US election: Obama vote dilemma for black Christians

Barack Obama, Ohio voter, Ohio pastor and Mitt Romney Obama's public support for gay marriage has split many Black Christian voters

For millions of black Christians in the United States, the decision about who to vote for in the forthcoming Presidential elections is far from simple. President Obama's support of same sex marriage has angered many Christians, leading many African-Americans to state they could not vote for him.

In the vital swing state of Ohio, many churchgoers are wrestling with their Christian conscience in the last days of the tightest election race in years.

Worshippers are streaming in to the warm and welcoming sanctuary of Friendship Baptist Church for the main Sunday service, just north of the mid-Western rust-belt city of Youngstown.

All but two of the evangelical crowd gathering are African-American, which is nothing remarkable for what is - as the cliché attributed to Martin Luther-King goes - "the most segregated hour of Christian America".

Black Churches and Obama

Shunned by the white slave-owning class and their southern descendents, black Americans formed their own complex network of mainly Protestant local churches, which provided support and services way beyond those of their white counterparts.

The majority of Northern and Southern Baptist-affiliated churches preach a socially-conservative doctrine of biblical inerrancy, drawing a clear line against abortion under any circumstances - and same-sex marriage.

Four years ago, 94% of African-Americans voted for the first black man ever to reach the Oval Office. In Ohio, that figure was 97%, but a CBS/Quinnipiac University poll released this week shows him down six points on that total.

Start Quote

If we say we believe what the bible states, all of a sudden we're intolerant”

End Quote Pastor Julius Davis Friendship Baptist Church

That still gives him more than 90% support, but in a race where Republican Mitt Romney is running neck-and-neck, every vote counts in Ohio - the most prized "must-win" state of all.

When President Obama told a television interviewer in May that "over the course of several years" he had embraced the principle of gay marriage, it was not a surprise to many of the worshippers at Friendship Baptist. But for some, it seems to have been a watershed moment.

"He's lost a lot of support," says Pastor Julius Davis, who has been in charge at Friendship Baptist since 1981.

"If we say we believe what the bible states, all of a sudden we're intolerant," he said, defending his view that any attempt to make gay marriage a national civil right would force churches like his to marry same-sex couples.

"That's where we're headed," he adds.

"I've had people tell me that pastor, I struggle, I'm excited about having an African-American president. I just can't go with some of these issues."

Civil rights outrage

In a sentiment that occurs time and again at several different churches in the run-down suburbs of this once-grand industrial city, there is outrage at the idea that marriage equality is a cause equivalent to the civil rights struggle for black people in the 1950s and 60s.

The Baptist Church

Lady standing up to pray
  • Baptists form the fifth largest Christian church in the world
  • Baptist churches are found in almost every country in the world and have about 40 million members worldwide
  • The name "Baptist" derives from the practice of immersion in water and was coined in the 17th Century by the church's opponents
  • Followers of the Baptist Church came to accept the use of the label in the 19th Century

But President Obama recruited some powerful supporters from precisely that historic background in the weeks after his announcement. The leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) endorsed his call.

The inner spiritual struggle that individual black Christians are grappling with is being mirrored by the divergent opinions of local pastors from within the same Baptist denomination.

A few miles away at the larger, and some would say, flashier, sanctuary of New Bethel Baptist Church, Pastor Kenneth Simon is leading a "get out the vote" operation, while lending his personal backing to the Obama campaign.

"To hear some pastors, they're going to tell their people not to vote. That's a slap in the face to our leaders of the past," he says.

"African-Americans have to be very careful that we don't fall into the same trap of discrimination that we were subject to… the only way we win others to what we believe is through the principle that Christ taught us through the church, and that is through love."

Several churchgoers told me that although they could no longer vote for the president, they were also finding it impossible to support his challenger.

Like many conservative theologians, Kenneth Donaldson, pastor of the Rising Star Baptist Church, says he respects the family-values of Mormonism - but he cannot accept its history of racism.

Symbolic vote

"Through pressure of the civil rights movement, they allowed African-Americans into the priesthood. [But] They still believe that African-Americans are descendants of fallen angels," he says, adding that Christians like him are between a rock, and a hard place.

His assistant pastor, Ronald Thompson, believes it is important to vote, even if it is only symbolic.

"Personally, I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils. I'll write my own name in if I have to," he says.

Ohio at a glance

Steam heat plant, Ohio
  • There are 11,544,951 living in Ohio according to 2011 US government estimates
  • 12.4% of people living in Ohio are Black, compared to a national average of 13.1%
  • Housing ownership is 69.2%
  • 14.2% of people in Ohio are living below the poverty line.
  • In 2007 5.8% of all firms in the state were owned by Black people

Source: United States Census Bureau

Just a few miles away in a quiet street of single-story houses that have seen better days, when the steel mills were running at full steam, Hattie Wilkins tends to her community vegetable garden.

She is an unemployed former factory worker and union leader, who has been working tirelessly as an Obama campaign volunteer. She goes to church each week, and says that only god can judge gay relationships.

"What they want, they can't force on me. To each his own, that's the way I feel," she says.

She believes that many who say they cannot support Obama will think again on 6 November.

"Talk is cheap," she says. "It's a secret ballot. Only you and God know exactly how you're voting."

In nearby Pittsburgh there is a pastor who has more understanding than most of what is at stake. Deryck Tines is black and gay, and he says the bible-inspired homophobia that he hears, cannot change the tide of history.

"Get ready, the gay community's coming out, they're not going in. The movement is growing… The president's statement I don't think is going to hurt him," he says.

"I think in the long run, it's helping him, because what it really said, is that he's concerned about people."

Follow Matt Wells on twitter for more on the US elections @mattvindaloo

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