BY THE REV. JOSEPH A. DARBY
I recently read a news story about African-American clergy and Christians wavering over whether to stay home on Election Day because of President Barack Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage and candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion. I’d like to offer my perspective as a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a participant in intra-denominational, ecumenical and interfaith circles.
I haven’t detected a lot of African-American enthusiasm for candidate Romney, but that seems to be a result of his politics rather than his religion. I’ve worked with and befriended Mormons in interfaith circles and, like most of those who appreciate diversity in faith, don’t see candidate Romney’s faith as an issue. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a dubious history on matters of race, but the same can be said of many traditional Protestant denominations in America. I haven’t detected any great African-American Christian reluctance to vote for President Obama, either, because African-American voters are thoughtful, discerning and generally aware of three basic political realities.
The first political reality is that Barack Obama is not “Bishop” or “Reverend” Obama, but President Obama. He’s the chief executive not of a theocracy, but of a representative democracy who must equitably safeguard the rights of those of varying faiths and of those who embrace no faith whatsoever. Most African-American Christians that I’ve spoken with — even those who don’t share the president’s views on same-sex marriage — understand that he was not dictating to the church on an issue of faith, but advocating what he judged to be a civil right.
The second political reality is that African-Americans are not “single issue” voters and are accustomed to voting not for the “perfect” candidate, but the candidate whose overall positions on issues of public policy best reflect their positions. Most black voters are conservative on perceived issues of morality but progressive on issues of equity and fairness.
We generally take a dim view of those who express moral outrage about who loves whom and the rights of the unborn while promoting political division based on race and class and taking a mean and punitive stance on helping those born into and struggling to cope with humble and impoverished circumstances. Most African-American Christians understand that authentic faith is something not just to be proclaimed for political advantage, but to be lived out through our thoughts, words and deeds.
The third political reality is that most African-Americans embrace the old axiom to “consider the source,” are leery of “black spokespersons” who seem to materialize out of nowhere to tell the world what black people are thinking, and are suspicious of “black leaders” whose words don’t reflect prevailing community concerns. Many of those with whom I discussed the president’s same-sex marriage stance were unfamiliar with his most vocal black clergy critics and questioned why they didn’t express equal outrage on issues like prejudicial voter photo ID laws, racial profiling by law enforcement and inequity in public education.
One of my colleagues expressed amazement that an unfamiliar black clergy group recently expressed displeasure with the president in a press conference held at Washington, D.C.’s prestigious National Press Club, and asked a very reasonable question, “Who arranged for a bunch of black preachers to use the National Press Club and whose agenda are they working?”
African-American Christians tend to listen to clergy they know and trust, not clergy with unknown motives.
No black clergy of my acquaintance plans, as does a clergy person identified in the article in question, to “go fishing” on Election Day. Too many people, sacrificed, suffered and died for the right to vote for anyone to sit on the sidelines and cheapen a sacred right.
My community conversations lead me to believe that responsible, thoughtful and attentive African-American Christians will go to the polls and vote their conscience on Election Day as all good citizens should, regardless of political party.
Our American heritage and civic responsibility demand no less.
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church and vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.