Black voters may back Obama and marriage amendment

Jerry McAfee
Jerry McAfee, pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, says he is unhappy that President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Party are supporting same-sex marriage.
MPR photo/Curtis Gilbert

Political campaigns across Minnesota are ramping up efforts to turn out voters in November, including President Barack Obama's campaign which is relying on turnout among black voters to help win.

However, that effort is causing some internal strife with other Democrats who are working to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

Earlier this summer, the president announced that he supported allowing same-sex couples to marry. In September, the Democratic National Committee followed suit, adopting a plank in the party's platform calling for laws that allow same-sex marriage. The moves were hailed by gay rights activists and many other Democrats. But one group of Democrats is not happy — black pastors.

At a recent rally outside of the state Capitol, about two dozen pastors spoke in favor of the amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Several leaders of the state's largest black churches were present.

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Jerry McAfee, who leads the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, said, "Over the past few months, especially with our president's decision as well as the decision of the Democratic Party to make same-sex marriage part of their major platform, I thought it was incumbent on me to state clearly and uncategorically what our position and posture as the State Baptist Convention as well as New Salem Missionary Baptist Church would be."

McAfee said he opposes same-sex marriage and is urging his congregation to vote for the marriage amendment. He said he thought seriously about not voting for Obama this year — even though he clearly opposes Romney's views on social justice issues.

"It's a tough predicament that the DNC and the president put some of their major constituencies, African Americans, in," McAfee said.

"I hope that people can see that they can vote no to this legislation without feeling that they're being disloyal to their faith..."

Pastor Devin Miller with the Clear Faith Christian Ministries Church of God in Christ in Richfield said he is voting for Obama but is also urging his parishioners to vote for the marriage amendment. He bases his argument on the Bible, not on the political debate, he said.

"We can't bleed the two and say that marriage is a political issue because that's what it's becoming. We as the church cannot stand, because our government is not of this world. We are of a higher government," Miller said. "If that's the case then we have to say, no, this is not a political issue, this is a morality issue. And if we're standing on morals, then we vote based on the word of God."

Black pastors in other parts of the country say they are urging their parishioners not to vote this year because of Obama's stance on same-sex marriage. Both McAfee and Miller say they're not going that far.

But their opposition to same-sex marriage is creating some strife within the DFL Party. Black pastors have been a key factor in getting out the vote for Democrats in past elections. That means efforts to boost support among black voters for Obama and other DFL candidates could result in passage of the constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

"African American voters tend to be more supportive of these bans on same-sex marriage than their fellow white Democrats," said Patrick Egan, a political science professor at New York University who studied voter turnout in states that passed same-sex marriage bans. Egan, who says he's done work for a gay rights group, said black people are more likely to support bans.

"African Americans, as a whole, are much more religious than the general population. When you look at the spectrum from the least to the most religious, there is a very strong correlation between how often you go to church, how important religion is in your life and the extent to which you oppose same-sex marriage."

Minnesota for Marriage, the group working to pass the amendment, said it is relying on black voters to help them pass the amendment.

"We have support across the board and we're hoping that just like in California, where Proposition 8 passed with about 70 percent of the African American vote, we're hoping for the same showing here in Minnesota," said Winnie Okafor, community relations coordinator for Minnesota for Marriage.

Winnie Okafor
Winnie Okafor, community relations coordinator for Minnesota for Marriage, is working to pass the ballot initiative. She says the organization is relying on black voters to help them pass the amendment.
MPR photo/Tom Scheck

According to the Census Bureau, black people make up 5.4 percent of Minnesota's population. It's a small portion of the state's voting pool but could be a factor in a vote that is considered to be close.

Democrats in Minnesota acknowledge that a majority of black people in other states voted for same-sex marriage bans. DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said other state parties overlooked the same-sex marriage issue when turning out voters, and he believes the Minnesota party learned from that.

"I have no doubt that we're not going to make the same mistake, that we're going to have personal conversations with many of the folks in these communities to make sure that they are educated what these amendments mean well before Nov. 6," Martin said.

The group organizing to defeat the marriage amendment, Minnesotans United for All Families, has been holding house parties, making phone calls and knocking on doors to discuss the effects of the amendment. Mike Griffin is the Youth Organizer for Minnesotans United for All Families and the son of a black preacher.

Mike Griffin
Mike Griffin is the youth organizer for Minnesotans United for All Families, which is organizing to defeat the same-sex marriage amendment. Griffin, the son of a preacher, tells voters that his faith directs him to "look out for their brothers."
MPR photo/Tom Scheck

"If Jesus Christ was a man in Minneapolis, he would be voting no. Why would he be voting no? Because what Jesus Christ taught me was that I should look out for my brother," Griffin said. "And there's a lot of my gay brothers and sisters out there who want to have the freedom to marry and to love whoever they care about."

The group also points to black religious leaders who oppose the amendment. They include Kelly Chatman, senior pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

"I hope that people can see that they can vote no to this legislation without feeling that they're being disloyal to their faith, disloyal to their church and that they have a right to vote in relationship to other people, in relationship to what is fair and just," Chatman said.

DFL Congressman Keith Ellison is also encouraging people to vote against the amendment. He said he is close friends with some of the pastors pushing to pass the amendment, but disagree on this issue. Ellison says it comes down to what he considers a basic right.

"We need a consistent civil rights ethic," Ellison said. "Civil rights is one of those things that if it's not there for one, it's not there for none."

But even the suggestion that gays face the same civil rights struggles as black people upsets some in the black community — including McAfee.

"I don't have to go back any generations for the tentacles of racism. No one knows my sexuality unless I tell them," McAfee said. "If I walk through the door, you know my race."

Opponents of the ballot initiative say they are also keying in on other voting blocks that could offset support of the amendment in the black community. They say moderate Republicans and college students will help them in November.