Black Churches Struggle Over Clinton vs. Obama

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

COLUMBIA, S.C. _ If it’s true that a house divided cannot stand, then black churches across South Carolina should be shaking.

Take, for instance, this city’s Bible Way Church of Atlas Road.

The black megachurch’s pastor, the Rev. Darrell Jackson Sr., is a paid consultant for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

In the pews, longtime Bible Way parishioner Anton J. Gunn directs the statewide political operation of Clinton’s main rival, Sen. Barack Obama.

The congregation as a whole, some 10,000 strong, sits somewhere in the middle, according to both men.

“I think we have a lot of people who support Hillary Clinton, and we’ve got a lot of people who support Barack Obama,” Jackson said.

Both candidates will need all the support they can muster from the black community to win South Carolina’s crucial Jan. 26 presidential primary, a contest destined to play a significant role in determining the Democratic nominee. And in a state where half of all primary voters are African-American _ a large majority of whom attend worship services three times or more each month _ the road to the White House runs straight through black churches.

It’s not unusual to see Democrats hunting for votes in black houses of worship. Churches have long been the center of African-American communal and civic life, especially in the South.

“You hunt where the ducks are,” said Scott H. Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. “African-Americans in South Carolina are highly religious, they’re in church.”

But this year’s Democratic field, which pits a charismatic black man against a woman who bears a trusted family name, divides the loyalties of black churches and churchgoers _ especially women _ like no election in recent history. A September state poll found that 31 percent of black women favored Clinton, 31 percent Obama and 33 percent were undecided. December polls show Obama surging ahead among African-Americans and Clinton clinging to an overall lead in South Carolina.

“Is it the woman’s turn or is it the African-American’s turn?” asked Tracy Thompson, a 30-year-old criminal justice instructor, as she stood in Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia. “I think that is a struggle for a lot of African-American women right now.”

Though accurate national poll numbers are hard to come by at this stage of the presidential campaign, anecdotal evidence suggests the tug-of-war extends well beyond South Carolina’s borders, said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“The idea of having a black president is really attractive, and so is the idea of having a woman president, so a lot of African-American women are struggling with the question: Which way do I go?”

Of course, many blacks say this election is about more than race and gender; it also concerns health care, the war in Iraq, experience and “electability.” And even those who are emotionally torn exult over their choices. It’s about time, many said, that a woman or an African-American sat in the Oval Office.

But from the choir lofts of the largest sanctuaries to the small corners of a preacher’s soul, the Clinton-or-Obama dilemma is vexing consciences throughout the Palmetto State.

“It’s crazy,” said Willie Lyles III, 23, executive director of Freedom Temple Ministries in Rock Hill. “I was talking to my grandmother the other day, and you can just feel the tension inside her.”

Thelma MacKinney, 74, and Susie Smith, 65, expressed similar thoughts as they sat together in a pew at Bible Way Church on a recent Sunday. McKinney, a member of the church for 25 years, said she was “mixed between Hillary and Obama.”

“It’s so difficult because we’ve got a woman, plus we have a black man” in the primary, said the retired social worker. “And it’s a good thing because it’s time for a change.”

Smith said, “I like both of them. One should be president and the other vice president.”

Gunn, the Obama operative, and Jackson, his pastor, reflect another fault line in the black community: a generational division.

Gunn, 34, said he’s working for Obama because of the senator’s ability to bring people together and turn the page on the country’s stifling partisan past.

Jackson, 50, said he signed on with Clinton because of her experience as first lady and nearly seven years in the U.S. Senate. Like many African-Americans, Jackson also said former President Bill Clinton, who is adored by the black community, was a factor in his decision.

“That got her an audience with me, but she had to close the deal,” he said. “When you get to know her, you will understand that she is as smart as he is.”

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Jackson has been criticized by the media and by political opponents because his company, Sunrise Communications, was hired by the Clinton campaign before he endorsed her. The pastor said the criticism is fueled by racist stereotypes and that Sunrise, from which he does not derive a salary, existed decades before any politicians came calling.

Jackson and Gunn, who are close, said they don’t debate presidential politics and view each other as temporary rivals, practicing for the big game against Republicans when the primaries are over.

“I really view this as a scrimmage; we’re trying to get the best team in the fall,” Jackson said.

The minister said he doesn’t preach politics from the pulpit, but a pastoral seal of approval means a lot in the black community, said Todd Shaw, a professor of African-American studies and political science at the University of South Carolina.

“It says two things,” Shaw said. “One, that I have a minister in the central social institution in the black community behind me. And it’s a cue to the congregation: If your minister thinks enough to endorse me, maybe you should take a look in my direction.”

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Both Clinton and Obama have released lengthy lists of clergy endorsements, including out-of-state civil rights leaders and heads of national denominations. Moreover, both campaigns have trotted out megastars like Oprah Winfrey (for Obama) and Maya Angelou (for Clinton) to help make their case to black women.

In addition, Bill Clinton has graced the pulpit of several black churches, including Bible Way, and met with dozens of black ministers. Two prominent black pastors, the Rev. Suzan Johnson-Cook and the Rev. Marcia Dyson, have discussed faith and women’s issues on behalf of Hillary Clinton in a statewide tour titled “For Such a Time as This,” a line from the Bible’s Book of Esther.

Frances Mitchell, 65, the financial minister at St. Luke Baptist Church in Columbia, said the pastors “gave us some pointers on some of the things that Hillary was looking to do for the African-American community.” Mitchell said she left the meeting sold on Clinton.

Obama has countered with endorsements of his own, as well as frequent Sunday visits to churches throughout South Carolina. But the focus of his outreach to religious voters, advisers say, is the 200 “faith community contacts” who signed up during “faith forums,” in small towns and cities across the state.

The forums, which typically draw a few dozen people, are rooted in Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago’s black neighborhoods. Staffers ask forum attendees to explore how their faith and family interests inform political choices, said Joshua DuBois, the campaign’s director of religious affairs.

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Pastor Kay Colleton, founder of the Manna Life Center in Charleston, said she was drawn to a forum last August out of curiosity. The 45-year-old pastor said she found something there that resonated with her own ministry.

“What has been very attractive is the grass-roots movement,” she said. “The reaching out to people of every variation of life and holding us accountable to each other. That’s what the Bible calls us to do.”

Despite the faith-based outreach, some black voters _ at least one-third, according to the polls _ remain up for grabs. Sarah Franklin is one of them.

“I think Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both have good platforms,” said Franklin, 56, as she stood between services at Bible Way Church of Atlas Road. “I’m really waiting to hear something that clicks with me.”

Photos of the Rev. Darrell Jackson Sr., Thelma McKinney, Susie Smith and other Bible Way Church worshippers are available via https://religionnews.com.

KRE/PH END BURKE

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