Conservative black pastors nationwide are caught between irreconcilable opposites - congregations that overwhelmingly favor Sen. Barack Obama versus their personal doubts about the Illinois Democrat’s politics, particularly on abortion.
“It’s a theological contradiction, from the Christian perspective, to be excited about Obama,” said the Rev. Levon Yuille, pastor of the 100-member Bible Church in Ypsilanti, Mich. “Very few black pastors have problems supporting Obama because they are fixated on this race thing.”
“The congregations are pro-Obama. My congregation is saying Obama is the lesser of two evils,” said Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, a 3,000-member majority black congregation.
“When I say that on third-term abortions, Obama has no conscience, they say [Sen. John] McCain and [Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton] weren’t great examples of morality either.”
The Rev. John W. Stephenson, pastor of Heirs Covenant Church, a 300-member church in West Chester, Ohio, said he has to “educate” his members regularly.
“People say, ‘This is an opportunity that will never come again for our people,’ ” he said. “I say, ‘Yes, we are African-Americans, but we are also Christians.”
Several pastors interviewed said they have had to work overtime to tutor their flocks about Mr. Obama’s views, especially on abortion, which has disproportionately affected blacks. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research group, black abortion rates are three times that of whites and twice that of Hispanics.
As an Illinois state senator, Mr. Obama voted against the Illinois Born Alive Infants Protection Act, a bill that protected babies who survive abortions. Last year, the senator condemned the Supreme Court’s ban on partial-birth abortion.
“Obama I am afraid of,” said the Rev. Kim Daniels, pastor of the 400-member Spoken Word Ministries in inner-city Jacksonville, Fla. “I have a problem of people voting for him because he is black. Some of our African-American preachers are so excited to see someone who looks like them even though they are not getting someone who believes like them.
“But my life as a black person does not mean more than my life as a believer. I am voting for that baby that never gets to vote,” she said.
Other voices are being raised. Ben Kinchlow, a former co-host for the Christian Broadcasting Network and author of the new book “Black Yellowdogs,” said many black churchgoers unthinkingly support the Democratic Party.
“Many black Christians voting for Obama are doing so for emotional reasons and not because they’ve studied the issues,” he said. “They think Barack Obama is the shining city on the hill; that now is the chance to move into the 21st century without what regarding what the real issues are.”
Bishop Gilbert Coleman, pastor of the 1,000-member Freedom Christian Fellowship in Philadelphia, said black believers are not knowledgeable about Mr. Obama’s beliefs.
“People blindly go to the polls and blindly pull the lever for ‘Democrat,’” he said. “We are not that divided as a congregation right now, but there are others in Philadelphia that are split over this.”
What shook him most, he said, was a recent Obama endorsement by the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a confidante to President Bush and pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston.
“Kirbyjon is very big on economic development,” Bishop Coleman said. “But there are a lot of things Obama is saying that are very uncomfortable to Christian evangelicals.
“Some of the basic tenets of the Christian faith he does not hold to. The homosexual agenda, abortion and things he’s said about the economy are unsettling. He does not take a true position as it relates to his own Christianity.”
All the pastors interviewed said they are hammering home to their congregations the consequences of their votes.
“We are educating people about things Sen. Obama has stood for in the past and will stand for if he becomes president,” Mr. Stephenson said. “As a spiritual leader, I have a responsibility to help navigate members through these issues.”
The rub is that many pastors aren’t that keen on Mr. McCain, said Bishop Jackson, whose new book, “The Truth in Black & White: A New Look at the Shifting Landscape of Race, Religion and Politics in America Today,” deals with some of these issues.
“McCain’s stance on stem cell research and his lack of spiritual input makes it a lot tougher saying he is the right guy,” he said. “We can’t say, ‘Don’t vote for Obama’ when McCain is this weak.”
“I will find it difficult to vote for either of the candidates,” Mr. Yuille said. “It is very distressing to me the black pulpit is so compromised on politics. It puts us at odds with God.”