African Americans have worked hard to get the vote and to get a man of African descent in the White House.
In 2008, we came out in unprecedented numbers with Obama taking 95 percent of the black vote, thanks to the help of his biggest support base: African-American ministers and their parishioners.
In this 2012 election, Obama’s biggest support base will drop precipitously. And it will be because of both the Democratic Party’s and Obama’s pronouncement on marriage equality.
Before the opening of the Democratic National Convention, the party released its 2012 platform with its theme, Moving America Forward.” One of the major party planks in the platform is its full-throated support of marriage equality.
“We support the right of all families to have equal respect, responsibilities, and protections under the law. We support marriage equality and support the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples.”
Many Obama supporters embrace the platform’s theme of “Moving America Forward” but feel that the party’s support of same-sex marriage is risky if not outright political suicide in such a tight and contentious race for the White House.
“We also support the freedom of churches and religious entities to decide how to administer marriage as a religious sacrament without government interference,” the platform states.
With one of Obama’s largest and most loyal voting blocs being African Americans who are also largely Democratic and conservative Christians, the big worry is not that African Americans would overwhelmingly cast a ballot for Mitt Romney; it’s that they might not come out in large numbers to the polls in November.
“This is the first time in black church history that I’m aware of that black pastors have encouraged their parishioners not to vote,” Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Baltimore told the Associated Press. Bryant has formed the Empowerment Network, a national coalition of about 30 denominations working to register African-American parishioners. Bryant, too, opposes same-sex marriage, and has stated that Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality is “at the heart” of the problem for black Christians.
In 2008, according to the Pew Research Center, approximately 95 percent of the African-American populace cast their ballot for Obama, and only 26 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage.
Before Obama publicly announced his support for marriage equality in May, according to Pew results in April, 49 percent of African Americans were not in favor of same-sex marriage while only 39 percent favored it. And since Obama’s announcement, the numbers of those in opposition to same-sex marriage have not declined among the black church populace. And some African-American ministers have come out more forcefully against Obama.
For example, the Rev. William Owens, president and founder of the Memphis-based Coalition of African Americans Pastors. Given his influence and clout among black clerics in the area, Owens believes that the president has gone too far in his LGBT support. Owens told the Associated Press in late July that he “would lead a national effort to rally black Americans to rethink their overwhelming support of the president over the same-sex issue” and “save the family.”
Owens is outraged and feels the president is taking the African-American vote for granted. While I would like to dismiss Owens’ rant as just another homophobic minister and an outlier in what I perceive will be a huge turnout of black voters for Obama, sadly, to date Owens has parlayed his outrage into a small but growing movement. He has more than 3,742 black ministers and their churches on board with his anti-Obama campaign.
Why are African Americans, especially conservative Christians, still stuck on this issue?
One reason is that church doctrine throughout all the African-American denominations hasn’t changed on the topic of homosexuality, keeping the church tethered to an outdated notion of human sexuality, and a wrong-headed notion of what constitutes civil rights.
Another reason is that many African-American ministers still believe the institution of marriage, at least within the black family, is under assault, and LGBT people exacerbate the problem.
For these ministers, some of whom support LGBT civil rights but draw the line on same-sex marriage, espousing their opposition to same-sex marriage is a way to combat the epidemic of fatherlessness in black families. In scapegoating the LGBT community, these clerics are ignoring the social ills behind black fatherlessness, such as the systematic disenfranchisement of both African-American men and women, high unemployment, high incarceration and poor education, to name a few.
If the first African-American president loses his reelection bid because of certain black pastors’ homophobic views on marriage equality, that would be tragic, and history would not look kindly on their actions.
Obama is the president of the United States, not the pastor of the United States. He’s the president of all the people, not some of the people.
As African Americans who have battled for centuries against racial discrimination, we have relied on our president and his administration to fight for and uphold our civil rights, because too many pastors across the country and throughout centuries wouldn’t “move America forward.”
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Boston-based freelance writer.