Same-Sex Marriage: Has Support for Gays Cost Obama the Black Vote?

By Marc Hujer

By openly supporting gay marriage, US President Barack Obama has offended many of the country's African-Americans, who number among his most loyal supporters. Several of the community's religious leaders have even called on their congregations to withhold the support that will be crucial to his re-election.

Obama's support of gay marriage has offended some African-American voters. Zoom
AFP

Obama's support of gay marriage has offended some African-American voters.

Usually it's only 20 minutes by car from the South Side of Chicago to the city's dazzling financial world, from Trinity United Church of Christ to downtown. But on this Sunday, May 21, with the NATO summit taking place at the McCormick Center downtown, these two worlds are hours apart. Demonstrations have brought traffic to a halt, and police barricades block many streets.

President Barack Obama, once at home in the city's large African-American church, now travels through the city with a security detail.

Today, an acquaintance of the president's is addressing the congregation Obama once belonged to. Reverend Otis Moss III has been pastor of Trinity United Church for the past four years, and he knew Obama before he became president, back when he sometimes sat here in the pews among the other men dressed in black and the women in brightly colored hats and rustling dresses.

The service runs three hours, the congregation praying together and dancing to gospel music. This Sunday's service is hardly different from those in the days when Obama was part of this congregation -- and the great hope of many African-Americans. But is he still?

For four years, Reverend Moss has kept his silence when asked about Obama, declining interviews and avoiding controversial debates, knowing that the messages delivered in these sermons would only have caused the president more problems. For white voters, it sounds far too radical when African-American ministers recall white Americans' historical guilt and the legacy of slavery. Even the church's motto -- "Unashamedly Black" -- can easily deter white people. But this Sunday, it is no longer white voters at stake, but rather the danger that African-American congregations such as Trinity might turn their backs on their president.

A Betrayal

Obama, once feted as the "first black president," has now been dubbed the "First Gay President" by Newsweek. The magazine cover, which ran during the NATO summit, showed the president wearing a halo in the rainbow colors symbolic of the LGBT movement. The country's talk shows are all discussing Obama's courageous move in speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage, which so far is legal in only a few US states. It's a step that marks a reinvention of Obama's candidacy and has breathed new life into his bid for re-election. But for many African-American voters, the majority of whom are strictly opposed to same-sex marriage, Obama's declaration feels like a betrayal.

Obama must have known the risk he was taking when he decided three weeks ago to take this position, breaking with his former stance of supporting only civil unions for same-sex couples. Homosexuality remains a taboo subject in African-American communities, with 65 percent of African-Americans considering same-sex marriage wrong, as compared to 48 percent of white Americans. When the state of California voted on same-sex marriage in 2008, some 70 percent of African-American Californians were in favor of a ban.

When Barack Obama took up residence in the White House in January 2009, the entire world celebrated America's first black president. But Obama's election held the greatest significance for African-Americans. Fully 96 percent of black voters supported Obama, many of them turning out on election day specifically out of enthusiasm for Obama and many of them voting for the first time. Many continue to support him, despite the disappointments his term in office has brought. Unemployment among African-Americans remains at 13 percent, considerably higher than the national average of 8 percent, and 11 percent of African-Americans lost their homes in the financial crisis. Yet it is only now that Obama has serious reason to fear the loss of support from African-Americans. And without them, he will fail to achieve re-election this November.

Damage Control

Obama's declaration of support for same-sex marriage has African-American communities up in arms. Many African-Americans live in a culture that values strong masculine figures and looks down on homosexuality. "We've been taught that the institution of slavery 'stripped us' of our manhood, and we have to maintain what's left," African-American writer Charles Stephens wrote for the Huffington Post in March following incidents of anti-gay violence within the African-American community.

And few things have greater influence on African-American sensibilities than churches, which serve as centers of community life for many African-Americans. Twenty-two percent of black Americans attend church services more than once a week -- twice as often as white Americans. Many put their faith in what their pastors say and what is written in the Bible, including the statement that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Obama did everything possible to minimize the damage he knew his decision would cause. Immediately after his declaration, the president made calls to eight African-American pastors, including Otis Moss Jr., father of Otis Moss III and a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr.

Still, Obama met with fierce criticism, even from those who had previously supported him. Pastor Dwight McKissic from Arlington, Texas, declared, "Obama has betrayed the Bible." Pastor William Owens from Memphis, Tennessee, decried what he described as "the homosexual community hijacking the civil rights movement," adding, "I did not choose to be black, and you did not choose to be white -- and homosexuals make a choice to be homosexual. So why compare what we went through with your situation? It's not the same thing; there's no comparison."

Owens is now threatening to sabotage Obama's re-election, and he and many other ministers are using their Sunday sermons to oppose Obama's support for same-sex marriage. Owens has founded an interest group of 13 African-American pastors in Tennessee to take action against Obama. They're determined to deny Obama their votes if he doesn't recant.

The Sacred Right to Vote

But Otis Moss, the pastor of Obama's former church, disagrees with their position. "We should be supportive of the president and supportive of the rights of all in a pluralistic democracy that we're called to love," he told SPIEGEL in a recent interview. And in an open letter, Moss writes, "The institution of marriage is not under attack as a result of the President's words. Marriage was under attack years ago by men who viewed women as property and children as trophies of sexual prowess."

On the Sunday of the NATO summit, Moss read to his congregation from this letter, then quoted his father as saying: "Our Ancestors prayed for 389 years to place a person of color in the White House. They led over 200 slave revolts, fought in 11 wars, one being a civil war where over 600,000 people died … I will not allow narrow-minded ministers or regressive politicians the satisfaction of keeping me from my sacred right to vote to shape the future for my grandchildren."

The younger Moss continued, "To claim the President of the United States must hold your theological position is absurd. He is President of the United States of America, not the President of the Baptist convention or Bishop of the Sanctified or Holiness Church. He is called to protect the rights of Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, black and white, atheist and agnostic."

More Skeptics This Time

Moss sounds a little like Obama back in the 2008 election campaign, when he was the great savior, the man who promised change and reconciliation for a nation at odds with itself, the politician who famously declared in his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Obama's fight for same-sex marriage once again offers that kind of grand promise, a clear breaking point in America's long-running culture war, and presumably Obama made his decision partly in the hope of recapturing the magic of 2008.

Still, there are more skeptics this time around than there were during Obama's first election campaign. Many voters see this step as a calculated attempt to win the support of wealthy homosexuals who could be major campaign contributors. After nearly four years of Obama's presidency, these voters find that Obama's promise -- to build an America that is open to everyone -- rings hollow.

Many former supporters, meanwhile, sound considerably less enthusiastic these days. African-American professor Cornel West, for example, was once an avid Obama fan. "When you mobilize the legacy of Martin [Luther] King and put a bust of Martin King in the Oval Office, people elevate their hopes. Martin King is not just every brother," he told the Financial Times earlier this month. "It's like a novelist being obsessed with Tolstoy or Proust and then he ends up writing short stories that can barely get into some middlebrow magazine. Hey, you got our hopes up man! I was expecting Proust or Tolstoy, instead it would barely get in Newsweek."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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