To get from downtown Atlanta to the First Iconium Baptist Church, take Ralph David Abernathy freeway and follow the signs to the Confederate complex. Outside the church a welcome board states: "If you are headed in the wrong direction God allows U-turns."
Inside at a black church summit on gay rights organized by the National Black Justice Coalition, the Rev. Al Sharpton is trying to persuade black churches to rethink the path some have taken on gay rights.
Sharpton believes homophobia provided the Republican Party with the key to many a vestry door. In the last presidential election, the GOP boosted its share of the black vote to 11 percent, the postwar average, up from 8 percent in 2000, the lowest level in nearly four decades. (Following Hurricane Katrina it slumped to just 2 percent.) "The majority of the votes that Bush got in the African-American community was from his homophobic appeal," says Sharpton, who went on to invoke the spirit of Bayard Rustin, the gay black organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Republicans "couldn’t come to black churches to talk about the war, about healthcare, about education, about poverty. So they did what they always do and reached for bigotry against gay and lesbian people."
At first glance this strategy seems to have paid off. In early January a black minister, Herbert Lusk II, hosted a huge rally supporting the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito–attended by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson–at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, where he is the pastor. The event laid bare the tensions between the black church and the broader progressive movement. As one of the few autonomous institutions allowed under segregation and slavery, the church has long been the principal tool for political advancement in black America. Throughout, even as its influence has diminished, it has continued to play an ambivalent yet decisive role in liberation struggles–a socially conservative institution leading a community whose fight for equality necessitates radical change. This problem is not new–the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually had to leave the National Baptist Convention because of its reluctance to support the civil rights movement. But on issues like gay rights the contradictions are particularly acute and ripe for exploitation by the Christian right.
In 2004 Republicans did particularly well in key swing states, including Ohio, where voters approved a same-sex-marriage ban and where the GOP’s share of the black vote went up from 9 percent, in 2000, to 16 percent.
Whether homophobia in the black churches fueled these increases is debatable. Glen Ford, editor and co-publisher of blackcommentator.com, a left-wing webzine, says it was irrelevant. "The Bush regime poured tens of millions of dollars into the preachers who were pliable and amenable to Republican subversion," he says. "Homophobia didn’t have a thing to do with it." Sharpton argues it was pivotal. "I’m not dreaming this…[gay marriage] became the predominant issue in the 2004 election. It re-elected George Bush."