GREENVILLE, S.C. — Joe Darby, a South Carolina pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, pondered a sensitive question that he knew was on the mind of his congregation. Would black voters be able to reconcile their conservative religious doctrine with voting for a gay candidate for president?
“It’s a heavy lift in the black church,” says Darby, who is also a Charleston-area NAACP leader. “Just as nobody who is racist likes to say, ‘I’m a racist,’ nobody who is homophobic in the black community likes to say, ‘I’m homophobic.’”
In South Carolina, the first state with a predominantly African American electorate, part of the dialogue focuses on a conflict between a cultural openness for same-sex marriage and the deeply held religious convictions that could impede support for the 2020 race’s only gay candidate — Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
The historically diverse field of Democratic presidential hopefuls is overflowing with options. But it is also forcing conversations about the roles — if any — that gender, race and, for the first time, sexuality should play in voters’ decisions.
Black voters comprise more than 60 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate. But an overwhelming majority of African Americans — 79 percent, according to a recent Pew study — also identify as Christians, which some church leaders note can contribute to internal strife between their religious convictions and how they feel about a gay candidate, if they think doctrine says it’s wrong.
“I’m interested to see how Buttigieg is going to play,” said Darby, saying that the mayor “does the best job of articulating his faith of any of the candidates” but is inherently running up against barriers with those to whom he’s still an unknown. “The most damning comment was at a clergy breakfast, and when his name was brought up another guy said, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy who kissed his husband on TV.’”
Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, has not traveled to South Carolina to campaign. Chris Meagher, Buttigieg’s spokesman, said voters are still getting acquainted with the mayor, who this month became the first 2020 Democratic candidate to hire a faith outreach director.
“Pete is focused on meeting folks where they are,” Meagher said. “It just means quantity of time and spending time with folks and making sure that he’s listening to their concerns and that they’re hearing his plans and his policies and his values.”
Besides his overt expressions of his faith, Buttigieg also has offered a broad policy agenda for African Americans and has been outspoken on the issue of race. But he consistently polls in the low single digits among black voters.
Buttigieg, 37, has acknowledged he has ground to make up in terms of making his case to African American voters in South Carolina, where he also attended a Black Economic Alliance forum this summer. On Friday, he’ll sit down for an interview with black church leaders at an Atlanta event expected to attract 5,000 black millennials. This weekend, he’ll return to South Carolina, planning a series of town halls and attending an AME church service.
With six months until South Carolina’s vote, Buttigieg, like many others in the field, is still working to introduce himself to the electorate. But in some corners of South Carolina’s faith community, according to Darby, first impressions may have already hampered Buttigieg’s on-the-ground debut efforts.
Jon Black, an AME pastor along South Carolina’s coast in Bluffton, said that he presumes the church will ultimately move past any divisions over homosexuality and same-sex marriage, as it did previously with divorce.
“If we can get in a time machine and go down the road 25 years, I think the issue would be resolved,” Black said. “It may take us 25 years to make that turn, but we’ve always supported the disinherited, disenfranchised. ... We’ve got to stand with those people who may be the most threatened.”
The church as a whole may not make that change anytime soon, but Black said he didn’t feel that the issue of Buttigieg’s sexuality would override his support if his policy positions prove strong.
“If it gets down to two or three candidates and one happens to be gay, I don’t think that would be a problem for black communities,” Black said.
The attempt to square a willingness to hear all candidates out with a faith-based attitude toward issues of homosexuality is surfacing in conversations in some church communities. Seated in a basement fellowship hall, as Wednesday night services boomed in the sanctuary above, several members of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, mulled over the intersection of sexuality and what many of them agreed should be 2020′s top imperative.
In some circles of faith, LaVelle Pitts said, relying on biblical crutches like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a condemnation of homosexuality can be convenient, but it’s not the full story.
“Am I my brother’s keeper? Of course I am,” Pitts, 52, said. “He’s still a person. If his politics are on target, I have no problem voting for him. ... If you judge him, you may find yourself in that same situation.”
“You have to completely love them more than you love yourself,” agreed Vanessa Young, a 24-year-old small-business owner. “I think that we just need to love them a little.”
Even when faith and sexuality seem in conflict, said Feliccia Smith, the prevailing sentiment should fall on the side of love and wanting someone to feel whole.
“Regardless of the topic, the church is supposed to be a helping and a healing voice,” said Smith, who declined to give her age. “You don’t accept the sin, but you love the person. ... And at the end of the day, God’s word is God’s word.”
Nodding, Young agreed, saying she wouldn’t feel right passing judgment on Buttigieg solely based on his sexuality: “I definitely can’t place judgment on him because I’ve got to go to Judgment Day myself.”
For many, underlying any skepticism of Buttigieg’s personal life, though, remains a theme that has become a constant refrain among Democrats in this early voting state: If he can oust the current White House occupant, little else matters.
“If he’s got good politics, his personal life has nothing to do with what his job will be,” Pitts said. “We have got to have somebody who’s going to beat Trump.”