CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bishop Phillip Davis had not planned to talk about marriage and politics, but five minutes into his sermon at Nations Ford Community Church in Charlotte he changed his mind.
Not only should the 6,000 members of the overwhelmingly African-American congregation pray with one voice, he said, come May 8 they should vote with one, too.
“You know, we got this amendment on the ballot,” Davis said, walking to the back of the church stage, then throwing his arm around a member of the men’s choir as laughter grew.
“If I was your pastor, and I was married to him, how many of y’all would be here today? ”
Thirty-one states – in 31 tries – have approved amendments to block gay unions. Based on the polls, North Carolina is a good bet to extend the streak May 8, due in part to African-American congregations like Nations Ford.
A March 23 survey by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh showed that black voters statewide support the measure 61 percent to 30 percent. Whites: 58-38 percent in favor.
More than 80 percent of the state’s African-Americans voters are Democrats. Their support for the amendment represents a rare break with the party’s leaders and civil rights groups.
President Barack Obama, who in 2008 received more than 90 percent of the North Carolina black vote, took the unusual step this year of wading into the amendment debate, calling it discriminatory.
Gov. Bev Perdue, all three major Democratic candidates for governor and many other party leaders have also spoken out against it.
The state NAACP has led the fight to defeat the amendment, which would make traditional marriage the only legal union in the state. In Charlotte, political leaders from Harvey Gantt to Mayor Anthony Foxx, both black, also oppose it.
Some black ministers, most prominently the Rev. Ricky Woods of First Baptist Church-West, have spoken out against it. And two weeks before the vote, a few other high-profile black pastors have begun questioning the need and impact of changing the state’s constitution.
“The amendment would not change the law – same-sex marriage is already not legal in this state,” the Rev. Sheldon Shipman said he told the 800 members of Greenville Memorial A.M.E Zion Church last week. “So it becomes a civil rights issue, sanctioning discrimination and making it part of the constitution.”
Yet, most of the state’s African-Americans appear ready to rely on the Bible as their voting guide.
They cite Genesis and the Gospels as defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and quote from Leviticus in the Old Testament and Paul in the New, which call same-gender sex abominable, perverse and shameful.
As such, the marriage amendment has hammered a wedge between two enduring traits of African-American believers – a tradition of political and social activism, and a streak of moral conservatism, especially when it comes to gays and lesbians.
“That’s the quandary: They can’t see that they will be voting against someone’s ability to live their own life,” says Tracy Godfrey of Charlotte, a gay black man raised in a conservative Baptist church who joined Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian a year ago.
“… On a faith level, they will vote against the very thing they’ve been taught in church, ‘that whatever you did to the least of these, you did for me.’ ”
Amendment opponents call the referendum a waste of time and money, given the existing state law against same-sex marriage. They say the wording threatens the legal status and benefits of all unmarried couples, including heterosexuals, and writes discrimination into the constitution.
Based on his sermon, Davis buys none of it. “You’ve heard the talk. As African-Americans, we ought to know that this is discrimination. Discrimination? Black people have been discriminated against because of the color of our skin, not by our behavior or a choice of lifestyle.”
“I was born like this!” Davis shouted while he pointed at his bare hand, “amen ” and “preach-it” rising up from the congregation. “I need you to understand that you and I must stand for what God says!”
‘Conservative moral streak’
The Rev. Rodney Sadler, an African-American associate professor of the Bible at Union Theological Seminary in Charlotte, says such feelings track with the conservative theology of many black Protestant churches.
For example, many of them believe being gay is a matter of choice, not genetics. And like Davis, they bristle when gay marriage is compared to their long fight for civil rights.
In 1991, Sadler was working with the Congress of National Black Churches when in the height of the AIDS plague, the group decided to focus on African-American churches and sexuality. The conversation had not gone well. “It was odd to see that at that critical juncture, so much resistance revolved around homosexuality,” he says.
Some of those same issues still exist, he says, due largely to a “very conservative moral streak” in many black churches.
“For a group that’s only been free since the 1960s,” he says, “we’re still trying to figure out how we fit in the larger spectrum of human rights and what does it mean to be fully free.”
As far as the marriage amendment is concerned, longstanding religious beliefs appear to be trumping traditional political considerations.
“There’s a big disconnect between African-American political leaders and African-American religious leaders,” says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. “On this one, African-American voters are paying more attention to their pastors.”
Dwayne Walker, pastor of Charlotte’s Little Rock AME Zion Church, gave the prayer at last year’s local kickoff for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte that will renominate Obama in September. Walker and his 1,000-member flock believe the definition of marriage goes back to Adam and Eve.
“We have great admiration for the president and stand with him on many things,” he said.
“But we don’t have to agree with him on everything.”
Such positions have opened a potential rift in the traditional coalition of black churchgoers and liberal-to-moderate whites.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls of Unity Fellowship Church says the amendment is part of a conservative strategy to divide longtime political allies by “screaming gay and trying to rile up the black community.”
Up to now, she says, amendment supporters have succeeded in framing the decision as a vote in support of marriage. As a result, she says, many clergy members, black and white, are laying low.
“It’s a case of ‘If I stand publically, I’m standing for gay marriage,’ and nobody wants that perception,” says Rawls, a lesbian and a leader of Clergy for Equality, an interfaith group opposing the amendment.
“Many people who stand progressively on all sorts of issues don’t want to touch this.”
‘The same page’
Jensen, the pollster, says the amendment has the backing of a rare political alliance.
“What’s going to make it so hard to beat is that conservative Republicans and African-Americans are very much on the same page,” Jensen says.
Jeremy Kennedy, executive director of the anti-amendment Protect All NC Families, says opponents will be launching a late advertising blitz to reframe the debate beyond gay marriage. Part of that effort will be aimed at black voters, he says.
The Rev. William Barber, executive director the state NAACP, says blacks will vote no if “they are asked the right questions.”
For example, “Do you believe that discrimination, hate and division should be legalized in our Constitution? Do you believe that at any point in our democracy, the majority should vote on the rights of a minority?’’ he says.
“We’ve been down that road before. It doesn’t work. It’s bad for the very soul of the nation and our state.”
Yet Mark Harris, the white pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte and a statewide leader in the campaign for passage, says the vote will show “how out of touch the state NAACP is with most African-Americans” on the issue.
Harris is counting on the same black support that helped pass Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban. There, almost 60 percent of black voters backed the measure.
Davis of Nations Ford Church, a black Southern Baptist congregation, says he has worked closely with Harris. Efforts to make gay marriage a civil rights issue, he says, “dishonors the blood, sweat and tears African-Americans have laid on the line.”
Any civil rights comparison, Davis says, “assumes I’m just too ignorant to see past the smoke screen.”
Gantt, the city’s first black mayor and a member of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, acknowledges such resentment. “But the facts are the facts,” he adds. “Discrimination is discrimination.”
He believes voters can adhere to their biblical beliefs and still be leery of constitutional change. “I try to remind them that, not too terribly long ago, segregation was written into the law,” he says.
‘Sound bites’ in church
Though Gantt’s pastor, the Rev. Clifford Jones, has not taken a public stand, his church will host an amendment forum April 29, with lawyers and judges to analyze its impact.
Jones, with a congregation of almost 8,000, questions the legislature’s motives in bringing the issue to a vote. So far, he says, it has created “a lot of rhetoric and volatility in the Christian community on an issue that does more to separate than unify.”
Elsewhere in Charlotte, some black ministers have been quicker to add their voices to the debate than others.
At a forum in February, the Rev. Ricky Woods of First Baptist Church-West said the amendment threatens to form a new legal underclass.
Bishop Claude Alexander of Park Ministries, one of the city’s largest and most influential African-American churches, could not be reached for comment.
The Rev. Greg Moss of 5,000-member St. Paul’s Baptist, said he wasn’t endorsing same-sex marriage but will vote against the amendment.
“I’m just really sick and tired of people who want to trot out Scripture when they can use it to their advantage,” he says. “Oftentimes, we are a sound-bite generation, even in the church.”
Churchgoers’ opinions vary
After a recent service at Friendship Baptist on Beatties Ford Road, church members shared a host of opinions. UNC Charlotte student Susan Thoman, 20, said the amendment would take “a lot of rights from people.”
Mike Turner, 63, a retired principal, favors passage and cited the Bible. “I’m all for folks having benefits. But when it comes to marriages, it’s just a man and a woman.”
Fred Gipson, 61, a CPA from Concord, said he’s against same-sex marriage. But he opposes the amendment because of the existing state ban.
At Nations Ford, Davis plans to preach for the amendment on the remaining Sundays before the vote. The church allowed one interview, with deacon Cory James and wife, Monica. Both believe the Bible defines marriage, and say being gay or lesbian is a choice and a sin. Both said they will vote “yes” May 8.
“You want to be nice and supportive and all that,” Cory James said. “But there’s no breaking the rules.”