Openly gay Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is working hard to court the favor of black voters in the Bible Belt. But polls show him struggling to catch on among the socially conservative Democratic voting bloc whose beliefs conflict with his lifestyle.
In South Carolina where six in 10 Democratic primary voters are black, the Rev. James Keeton, who leads Morris Brown AME Church, told CBS News that even though Buttigieg has presented himself as a progressive Christian, he is likely to struggle to court black voters because of the role of the church in the black community. Pastor Joe Darby of Nichols Chapel AME Church agreed.
"Black church folks, particularly Southern black church folks, tend to be very progressive when it comes to issues of advocacy, equity, justice, that kind of thing but tend to [be] socially conservative on issues of the flesh ... there's slight discomfort that I've learned, with someone simply being LGBT," Darby said. "It's unfortunate because he's got a good message ... and he does an excellent job in articulating his faith, so I think if folks look beyond the issue of [sexuality] and listened to what he said, they would probably be impressed [but] I don't know if a lot of folks are going to do that."
Older black churchgoers have proven critical in securing the Democratic presidential nomination and Buttigieg recently acknowledged to CBS News that he has a lot of work to do in courting minorities.
"I still need to work to get known in a lot of communities," the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said last weekend. "And that's certainly true when you're new on the scene and you are not yourself from a community of color. It's certainly true in reaching out to black and brown voters who often want to know what you're made of in a way that takes time to explain."
A Buttigieg campaign spokesperson told CBS News that part of its ground game strategy in South Carolina is "relationship-focused" and includes "meeting folks where they are," including in churches.
Some 81% of black people in South Carolina say religion is very important to them and 59% of black people in the state oppose same-sex marriage, a survey from the Pew Research Center shows.
Josh Gadsden, a member of St. Stephens AME Church, told CBS News that while he and many other members of his church don’t have a problem with him running for president, his morals conflict with their beliefs.
"It's not the fact that we won't be able to accept him as a person with his own beliefs, but I think it will conflict with the morals of our beliefs," Gadsden said. "Whether [a candidate] be gay or lesbian or whomever, they do have a place [in the Democratic field] and I feel very strongly about that, but it doesn't mean that I have to be totally accept[ing]."
In April, a defiant Buttigieg declared that his same sex-marriage has moved him “closer to God,” and told Vice President Mike Pence and conservative Christians to “quarrel” with God if they have a problem with his homosexuality.
"My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man — and yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God," Buttigieg declared during a speech at the LGBT Victory Fund's annual brunch in Washington, D.C. "And that's the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand, that if you've got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator."
Buttigieg, 37, who is a veteran, a Rhodes scholar and graduate of Harvard, lives with his husband, Chasten, in the same South Bend neighborhood where he grew up, with their two rescue dogs, Truman and Buddy.
Buttigieg’s position as an ally of the black community was also questioned last month after Tyree Bonds, the brother of Eric Logan, a black man, was shot by a white police officer in South Bend. Many black American residents raised concern about long-standing issues of racial injustice and economic inequality in their town, including police misconduct, inner-city poverty and homelessness, according to NBC News.
Debra Gill, a minister at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in South Carolina who is also the first vice president of the NAACP chapter in Charleston, told CBS News that while she doesn’t think Buttigieg’s sexuality should factor into whether he is able to effectively do his job as president, his "spotty interaction" with the black community in South Bend could be a setback for him.
Charleston branch NAACP Vice President Rev. Joseph Darby, who pastors in the AME Church which opposes same-sex marriage, told Vice News that Buttigieg got a negative reaction when he was brought up at a recent ministerial roundtable.
“One of the other ministers said, ‘Well, that's the dude that kissed his husband on TV, isn't it?’” Darby said. “It's really the marriage aspect that does it for them. I think that's probably his biggest mountain he's going to have to climb.”
A Charleston Post and Courier poll once showed Buttigieg with 6% support among black voters in South Carolina, well below his 17% support among whites. National polls since the June 26 presidential debate have shown that small support for Buttigieg among blacks fading fast. A recent Quinnipiac poll released last Tuesday found him with zero support among black respondents. A CNN poll just over two weeks ago also found Buttigieg at a statistical zero.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose sister is gay, said the black community will have to work on what he called its homophobia and suggested that Buttigieg appear more at events with his husband.
“We've got to openly deal with the homophobia that still lingers in parts of the black community,” Sharpton told Vice News.
“I told Pete to be very honest, take that on,” he said. “And I told Pete to bring his husband with him because we have got to break down this barrier, unapologetic.”
Johnnie Cordero, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, who was once a pastor, disagreed with Sharpton’s approach and suggested that Buttigieg shouldn’t push his lifestyle when dealing with black voters.
“I think in the end, the best thing to do is simply to not flaunt it. I know that sounds strange,” Cordero told Vice News. “Just don't try to force it on other people. It is what it is, you know, and move on.”
Jason Belton, a community organizer and a member of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, whose doctrinal statement condemns homosexuality, told Vice News that no matter what policy ideas Buttigieg promotes, his lifestyle will always be a deal-breaker.
“Coming from a religion point of view, it won't happen,” Belton said. “Not on Front Street.”