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: American-American ministers and their parishioners. But in this 2012 presidential election Obama's biggest support base will have dropped 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 Democratic Party released its 2012 platform. 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 contentions 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 largely Democrats but also largely conservative Christians, the big worry is not that African Americans would overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Mitt Romney, but that they might not come out to the polls in large numbers in November.
"This is the first time in Black church history that I am aware of, that Black pastors have encouraged their parishioners not to vote, " Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Baltimore told The Washington Informer. 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 stated that Obama's endorsement of marriage equality is "at the heart" of the problem for black Christians.
Although approximately 95 percent of the African-American populace cast their ballots for Obama in 2008, only 26 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center. Just before Obama publicly announced his support for marriage equality in May, according to Pew results in April, 49 percent of African Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while only 39 percent were in favor of it. And since Obama's announcement the numbers of those in opposition to same-sex marriage have not declined significantly among the black church populace. As a matter of fact, 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, is one of them. He carries influence and clout among black clerics in the area, and he feels that the president has gone too far in extending his hand toward securing civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) Americans. 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 that the president is taking the African-American vote for granted. Although I would like to dismiss Owens as just another homophobic minister and an outlier in what I believe will be a huge turnout of black voters for Obama, sadly, Owens has parlayed his outrage into a small but growing movement. He claims he has over 3,742 African-Americans ministers and their churches on board with his anti-Obama vote campaign.
"The time has come for a broad-based assault against the powers that be that want to change our culture to one of men marrying men and women marrying women," Owens told CNN after he launched his anti-Obama vote campaign event at the National Press Club. "I am ashamed that the first black president chose this road, a disgraceful road."
Why are African Americans, especially conservative Christians, still stuck on this issue? One reason is that church doctrine throughout African-American denominations hasn't changed on the topic of homosexuality, keeping the church tethered to an outdated notion of human sexuality and a wrongheaded 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 that LGBTQ people further exacerbate the problem. For these ministers, some of whom support LGBTQ civil rights broadly but draw the line at same-sex marriage, espousing their opposition to same-sex marriage is a prophylactic measure to combat the epidemic of fatherlessness in black families. In scapegoating the LGBTQ 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.
Meanwhile, many African-American ministers have come out in support of Obama's stance on marriage equality. For these African-American ministers, the liability of Obama losing his 2012 reelection bid seems far greater than being publicly castigated for not being in lockstep with their homophobic brethren. But their efforts to get their conservative parishioners to the ballot box must far exceed the efforts of those in opposition to same-sex marriage.
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 always 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."