Some black clergy, seeing no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports gay marriage, are telling their flocks to stay home on Election Day, a worrisome message in a tight race.
The pastors say their congregants are asking how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as President Barack Obama did in May. As for Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, congregants are questioning the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.
There's no question which candidate is expected to win the black vote. In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of black voters and is likely to get an overwhelming majority again. But the nation's first African-American president can't afford to lose any voters from his base.
"When President Obama made the public statement on gay marriage, I think it put a question in our minds as to what direction he's taking the nation," said the Rev. A.R. Bernard, founder of the predominantly African-American Christian Cultural Center in New York. Bernard, whose endorsement is much sought-after in New York and beyond, voted for Obama in 2008. He said he's unsure how he'll vote this year.
It's unclear just how widespread the sentiment is that African-American Christians would be better off not voting at all. Many pastors have said that despite their misgivings about the candidates, blacks have fought too hard for the vote to ever stay away from the polls.
Black church leaders have begun get-out-the-vote efforts on a wide range of issues, including the proliferation of state voter identification laws, which critics say discriminate against minorities. Last Easter Sunday, a month before Obama's gay marriage announcement, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Baltimore formed the Empowerment Network, a national coalition of about 30 denominations working to register congregants and provide them with background on health care, the economy, education and other policy issues.
Yet, Bryant last month told The Washington Informer, an African-American newsweekly, "This is the first time in black church history that I'm aware of that black pastors have encouraged their parishioners not to vote." Bryant, who opposes gay marriage, said the president's position on marriage is "at the heart" of the problem.
Bryant was traveling and could not be reached for additional comment, his spokeswoman said.
The circumstances of the 2012 campaign have led to complex conversations about faith, politics and voting.
The Rev. George Nelson Jr., senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas, participated in a conference call with other African-American pastors the day after Obama's announcement during which the ministers resolved to oppose gay marriage. Nelson said Obama's statement had caused a "storm" in the African-American community.
Still, he said "I would never vote for a man like Romney," because Nelson has been taught in the Southern Baptist Convention that Mormonism is a cult.
As recently as the 2008 GOP primaries, the SBC's Baptist Press ran articles calling the LDS church a cult. This year, however, prominent Southern Baptists have discouraged use of the term when addressing theological differences with Mormonism. Many Southern Baptist leaders have emphasized there are no religious obstacles to voting for a Mormon.
Nelson planned to vote and has told others to do the same. He declined to say which candidate he would support.
"Because of those that made sacrifices in days gone by and some greater than others with their lives. It would be totally foolish for me to mention staying away from the polls," he said in an email exchange.
Romney has pledged to uphold conservative positions on social issues, including opposing abortion and gay marriage. But many black pastors worry about his Mormon beliefs. Christians generally do not see Mormonism as part of historic Christianity, although Mormons do.
African-Americans generally still view the church as racist. When LDS leaders lifted the ban on blacks in the priesthood in 1978, church authorities never said why. The Mormon community has grown more diverse, and the church has repeatedly condemned racism. However, while most Christian denominations have publicly repented for past discrimination, Latter-day Saints never formally apologized.
Bernard is among the traditional Christians who voted for Obama in 2008 and are now undecided because of the president's support for gay marriage. But Bernard is also troubled by Romney's faith.
"To say you have a value for human life and exclude African-American human life, that's problematic," Bernard said, about the priesthood ban. "How can I judge the degree to which candidate Romney is going to allow his Mormonism to influence his policies? I don't know. I can't."
Romney said in a 2007 speech that LDS authorities would have no influence on his policies as president. He also said he wept when he learned that the priesthood ban had been abolished because he was anxious for it to be lifted. But that has done little to change perceptions among African-Americans and others.
"Obama was supposed to answer for the things that Rev. Wright said," said the Rev. Floyd James of the Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, at a recent meeting of the historically black National Baptist Convention. "Yet here's a guy (Romney) who was a leader in his own church that has that kind of history, and he isn't held to some kind of account? I have a problem with that."
Obama broke in 2008 with his longtime Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, after videos of his incendiary sermons were broadcast.
Many Democrats and Republicans have argued that Romney's faith should be off limits. The Rev. Derrick Harkins, faith outreach director for the Democratic National Committee, travels around the country speaking to African-American pastors and other clergy. He said concerns over gay marriage have receded as other issues take precedence, and no pastors have raised Mormonism in their conversations with him about the two candidates.
"There's just no space in this campaign for casting aspersions on anyone's faith," Harkins said in a phone interview. "It's not morally upright. It's not ethically appropriate."
The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, who leads the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., said he is telling his congregants, "Let's not make the election a decision about someone's salvation." Last spring, when it became clear that Romney would be the GOP nominee, congregants starting asking about Mormonism, so Wesley organized a class on the faith. He said congregants ultimately decided that "we could not put Mormons under the boundaries of orthodox Christianity."
But Wesley said, "I don't want Gov. Romney to have to defend the Mormon church, the way President Obama had to defend Jeremiah Wright." Wesley, whose congregation has more than 5,000 members, said he will be voting for Obama.
The Rev. Lin Hill, an associate pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., said in a phone interview that he plans to travel with other local pastors to about 50 congregations over two weeks to hold discussions and distribute voter guides that will include a contrast between historic Christianity and Mormonism, and educate congregants about the former priesthood ban.
Hill is active in his local Democratic Party but said he's acting independently of the campaign. He said Mormon theology becomes relevant when congregants argue that they can't vote for Obama because, as a Christian, he should have opposed gay marriage.
"If you're going to take a tenet of a religion and let that dissuade you from voting, then we have to," discuss Mormon doctrine, Hill said. "We want folks to have a balanced view of both parties, but we can't do that without the facts."
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a prominent Southern Baptist and black preacher, describes himself as a political independent who didn't support Obama in 2008 because of his position on social issues. McKissic said Obama's support for same-gender marriage "betrayed the Bible and the black church." Around the same time, McKissic was researching Mormonism for a sermon and decided to propose a resolution to the annual Southern Baptist Convention that would have condemned Mormon "racist teachings."
McKissic's Mormon resolution failed.
On Election Day, McKissic said, "I plan to go fishing."