Black church leaders try to inspire congregants to vote for Obama

September 3, 2012

Two dozen of this region’s most influential black pastors sat in the cramped conference room of a suburban Baptist church last week, brainstorming how to inspire congregants still dismayed by President Obama’s support for same-sex marriage.

One idea that emerged was to focus black churchgoers on the differences between Obama’s traditional brand of Christianity and Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, especially its history of racial discrimination.

“We can’t tell people who to vote for, but we can certainly point out the differences,” said the Rev. Lin Hill, associate minister of the 2,500-member Bethany Baptist Church, which hosted the gathering on Saturday. “Our president has declared Jesus Christ to be his Lord and savior, while his opponent denies the deity of Christ.”

Hill’s analysis of Mormon theology is rejected by Romney and church officials, who say they believe in Christ’s divinity.

It is unclear how widespread Hill’s sentiments are; many black church leaders say it is inappropriate to attack a candidate’s religion, and Obama campaign officials have said Romney’s faith is off limits. That such a meeting occurred at all reflects growing concern among African American pastors and other community leaders that a significant dropoff in black voter turnout could prove devastating to reelecting the first African American president, particularly in closely fought swing states such as Virginia.

How best to motivate black voters, however, is a topic of wide-ranging opinion among clergy.

“I want people to vote because they’re pro-health-care, not because they’re anti-Mormon,” said the Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, who added that questions about Romney’s religious beliefs were coming up so frequently within his 5,000-member congregation that he decided to host a course on Mormon theology to counteract misconceptions that lead to prejudice.

Romney also has had to confront skepticism about his faith from many white evangelicals who make up a large segment of the Republican base. His campaign used last week’s GOP national convention to provide more information about Romney’s faith and his past work with the church, including stirring presentations from fellow Mormons.

Religion ‘out of bounds’

The Norfolk-area pastors who met for two hours on Saturday agreed to produce a voter-education guide for wide distribution in churches and community centers throughout the Hampton Roads region. As a starting point, they shared a one-page, side-by-side chart comparing “Biblical Christianity” to Mormonism, describing its differing views of Jesus Christ and noting that people of “African ancestry were not granted full access to Mormon priesthood and privilege until 1978.”

Obama campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing said: “We have made clear — and do so again — that a candidate’s religion is out of bounds.” Obama complimented Romney’s church work in a new Time magazine interview published last week, saying that “he takes his faith very seriously. And as somebody who takes my Christian faith seriously, I appreciate that he seems to walk the walk and not just be talking the talk when it comes to his participation in his church.”

As for whether Obama’s stance on gay marriage continues to haunt him in some black churches, Ewing said that blacks will turn out for the president “because of his achievements on the issues that most affect their lives — including his historic health-care reform, investments in education and our progress in getting people back to work.”

Obama, who had opposed same-sex marriage as a presidential candidate, made his change of heart public during a May interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts. “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the president said.

Obama advisers say the gay-marriage issue was a hot topic in black churches immediately after that interview, but that questions now come up only occasionally during routine conference calls and meetings with black ministers from across the country.

“There was a lot of discussion at the beginning, but now most of it comes from the media rather than from the pews,” said Vashti McKenzie, an African Methodist Episcopal bishop and a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign.

At the time, Obama’s new stance on marriage was seen largely as a political plus. It created a buzz of excitement among many liberals who had been feeling ambivalent about Obama’s reelection, and the news prompted many gay donors to send money to Obama’s campaign and the Super PAC supporting him.

Even so, Obama and his aides immediately recognized the potential to create unrest in some black churches.

A third of blacks disapproved of Obama’s decision, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey conducted shortly after the announcement. And some strategists in both parties believe anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives helped drive black voters in some states, including in the presidential battleground of Ohio, to support Republican President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. Conservatives campaigned heavily on the issue that year in black churches.

The Pew Research Center has found that only about 40 percent of African Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, though Post polling has shown a modest rise in support since the president made his views known.

Shortly after his May announcement, Obama hosted a conference call with a number of black ministers to explain his thinking. He described it as a matter of fairness, but emphasized that he believed individual churches and states should be allowed to make their own decisions about marriage.

One of the pastors on the call, the Rev. Delman Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., said in an interview later that only a “small cohort” of black pastors remained motivated solely by their opposition to gay marriage. He said Obama’s position has pushed more blacks to support legalized same-sex marriage. Obama “has much more to gain from this than he has to lose,” Coates said.

A divisive marriage stance

At the Baptist church in Chesapeake last week, however, the pastors who were gathered in the conference room felt differently.

The e-mail announcing the get-together and inviting pastors from around the Norfolk area laid out the concerns in stark terms.

“We are concerned that many of our congregants are developing an aversion to supporting the President at the polls” because of the marriage statement, read the e-mail. The Aug. 17 note was written by Hill, who is on the board of the Chesapeake Democratic Committee, and the Rev. George Spicer, a fellow associate minister at Bethany Baptist.

At last week’s gathering, participants discussed listing health care and other issues in the voter-education guide they would prepare in the coming weeks. Yet they worried that the marriage question could “tie down” Obama, as one pastor put it, and that it threatened to make the election a one-issue race in some places.

“We need to make our parishioners aware,” said the Rev. Joseph E. Lamb Sr. of St. Thomas AME Zion in Norfolk, as heads nodded affirmatively throughout the room, “that not voting is a vote for the other guy.”

Several pastors speculated that Obama’s repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service people might be hurting him in the Hampton Roads area, home to many military personnel. Others said they doubted that ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would be an issue, but that marriage was a more difficult subject to reconcile.

“I say this as someone who supports our president,” said the Rev. Michael Toliver, senior pastor of First Baptist Church South Hill in Chesapeake and one of the participants in the meeting last week, “but I’m finding it difficult to wrestle with the fact that our president is a devout Christian, yet takes a stance that is not in line with Christianity.”

Similar concerns about gay marriage and turnout are being expressed by congregants and clergy in other black churches across the country, according to interviews with pastors in several battleground states.

In the central Florida city of Melbourne, for instance, several ministers joined forces recently to host a community forum to address lingering questions about Obama’s gay-marriage announcement. Roughly 200 people attended the meeting, during which pastors tried to reassure congregants that Obama, however misguided on this one issue, still demonstrated Christian values in his personal life and policy decisions. Most parishioners seemed satisfied, the pastors said.

“The picture I gave them was that this may be the platform on which he speaks for the Democratic Party, but he epitomizes the picture of what we preach in terms of the family,” said the Rev. S. Benjamin Brown, pastor of the Kingdom Life Church of God in Christ in Melbourne. “He and Michelle are raising children, taking them to church, acknowledging God, acknowledging that they are a Christian family.”

Rev. Brown said a number of congregants posed questions about Romney’s religion during the public forum he and other area pastors held over the summer to discuss Obama’s marriage position.

“People wanted to know, is this really a Christian church?” Rev. Brown said.

In Raleigh, N.C., the Rev. Stenneth Powell Sr. of the 1,200-member Abundant Life Christian Center said Romney’s Mormonism does come up in conversation with friends and congregants as a point of concern.

“There’s a lot of good things about the Mormon faith, but you’ve got to remember the Mormon people, their opinions of the African Americans were not good until recently,” he said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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