Will gay marriage cost Obama black votes in North Carolina?

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When it comes to blacks and gays, the GOP strategy is to divide and conquer.

The Charlotte Observer reported last week that efforts are underway to use the issue of gay marriage — which remains controversial among many African-Americans in general, and religious blacks in particular — as a way to deny President Obama a win in the key battleground state of North Carolina.

Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina was a watershed moment, leading the president to a decisive 364 Electoral votes. No Democratic president had won the Tar Heel State since 1976. But a Karl Rove strategic blueprint used in the 2004 Bush-Kerry election may prove an Achilles heel for Obama — and among his most loyal voter base.

The black vote: 5 states where Obama needs a big African-American turnout

When the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, it ignited a firestorm across the country. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newson began issuing marriage certificates to gay and lesbian couples, forcing California courts to address the legality of the unions, and sparking a national debate.

Republican-dominated legislatures in 11 states pushed back with ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage. All 11 passed, including in the battleground state of Ohio. This was a key strategy designed in part by Karl Rove, a senior Bush advisor. Political analysts say it drew Republicans to the polls, most significantly in Ohio. And according to an ABC News poll, Ohio saw a five-point increase in turnout among conservatives between 2000 and 2004.

Bush won Ohio by only 136,000 votes, but that win delivered him the election.
Since then, thirty-one states have approved constitutional amendments to make same-sex unions illegal. All have passed, and many with bipartisan support.

North Carolina is expected to follow suit on May 8th, in large part due to African-American churchgoers and organized support from congregations. A March survey by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh showed that black voters support the measure 61 percent to 30 percent.

According to the Charlotte Observer religious leaders like Bishop Phillip Davis of Nations Ford Community Church in Charlotte — with 6,000 members, most of whom are black — are encouraging their congregation to support conservative platforms like the marriage amendment.

Eighty percent of the state’s African-American voters are Democrats, so their support for an amendment banning gay marriage represents a clear break with civil rights organizations and President Obama’s Democratic platform. “While the president does not weigh in on every single ballot measure in every state, the record is clear that the president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples,” said campaign spokesman Cameron French.

Documents from anti-gay group National Organization for Marriage were recently leaked, revealing a campaign to divide gay and African-American Democrats. A passage from the memo read:

The strategic goal…is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.

It is this very strategy which may have lost Kerry the election in 2004, making many Democrats nervous the same could happen again.

North Carolina’s NAACP chapter has led the fight to defeat the amendment; and even Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, also African-American, opposes the measure. Yet in May 2011 an estimated 3,500 Christian conservatives gathered in Raleigh to express support for the ban. Attendees included black pastors and evangelists. As the Observer reported, “most of the state’s African-Americans appear ready to rely on the Bible as their voting guide. They cite Genesis and the Gospels as defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

As such, the marriage amendment hammers a wedge between African-American religious believers and the wider community’s tradition of civil rights activism.

“That’s the quandary: They can’t see that they will be voting against someone’s ability to live their own life,” says Tracy Godfrey of Charlotte. “On a faith level, they will vote against the very thing they’ve been taught in church, ‘that whatever you did to the least of these, you did for me.’ ”

Leaders like Bishop Davis disagree. “You’ve heard the talk. As African-Americans, we ought to know that this is discrimination. Discrimination? Black people have been discriminated against because of the color of our skin, not by our behavior or a choice of lifestyle.”

Rev. Rodney Sadler, a professor of religion based in Charlotte, says these attitudes are commonplace among African-American Christians. Many believe being gay is a choice, not genetics. And like Davis, they hate when gay rights are compared to the African-American civil rights struggle.

“For a group that’s only been free since the 1960s,” he says, “we’re still trying to figure out how we fit in the larger spectrum of human rights and what does it mean to be fully free.”

Bishop Tonyia Rawls of Charlotte’s Unity Fellowship Church acknowledged the conservative strategy to divide political allies by “screaming gay and trying to rile up the black community.”

Former White House adviser Van Jones thinks President Obama has already locked up the support of black voters ahead of the 2012 elections, regardless of his views on gay marriage.

“I think if President Obama came out as gay [it wouldn’t matter]. President Obama is not going to lose the black vote no matter what he does,” Jones recently said during an appearance on MSNBC. “I don’t understand this particular strategy,” Jones continued.

“Certainly, our numbers are a little bit more — because we’re more religious as a community — a little bit softer on some of this stuff, but it’s not a hardcore issue for that many African Americans. In fact, I don’t even understand the argument that gay marriage is a threat to marriage.”

Former NAACP president Julian Bond reiterated that perspective last month on CNN’s AC360. “Gay rights are civil rights,” he said. “All these are exactly the same and universal.”

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.