When it comes to black churches' views on politics, the answer is — it's complicated.
Nearly 90 percent of African-Americans are religious, according to 2009 research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
But not all African-Americans mix their faith and politics. According to a May article in the Washington Post, 59 percent of African Americans say they support same-sex marriage.
In the South, 1 in 3 swing voters strongly opposes same-sex marriage, according to a May article in the Los Angeles Times.
“I don't think people will throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Milton said. “But his decision was an arrow to the heart.”
The president of the Tyler chapter of the NAACP, Ernest Deckard, disagrees.
“Everybody has equal rights,” he said. “A lot of time people want to make their opinion law … I don't think it (the announcement) will hurt him (Obama's chances of winning),” he said.
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.
It's unclear just how widespread the sentiment is that African-American Christians would be better off not voting at all.
Other pastors say that not voting is not an option.
Greater St. Mary Baptist Church in Tyler is hosting organizational meetings for churches to work together to get Smith County residents registered to vote, facilitate the ballot by mail process and provide transportation to the polls for early voting and voting on Election Day.
“We see this as a need in Smith County as a whole,” said the Rev. Michael Mast, pastor of Greater St. Mary Baptist Church. “The right to vote is one of our most precious rights.”
The goal is to register 10,000 residents by Oct. 9, and each church is asked to make sure every member and their families are registered to vote. So far, True Vine Baptist Church, Shady Grove Baptist Church and North Star Missionary Baptist Church are involved.
“I think (for a black pastor to discourage voting) is the most ridiculous thing. People died for our right to vote. For a black pastor to say 'don't vote,' is a betrayal of our legacy that has been passed to us. You may not agree with everything a candidate is saying — I don't agree with everything the candidate I plan to vote for says. It's not a question of 'the lesser of two evils.' We owe it to our nation to support a candidate and then put pressure on him to do what's right once he is elected. We should never minimize the blessing of the right to vote. I wouldn't want to live in a country where I didn't have the right to speak my mind.”
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 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.
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.
“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.”
Additional meetings with Greater St. Mary Baptist Church in Tyler are scheduled for 6 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1 and Oct. 8 at the Greater St. Mary Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, 1615 Texas College Road. Mast said that the congregation plans to continue the registration initiative even after elections.
For more information on Greater St. Mary Baptist Church's initiative, call 903-592-3774.