Perhaps no political party has had a more loyal friend than the Democrats have enjoyed in the post-1970s black community. Just look at the 2000 election, when nine out of 10 African American voters backed the robotic Al Gore, even though he paid them little more than lip service. Their blanket support caused George Bush to set modern lows for a Republican presidential contender; he captured just 8 percent of the black vote—the worst showing since Barry Goldwater.
Yet there is an underappreciated fact about black America that anyone armed with a decent survey could see: Black people vote like Democrats, but on social issues they think like Republicans. Whether the GOP can ever lure churchgoing African Americans from the revival tent to the party’s so-called big tent remains a matter for debate. Now the controversy over gay marriage, a potent brew of religion and politics, is giving Republicans another shot—but don’t bet on their converting it.
The votes are there to be gathered, or so the numbers would suggest. A July poll, by Gallup and CNN/USA Today, concluded that since the Supreme Court overturned Texas’s anti-sodomy law in June, support for gay marriage has dropped precipitously in the black community. Before the decision, when African Americans were asked whether homosexual relationships should be legal, 58 percent said yes; afterward that figure dropped to 36 percent. To put that in perspective, consider that among people—of any race—who attend church every week, 49 percent answered yes.
What’s more, the Alliance for Marriage, for instance, has very consciously recruited African Americans in its efforts to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay unions. Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, is prominent in the group. Its board of advisers comprises several clergymen from the African Methodist Episcopal church and its website conspicuously features black people on page after page.
That may be an isolated attempt at inclusivity. Black conservative Robert Woodson, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, says the GOP hardly capitalizes on what should be natural affinities. “The Republicans don’t exploit the similarities,” he says. “African Americans are vehemently opposed to gay marriage, and Republicans should be working with them to fight it. They should be bringing the two groups together, saying, ‘How can we join you?’ ”
New York-based author Keith Boykin, who’s black and gay, also sees same-sex marriage as an issue that might allow Republicans to siphon a few black votes. Unlike Woodson, the left-leaning Boykin warns that politicos are already trying. “The right wing wants to use same-sex marriage as an issue to divide the progressive base,” says Boykin. “It’s a wedge issue because the right wing wants to convince black people that Democrats are out of touch.”
Republicans in Washington have been outspoken on the issue. Four weeks after the Texas ruling, President Bush made a point of telling reporters he opposed gay marriage. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or another,” Bush told reporters during a press conference. “And we’ve got lawyers looking at the best way to do that.”
By highlighting his opposition to gay marriage, Bush could have struck a chord not only with fundamentalists, but also with the socially conservative element of black America. Could have, that is, if he hadn’t spent most of his presidency singing an off-key version of “Lift Every Voice.”
On the campaign stump, Bush sought to claim some of the minority vote through his “compassionate conservative” ideas. Bush also talked tougher than most Republicans, often conceding that America had not always lived up to its promise in regard to race. When he went to Senegal in July, he nearly surpassed Clinton in showing contrition over colonialism and the slave trade.
But the master of phantom promises kept his education-reform program, No Child Left Behind, underfunded and sat by while his faith-based initiatives—all but designed to appeal to black clergy—were first bungled and later forgotten. Even AmeriCorps, the sort of volunteer program that Republicans begrudgingly gave credit to, was ultimately hung out to dry. With no real policy achievements to hang his hat on, Bush and his supporters could use some common ground with African American voters.
Will they find it in black opposition to gay marriage? “My quick answer is no,” says David Bositis, senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank. “African Americans are maybe more socially conservative than whites, but gay marriage is not a voting issue for African Americans. So while a high percentage may oppose it, are they going to vote on a basis of that? Most certainly not.”
Numbers aside, it’s hard to draw any one conclusion about how African Americans view gay issues. People like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin are seen as pillars of the civil rights movement. The Black Power movement is often derided for its homophobia and sexism. But in the early ’70s Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, penned the bombastic but groundbreaking essay “A Letter From Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters About the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” calling for a more humanistic view of gender and sexuality.
Even in the church, gays have had a mixed experience. Boykin calls the black church one of the most “homotolerant and homophobic” institutions in the country. Sylvia Rhue, director of Equal Partners in Faith, asserts that gays in the black church have existed in a state of semi-acceptance. “Everyone knew that the choir leader was gay, the organist was gay,” says Rhue. “You’d just say, ‘Oh there’s Uncle Bill, who’s a bachelor, and he’s the greatest guy we know. Aunt Sarah and Ann have lived together for 30 years, and that’s nice.’ ”
As confrontations over gay issues have become more overt, so has the black church’s homophobia, Rhue says.
The goal of transforming black fundamentalism into a black conservative voting bloc has proven elusive, however. Much of black history involves African Americans petitioning the government—with varying degrees of success—for protection against racism. Thus African Americans tend to have a progressive view of the role of government. “The difference is that black conservative Christians are more concerned about social and economic needs that the government can address,” says Bositis. “Government is something that white Christian conservatives are against, except in trying to control people’s lives through abortion curbs, etc.”
Today, there simply is no black equivalent of the Christian Coalition. While the black church has been the source of some backward thinking on social issues, it’s also been a hotbed of black leftism—just look at Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton.
Conservatives have yet to outline for African Americans the benefits of shifting their vote rightward. For gay marriage to be a voting issue, they would have to see some sort of cost-benefit analysis. “What do you tell your kids when they ask about the schools?” Bositis says. ” ‘Yeah, but we kept those gay people from getting married’?”