Some black clergy see no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports gay marriage, so they are telling their flocks to stay home on Election Day. That's a worrisome message for the nation's first African-American president, who can't afford to lose any voters from his base in a tight race.
The pastors say their congregants are asking how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as President Barack Obama did in May. As for Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, congregants are questioning the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.
In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of black voters and is likely to get an overwhelming majority again. But any loss of votes would sting.
"When President Obama made the public statement on gay marriage, I think it put a question in our minds as to what direction he's taking the nation," said the Rev. A.R. Bernard, founder of the predominantly African-American Christian Cultural Center in New York. Bernard, whose endorsement is much sought-after in New York and beyond, voted for Obama in 2008. He said he's unsure how he'll vote this year.
It's unclear just how widespread the sentiment is that African-American Christians would be better off not voting at all. Many pastors have said that despite their misgivings about the candidates, blacks have fought too hard for the vote to ever stay away from the polls.
Black church leaders have begun get-out-the-vote efforts on a wide range of issues, including the proliferation of state voter identification laws, which critics say discriminate against minorities. Last Easter Sunday, a month before Obama's gay marriage announcement, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Baltimore formed the Empowerment Network, a national coalition of about 30 denominations working to register congregants and provide them with background on health care, the economy, education and other policy issues.
Yet, Bryant last month told The Washington Informer, an African-American newsweekly, "This is the first time in black church history that I'm aware of that black pastors have encouraged their parishioners not to vote." Bryant, who opposes gay marriage, said the president's position on marriage is "at the heart" of the problem.
Bryant was traveling and could not be reached for additional comment, his spokeswoman said.
The circumstances of the 2012 campaign have led to complex conversations about faith, politics and voting.
The Rev. George Nelson Jr., senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas, participated in a conference call with other African-American pastors the day after Obama's announcement during which the ministers resolved to oppose gay marriage. Nelson said Obama's statement had caused a "storm" in the African-American community.
Still, he said "I would never vote for a man like Romney," because Nelson has been taught in the Southern Baptist Convention that Mormonism is a cult.
As recently as the 2008 GOP primaries, the SBC's Baptist Press ran articles calling the LDS church a cult. This year, however, prominent Southern Baptists have discouraged use of the term when addressing theological differences with Mormonism. Many Southern Baptist leaders have emphasized there are no religious obstacles to voting for a Mormon.
Nelson planned to vote and has told others to do the same. He declined to say which candidate he would support.
"Because of those that made sacrifices in days gone by and some greater than others with their lives. It would be totally foolish for me to mention staying away from the polls," he said in an email exchange.
Romney has pledged to uphold conservative positions on social issues, including opposing abortion and gay marriage. But many black pastors worry about his Mormon beliefs. Christians generally do not see Mormonism as part of historic Christianity, although Mormons do.
African-Americans generally still view the church as racist. When LDS leaders lifted the ban on blacks in the priesthood in 1978, church authorities never said why. The Mormon community has grown more diverse, and the church has repeatedly condemned racism. However, while most Christian denominations have publicly repented for past discrimination, Latter-day Saints never formally apologized.
Bernard is among the traditional Christians who voted for Obama in 2008 and are now undecided because of the president's support for gay marriage. But Bernard is also troubled by Romney's faith.
"To say you have a value for human life and exclude African-American human life, that's problematic," Bernard said, about the priesthood ban. "How can I judge the degree to which candidate Romney is going to allow his Mormonism to influence his policies? I don't know. I can't."
Romney said in a 2007 speech that LDS authorities would have no influence on his policies as president. He also said he wept when he learned that the priesthood ban had been abolished because he was anxious for it to be lifted. But that has done little to change perceptions among African-Americans and others.
"Obama was supposed to answer for the things that Rev. Wright said," said the Rev. Floyd James of the Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, at a recent meeting of the historically black National Baptist Convention. "Yet here's a guy (Romney) who was a leader in his own church that has that kind of history, and he isn't held to some kind of account? I have a problem with that."
Obama broke in 2008 with his longtime Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, after videos of his incendiary sermons were broadcast.
Many Democrats and Republicans have argued that Romney's faith should be off limits. The Rev. Derrick Harkins, faith outreach director for the Democratic National Committee, travels around the country speaking to African-American pastors and other clergy. He said concerns over gay marriage have receded as other issues take precedence, and no pastors have raised Mormonism in their conversations with him about the two candidates.
"There's just no space in this campaign for casting aspersions on anyone's faith," Harkins said in a phone interview. "It's not morally upright. It's not ethically appropriate."
The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, who leads the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., said he is telling his congregants, "Let's not make the election a decision about someone's salvation." Last spring, when it became clear that Romney would be the GOP nominee, congregants starting asking about Mormonism, so Wesley organized a class on the faith. He said congregants ultimately decided that "we could not put Mormons under the boundaries of orthodox Christianity."
But Wesley said, "I don't want Gov. Romney to have to defend the Mormon church, the way President Obama had to defend Jeremiah Wright." Wesley, whose congregation has more than 5,000 members, said he will be voting for Obama.
The Rev. Lin Hill, an associate pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., said in a phone interview that he plans to travel with other local pastors to about 50 congregations over two weeks to hold discussions and distribute voter guides that will include a contrast between historic Christianity and Mormonism, and educate congregants about the former priesthood ban.
Hill is active in his local Democratic Party but said he's acting independently of the campaign. He said Mormon theology becomes relevant when congregants argue that they can't vote for Obama because, as a Christian, he should have opposed gay marriage.
"If you're going to take a tenet of a religion and let that dissuade you from voting, then we have to," discuss Mormon doctrine, Hill said. "We want folks to have a balanced view of both parties, but we can't do that without the facts."
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a prominent Southern Baptist and black preacher, describes himself as a political independent who didn't support Obama in 2008 because of his position on social issues. McKissic said Obama's support for same-gender marriage "betrayed the Bible and the black church." Around the same time, McKissic was researching Mormonism for a sermon and decided to propose a resolution to the annual Southern Baptist Convention that would have condemned Mormon "racist teachings."
McKissic's Mormon resolution failed.
On Election Day, McKissic said, "I plan to go fishing."
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report.
Related on HuffPost:
You're an average voter in Pennsylvania. The night before Election Day, your wallet goes missing, leaving you without immediate access to any of the identification you'll need to vote at your local precinct the following morning. This would be a problem under <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#PA" target="_hplink">Pennsylvania's proposed photo ID law</a>, since <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/pennsylvania-voter-id-ruling_n_1919187.html" target="_hplink">blocked by a state judge</a>. While many people in this situation may have backup forms of identification, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/pennsylvania-voter-id-law_n_1652469.html" target="_hplink">studies have shown</a> that a significant percentage of would-be voters don't. The state's safeguard against the immediate disenfranchisement of people in this situation would be a provisional ballot cast on the day of the election. But this doesn't mean your vote counts, yet. Anyone who casts a provisional ballot is required to "appear in person at the county board of elections" within six days of the vote to provide proof that their ballot was valid. If you're able to take time away from your job to do this, the process still requires a would-be voter to either show up with valid ID -- a replacement driver's license <a href="http://www.dmv.state.pa.us/fees/index.shtml" target="_hplink">would cost $36</a> and considerable time -- or to sign an affirmation that you are indigent and not able to afford the fees associated with acquiring a photo ID. Even if you make a rapid and somewhat expensive turnaround to get a replacement ID -- or alternatively swear under oath that you are too poor to pay for such a document -- there is no guarantee that your vote will end up counting. Many elections are largely decided before provisional voters have a chance to verify their validity, which could serve to discouraging them from following up with election officials or leave them effectively disenfranchised. In 2008, <a href="http://www.eac.gov/assets/1/Documents/2008 Election Administration and Voting Survey EAVS Report.pdf" target="_hplink">only 61.8 percent</a> of all provisional ballots cast were fully counted. If strict photo ID measures were implemented, however, the number of provisional ballots submitted would likely increase, as would the requirements for voters hoping to make them count. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
Eleven percent of eligible voters say they lack current government-issued photo IDs, a <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">survey</a> on the potential impact of voter ID laws found. You live in Georgia and you're one of them. Like 66,515 other Georgians, according to a <a href="http://brennan.3cdn.net/773c569439b50452e0_kzm6bo5l6.pdf" target="_hplink">recent study</a> from the Brennan Center for Justice, you also lack vehicle access and live more than 10 miles from an office that issues state ID. As a registered voter who's skipped the past few elections, you decide you'll vote this year. But you spend your life working multiple jobs to provide for your family, not tuned in to a news cycle that may have told you about a voter ID law that changed the requirements. If you were aware of the measure, you'd know that you have to get yourself to a state office during business hours to procure a photo ID in order to vote. According to the Brennan Center, these facilities are often only open part time, especially in areas with the highest concentration of people of color and in poverty. While the state does offer a free photo ID initiative, the Brennan Center points out that many of the offices provide confusing or inaccurate information about what Georgians need to do to get one. This may be a tough task as you juggle a strenuous work schedule with other commitments -- and that's assuming you're aware of the requirement. But you're not, so you head to your voting precinct on election day with no access to an acceptable form of identification and vote with a provisional ballot. To <a href="http://sos.georgia.gov/gaphotoid/3679BasicVotingInfo_printer final.pdf" target="_hplink">verify that ballot</a>, you'll have two days to present appropriate photo ID at your county registrar's office, which at this point wouldn't be doable. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
As an elderly Tennessee resident, you've made a decades-long Election Day habit of traveling to your local polling place and exercising your franchise. It's an important day for you, and it gives you the rare opportunity to leave your house, where you live alone. For a number of years, you've had an identification card that allows you to vote. But thanks to the state's strict new voter ID law, that document will no longer be sufficient. Reports <a href="http://www.wbir.com/news/article/185824/2/Tennessee-voter-ID-law-awaits-effect-on-seniors" target="_hplink">found</a> that 230,000 Tennesseans older than 60 possess driver's licenses that don't have photos on them. Such ID will not be accepted at polling places in November. While the state has agreed to issue photo IDs free to anyone who asks, a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/tennessee-voter-id-law-program_n_1669323.html" target="_hplink">recent study</a> found that only a tiny percentage of potential targets have applied. Perhaps that's because people like you weren't aware of exactly how the change was going to affect them. Maybe you weren't even aware of the change. Poll workers tell you that you can cast a provisional ballot on Election Day. You'll <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#tn" target="_hplink">have until</a> "the close of business on the second business day after the election" to find an applicable piece of identification -- which you don't have -- and present it to a designated elections official. Whether it's your lack of an acceptable form of identification, the difficulty in finding transportation back to the elections official, or the prospect of having to go through the drain of the entire process again, you're discouraged, and give up. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
You're a resident of Kansas in your early 60s, fully expecting to vote in November. Your driver's license is your primary form of ID, but you rarely carry it anymore. You don't drive and you haven't traveled abroad in years, leaving your passport expired or lost. In the months before the election, you changed addresses, and for some reason never received a notification from the state reminding you that your license had expired. On the day of the election, you head to your polling place, unaware that you're about to be told your license is expired and therefore invalid according to the state's new voter ID law (Kansans over the age of 65 can use expired IDs, but you're not there yet). You're given a provisional ballot and informed that <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#Kansas" target="_hplink">you must</a> now "provide a valid form of identification to the county election officer in person or provide a copy by mail or electronic means before the meeting of the county board of canvassers." While Kansas says it has <a href="http://www.wycokck.org/Internet2010ElectionBanner.aspx?menu_id=1092&banner=27765&id=26946" target="_hplink">historically counted</a> around 70 percent of its provisional ballots, this year provides a different landscape. The next steps can be somewhat difficult, and with the enacting of the state's photo ID law, the use of such ballots will undoubtedly become more commonplace. Faced with disenfranchisement, you must now race against the clock to have your vote included. With no other acceptable forms of ID available, you go about the process of renewing your license. <a href="http://www.ksrevenue.org/renewingdl.html" target="_hplink">According to the state</a>, this requires you to make your way to a state office, where you'll have to provide a number of identifying documents and pay the fee. By the time you can find someone to chauffeur you through this process -- public transportation is complex and unreliable where you live, <a href="http://www.kansas.com/2012/07/24/2418365/voter-id-law-burdens-wichita.html" target="_hplink">even if you're in an urban center</a> -- most of the major election results have been announced on the news. You decide the undertaking isn't worth the time. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
You're a first-time voter in Indiana who <a href="https://forms.in.gov/Download.aspx?id=9341" target="_hplink">registered to vote</a> at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles using your Social Security number, a process that also <a href="http://www.in.gov/bmv/2339.htm" target="_hplink">required you</a> to get a state identification card, which you placed in your wallet. As a recent high school graduate who commutes with other workers to your full time job on a farm, you rarely need to present identification, so you didn't even bother to get a new ID card when it went missing from your locker a few weeks before the election. You risk potential firing when you travel to your polling place with other members of your community on voting day, but you're intent on participating in your first election. Without valid photo ID, however, you don't get to pull the lever. Under Indiana's new photo ID law, you're instead required to fill out a provisional ballot. But you're told you'll still need to jump through additional hoops that could prove too demanding. Now tasked with making visits during business hours to both the Indiana BMV to <a href="http://www.dmv.com/in/indiana/drivers-license-replacement" target="_hplink">get a replacement ID</a>, and then to the <a href="http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/voter-id.aspx#in" target="_hplink">county elections board</a> to verify your ballot, you decide keeping your job is more important than voting. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>
Pennsylvania, Part II
Viviette Applewhite was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's new voter ID measure. She's a 93-year-old great-great grandmother who has voted regularly for decades. She claimed she didn't have access to any of the documents she'd need to vote. With no driver's license and no birth certificate, needed to get a photo ID, Applewhite said she'd be disenfranchised by the law. And she wasn't the only one. A <a href="http://www.aclupa.org/legal/legaldocket/applewhiteetalvcommonwealt/voteridclients.htm" target="_hplink">number of other plantiffs in the ACLU case</a> against Pennsylvania's photo ID law claimed they had been unsuccessful in attempts to get copies of their birth certificates and other papers due to complexities in the state's record-keeping. Most claimed the measure would take away their vote. The law has since been blocked for this election cycle.
Georgia, Part II
You're a longtime resident of Georgia, but you've just recently returned home from a six-month out-of-town assignment from your job. You get into town on the Monday before Election Day. Most of your possessions are still being shipped from halfway across the country. Old friends invite you to a bar to catch up, but in the process of removing your driver's license from your wallet to present to a bouncer, it cracks in half, leaving it officially invalidated. Without a valid license, you won't be able to cast a ballot the next day. You'd renew it and choke down the $20 or more fee <a href="http://www.dmv.org/ga-georgia/id-cards.php#Replacing-an-ID-Card-" target="_hplink">for the replacement</a>, but the documents you need to present are in the moving truck. An election official informs you that you can fill out a provision ballot on Election Day. To <a href="http://sos.georgia.gov/gaphotoid/3679BasicVotingInfo_printer final.pdf" target="_hplink">verify that ballot</a>, you'll have two days afterward to present appropriate photo ID at your county registrar's office. Either you're telling the moving company to drive twice the speed limit for the next 48 hours straight, or you're accepting your disenfranchisement. <em>(Photo: AP)</em>