scripture while condemning abortion and same-sex marriage. In 2005 he introduced a "Black Contract With America on Moral Values," alluding to the legislative agenda of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., while calling for the privatization of Social Security, among other right-leaning proposals.
Even as he backed conservative politicians, he pushed leaders of both parties —including Trump — to promote economic development in low-income neighborhoods and overhaul the criminal justice system, in part through sentencing changes for drug offenders and better rehabilitation for former inmates.
Jackson "often went against the grain in terms of how he applied the Bible to cultural issues," said Tony Evans, a megachurch pastor in Dallas. "He would be very conservative when it came to high-level moral issues, but very socially conscious when it came to equity across racial and class lines."
Jackson said he admired Trump in part for his willingness to adopt criminal justice reforms, and joined a group of evangelical advisers to the president that included Paula White and Black pastors Darrell Scott and Alveda King. He visited the White House several times, delivering an Easter blessing earlier this year in which he prayed for "this plague" — coronavirus — to pass over.
At a roundtable discussion in June, Trump called him "a great unifying source of strength and everything else." Jackson hosted Vice President Mike Pence at Hope Christian Church that same month, for a discussion on racial discrimination in which he recalled that his own father was held at gunpoint by a state trooper in 1953 while working on voter registration efforts in Florida.
"I feel like Blacks feel like they've been misused by the culture, Democrat and Republican, Black, white and every other group has misused them," he said. "This is a deep wound in the soul of African Americans."
In Jackson's telling, he made a "paradigm shift" after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Months later, he partnered with Bishop T.D. Jakes in Dallas to organize a forum that brought together white and Black members of the clergy.
Some faith leaders questioned Jackson's effort to build "bridges of peace," given his incendiary remarks about gay people and opposition to same-sex marriage, which he described as a threat to Black families. Though he was a longtime Maryland resident, he moved to Washington to oppose the District of Columbia's same-sex marriage laws in 2009, launching a legal battle in a city that he described as "the Armageddon of marriage."
After the D.C. Council voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, Jackson spearheaded a ballot initiative that would recognize only marriage between a man and a woman. The initiative was blocked by city election officials, who ruled that it violated LGBT protections under the D.C. Human Rights Act.
Jackson appealed the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics's decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which rejected his legal challenge without comment in 2011, nearly two years after the D.C. Council voted to legalize same-sex marriage.
Harry Ralph Jackson Jr. was born in Tallahassee on Feb. 4, 1953, and grew up in Cincinnati. One of his grandfathers was a preacher, but at age 13 Bishop Jackson stopped going to church and dropped out of the choir to play football. He starred at defensive tackle at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1975 with a degree in English, and later landed a tryout with the New England Patriots.
After lasting just three days in training camp, he took an executive job at Republic Steel in Ohio and received an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1980. He began to turn toward the ministry after the death of his father, an employee of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Jackson never graduated from a seminary — "I was trained in the field," he once told The Washington Post — and started out preaching in storefront churches in Cleveland in his time off. After moving to Corning, N.Y., to work in marketing at Corning Glass Works, he started his own church, the Christian Hope Center.
By then he had found a spiritual partner in Vivian Michele Alexander, whom he married in 1976. She later served as a pastor at Hope Christian, which recruited Jackson in 1988. She died in 2018, and Jackson married Rosalind Lott in September.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Joni and Elizabeth Jackson.