Several ministers said the session, scheduled Wednesday in Austin, Texas, is an attempt to split black leaders and gloss over hard feelings that many black Americans hold toward Bush for the election outcome in Florida, which awarded him the Electoral College votes necessary to win the presidency.
"Here's another one of those old schemes of divide and conquer," said the Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and a member of the city's board of supervisors. Brown said Tuesday, he was not invited to meet with Bush.
But Bush was more optimistic about the meeting: "This is not a political meeting. This is a meeting about how to help faith-based programs improve people's lives."
"My hope is that when people get to know our policies," he said, "they will realize our commitment is to an American where the dream shines brightly for everybody."
"You can't repair anything unless you admit the problem, and Mr. Bush is going on like it ain't no big thing that black folks were disenfranchised in Florida," Brown said. "Mr. Bush has never suffered, walked or cried with black folk. He excludes black leaders who don't talk his party line but who have a part of the truth to add to his half-truths to get to the truth."
Bishop T.D. Jakes, a Texas-based evangelist who was invited to the meeting but is traveling abroad and cannot attend, said he hopes Bush would use the session to "allay the fears" of blacks leery of his conservative philosophies.
"I see this as an opportunity for him to arrest that skepticism with firm and convincing policies that will enable minorities to finally sit at the same table with all Americans," Jakes said.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the meeting was not limited to black ministers but represents a variety of religious faiths, with blacks comprising about a third of the list. As of Tuesday, roughly 20 people had confirmed they would attend, Fleischer said.
Bush planned to discuss how the religious community can help address "the most difficult, protracted social problems our nation faces," Fleischer said, a tactic Bush employed successfully in Texas.
"We have called it because he views this as the next step in welfare reform," Fleischer said. "I know President-elect Bush is very much looking forward to that meeting."
A CNN/USA Today poll, conducted last weekend, reflects deep suspicion of Bush among black Americans. Only 22 percent of blacks polled, compared to 67 percent of whites, said they thought Bush would work hard to address the interests of black Americans. (The poll of 297 blacks and 867 whites had a 7 percent margin of error for black respondents and 4 percent margin of error for whites.)
In the presidential election, only one in 10 voters chose Bush over Vice President Al Gore.
The Rev. Billy Kyles of Memphis, Tenn., a longtime civil rights activist and Gore supporter, said Bush at least deserves a hearing. He warned that Bush could further alienate blacks if he fails to address issues such as affirmative action and hate crimes.
"I respect what the president-elect is trying to do," Kyles said. "I will just be watching to see if his deeds will match his words. You have to do some tangible things to convince me that you're serious, and that you're not trying to play to the cameras."
Publicly, the White House was silent about Bush's meeting. But speaking privately, administration officials contended that with the session, and with Bush's appointments of blacks Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to prominent positions in his administration, Republicans were trying to portray him as progressive as President Clinton on race.
Powell, Bush's choice for secretary of state, said Tuesday that increasing the number of minorities in overseas foreign service posts "is the kind of thing I will be dedicated to."
"America overseas should look like America at home," Powell said.
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, pastor of Fellowship Chapel United Church of Christ and president of the Detroit NAACP, the group's largest chapter, urged Bush to appoint a presidential commission to investigate the allegations of voting irregularities in Florida. That was necessary, Anthony said, so his presidency can seem more credible to blacks.
As for the nominations of Powell and Rice, Anthony said they are worthy steps but "no substitute for backing away from affirmative action."
"I believe Mr. Bush is a nice man. I believe he is a likable person. However, it is not about how likable you are, it is about the policies you effect," Anthony said. "The jury is still out."