November 20, 2013 at 4:00 pm EDT | by Peter Rosenstein
Race for Maryland guv gets more interesting
Heather Mizeur, Deborah Mizeur, Delman Coates, gay news, Washington Blade

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur named Delman Coates (on right) as her running mate at a rally in Silver Spring last week. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’s still early and Marylanders are far from making up their minds on which candidate they will choose in the Democratic primary next June. Last week one candidate, Heather Mizeur, made what some consider a daring political move in naming Pastor Delman Coates as her running mate.

Coates is senior pastor of an 8,000-member Baptist congregation, Mount Ennon Baptist Church, in Clinton Md. Mizeur touted Coates’ strong stand in favor of marriage equality and other progressive issues in naming him her running mate. Many in the Maryland LGBT community applauded Coates for that stand last year, which distinguished from many other members of the African-American clergy in the state who opposed same-sex marriage.

This was clearly a strategic move by Mizeur to garner attention to her campaign and it worked. Dan Rodricks in the Baltimore Sun wrote, “I’m doing this as a public service to Marylanders who have been seeing this name with greater frequency lately and wondering about it.” He did go on to mention “the recent Goucher Poll that had Mizeur dead last in name recognition among not only fellow Democrats but all gubernatorial candidates, Republicans included. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown ran first and Democrat Doug Gansler was second.”

The announcement of Coates as her running mate also merited a quarter page in the Washington Post Metro section. In that column, Coates is quoted as saying, “He is joining a long tradition of religious figures who have moved into the political realm.” They reported he mentioned both Dwight Clinton Jones, mayor of Richmond and a Baptist minister; and Walter Fauntroy, a Baptist pastor who served as the District’s delegate to Congress for nearly 20 years starting in 1971. It may behoove Mizeur to suggest to Coates that he not use Fauntroy as an example he would follow because Fauntroy always confused his role as a pastor with that of a public official when voicing fierce opposition to granting the LGBT community equal rights.

Although this announcement of Coates as running mate offers Mizeur a boost in name recognition, it raises some red flags for those who believe in the total separation of church and state. Some believe that those who choose to be professional religious leaders of any stripe should stick to their business of saving souls and not run for office. In contrast to those pastors who have sought elected office, there are others, like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my personal heroes, who had a huge influence on people and policy but did it from outside government rather than as an elected official.

The Post quoted Coates as saying, “the ticket would bring ‘transformational’ change to Maryland.” Many reading that surely wondered why he thinks Maryland needs transformational change. It would appear that Maryland is doing quite well and is at minimum headed in the right direction.

Pastor Coates is clearly a progressive. The concern some Maryland voters might have is whether he can truly separate his role as a pastor from his role as a spokesperson for civil government. A question to ask is whether he will be taking a leave of absence from his duties with the church should he be elected. The mission stated on his church’s website is: “We seek to share the love and Good News of Jesus Christ and to equip disciples to further God’s purpose in the earth” and some of the core values listed are “Biblical Preaching and Teaching – 1 Peter 1:24-25 The Word of God is the final authority; it is true; it is unchangeable; it is to be used to equip the saints to achieve our mission. Another is Unity – Ephesians 4:2-3 in unity, we endeavor to walk together on the same road and in the same direction as we are led by Jesus Christ.”

Mizeur’s campaign will find out if after the initial boost in name recognition that the Pastor Coates announcement brings enough Marylanders comfortable with this choice to vote for her in the primary.

  • I see no problem with Mizeur’s choice of Coates, nor with his continuing his duties at Mount Ennon should he be elected. He already demonstrated, during last year’s fight over the ballot measure on marriage equality, a clear understanding of the difference between his pastoral duties and questions of public policy.

    There is a popular misunderstanding of what the constitutional separation of church and state means. The First Amendment does not prohibit clergy from giving their political views nor from running for public office. It prohibits the government from imposing one faith’s doctrines on others, and defends everyone’s free exercise of his or her religion. The Constitution also prohibits imposing a religious test for public office. That prohibition protects Rev. Coates as much as anyone else. It is appropriate to ask Coates what exactly he means by transformational change, but in posing the question we should not assume we already know the answer.

    It is one thing to ask if Coates will separate his public duties from his pastoral ones; it is quite another to suggest that he should be barred from public office unless he takes a leave of absence from his church post. (Such a leave of absence would not change his point of view in any case.) I agree with Peter about Walter Fauntroy, talking with whom I have found about as productive as conversing with a wall. But Coates is no Fauntroy. Like Dr. King and Rep. John Lewis, he is distinguishable from the likes of Fauntroy not only because he is gay-friendly (King, remember, resisted pressure from ministerial colleagues in working with the openly-gay Bayard Rustin), but because his faith inspires him to liberate people, not selectively to oppress them. Fundamentalist religious bullies, by contrast, use their holy books to beat other people over the head.

    For too long, progressives have given conservatives an unchallenged and undeserved monopoly on religious issues. The Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, led by Rev. William Barber, president of the state’s NAACP chapter, is a powerful example of the constructive and constitutionally allowable role of faith in political movements. It hearkens back to Dr. King’s call for building the Beloved Community. If one doesn’t look at the details, it might seem problematic; but it makes all the difference whether a faith-inspired effort seeks to coerce people of other faiths or respects their rights. It is religious bullying, not religion in and of itself, that is constitutionally problematic.

    I am not prepared to make an endorsement in the Maryland governor’s race, nor to handicap it, but Rev. Coates, who at my suggestion was honored last April by ACLU of the Nation’s Capital at its Bill of Rights Awards Dinner, is a fine choice who represents a new generation of leadership in Maryland. However the current race goes, I suspect he has a bright future in Maryland politics.

  • When Virginia’s GOP nominated a minister for Lt Gov, the media exploded with questions about whether he’s qualified to be second in line for Governor. I see the same problem with Coates–how has running any church qualified someone to be Governor of Maryland? Mizeur must feel like she’s desperate and losing.

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