Dividing Lines

Is the Black Vote Really in Play?

Conservative blacks may not like same-sex marriage. But that may not matter for Obama. By Allison Samuels.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

When respected New York-based Senior Pastor A.R. Bernard told a well-known media outlet that he was still undecided on whom he would vote for in the upcoming presidential election, some took it to be a stinging indictment of Barack Obama and his recent support of same-sex marriage.

Bernard is the founder of the predominantly black Christian Cultural Center in New York, a church that regularly hosts the likes of Denzel and Pauletta Washington and boasts a membership of more than 40,000. Bernard’s reported ambivalence ended up placing him into the often-referenced yet camera-shy group of black ministers said to be actively suggesting to their members that they simply not vote at all on Nov. 6th, in response to Obama’s same-sex marriage stance.

In a close election, the mere hint of black voters holding back their ballots for any reason is cause for concern for Team Obama. In 2008, the president received more than 95 percent of the African-American vote.

Rev. Bernard, whose endorsement has often been courted by local and national politicians, says he was none too pleased with reports that accused him of opposing votes for Obama simply because he questioned the president’s opinion and timing on same-sex marriage. Bernard has spent the last week attempting to clarify and differentiate between how he views the first black president’s controversial decision and what he actually plans to do about it.

“After what we’ve gone through as a people, I’d never suggest not voting to my members and I’m not sure that many other pastors would either,” Rev. Bernard says firmly. “I’ve heard about ministers telling this to their members in the media, but I have not actually met one or spoken with one doing so. We’re having a voter’s registration event at my church next month, which further illustrates why the assumption that I tell my members not to vote is ridiculous.”

Rev. Bernard adds that what he won’t be doing is telling his members exactly who to vote for.

“I tell them to study the facts and to understand what each candidate is offering them and their lives and futures,” he says. “That’s what each election is about. So far, for me, Romney hasn’t shown me that he has the community’s best interest at heart. It’s not based on religion.”

The disappointment and anger from many African-American ministers over President Obama’s announcement that he now favors same-sex marriage has been a steady conversation and source of concern for the president’s campaign team since May. In an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, the president said he’d reversed his long-held opposition based on conversations with staff members, openly gay and lesbian service members and his wife and daughter.

His decision immediately caused a rift with some older, ultraconservative, and deeply religious segments of the African-Americans community who’ve long opposed homosexual relationships and gays’ right to marry. Many in that same group also strongly disagree with the idea that those fighting for gay rights are in any way similar to the civil-rights movement of the ’60s.

“People don’t have to know you’re gay, but they do have to know I’m black,” said 67-year old Larry Jacobs, a retired car salesman from Long Beach, Calif. “I can’t hide that even if I wanted to. I don’t have an option. So it’s not the same in my mind. I don’t see it as the same fight.”

Jacobs says that while he was taken aback by the president’s sudden decision, he’s never wavered on the act of voting—or just who he’ll vote for next month. There’s also been no talk of staying home from the pulpit of his local Baptist church either.

“I don’t agree with that position from Obama,” said Jacobs. “I don’t like it at all and I was disappointed in him for it. But that won’t stop me from voting or from voting for him in November. Not voting for him is a vote for Romney and God knows he won’t do anything for black folk at all. That man could not care less about colored folk like myself. He all but said it. So I can’t afford to worry about Obama thinking gay folk should marry.”

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Rev. Bernard says Jacobs’s line of thinking is very common, despite what media reports continue to claim. Still, he adds that the discussion itself on same-sex marriage and Obama is an unfortunate distraction during a crucial election season.

“I do think it was an unnecessary political risk for the president to take, given that particular voting block was in favor of him anyway,” says Rev. Bernard. “I do think that announcement caused some of us to question what direction he’s taking the country in, but that in no way suggests not voting or not judging the president’s entire record as a whole before deciding where your vote will go. The president has done some very impressive work in the face of major obstacles over the last four years and that can’t be denied.”

Though frustrated by Obama’s decision, Rev. Bernard says he feels African Americans are ultimately aware of what’s at stake most for people of color in 2012.

‘’There are moral rights and there are civil rights and we understand that completely,” he says. “But there are tenets of my faith that are guided by my religious beliefs and that’s going to always be there. That said, President Obama isn’t in office to be our rabbi or pastor in chief. He is our president and I tell my members to judge and vote based on that.”