Pete Buttigieg is used to applause.
But the Democratic presidential candidate didn’t seem to expect the round of applause he received when, 90 minutes into his first African Methodist Episcopal service as a candidate on Sunday, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor was asked to stand and be recognized.
Heading into Buttigieg’s trip, it was an open question whether members of AME churches in South Carolina would forget the years of opposition to same-sex marriage by church leadership and consider supporting Buttigieg, who is gay. The church came out against same-sex marriage in 2004, and church leaders’ decision to ban all AME ministers from performing same-sex marriage that same year “marked the first vote on the issue of marriage rights for same-sex couples by a predominantly African-American denomination,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Both privately and publicly, too, Democratic operatives and some well-known pastors in South Carolina have speculated that it would be difficult for Buttigieg to win over the sometimes more socially conservative Democrats.
Here at the Bethel AME Church on Sunday, though, the presidential candidate was not only publicly well received by those who listened to Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark preach, but over a half dozen parishioners told CNN that Buttigieg’s sexuality was not a factor when considering supporting his 2020 campaign.
“(Buttigieg being gay) means that he’s rock solid in who he is,” said Ama R. Saran, a 71-year-old black parishioner who lives in Georgetown. “He stands in a truth that is very hard to reveal in this country, what with its very masculine leadership and oftentimes the LGBTQ community isn’t thought of in that domain.”
Clark declined to talk about her church’s stance on gay marriage and the way AME parishioners may view Buttigieg.
“I don’t mix my faith with my politics in church,” she told CNN before the service. “I have personal preferences, but I don’t skew people one way or the other. And to be honest with you, I’m sure that every candidate has a question that someone wants to ask about who they are.”
The reception Buttigieg received here in South Carolina’s Lowcountry emphasizes the shift within religious black communities on LGBTQ rights.
Support for same-sex marriage in black Protestant community rising
Black Protestants have long been some of the most skeptical Americans of same-sex marriage. But, like most Americans, their support has grown over the last two decades.
Only 19% of black Protestants supported same-sex marriage in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. That number had more than double to 44% this year.
More notably: The Public Religion Research Institute found in a recent poll that while nearly 6 in 10 (57%) black Protestants opposed same-sex marriage in 2013, just 43% opposed it in 2018, with nearly half (48%) supporting it.
Saran and other parishioners acknowledged that Buttigieg being gay could hold some people back from voting for him, but they added that the number of people – as well as their acceptance in the broader church community – has dwindled in recent years.
“We’ve all had to come clean about who we are and how we are,” Saran said. “And so I appreciate the fact that he would choose us to come to. It says something about our church.”
William J. Washington, an 86-year-old parishioner who was raised in Georgetown before leaving to serve in the Army, said he “definitely won’t hold” Buttigieg’s sexuality against him.
“These days, there is a big difference from when I was a kid. Everything is opening up. Everybody needs a chance,” Washington said. “Just like we were campaigning as blacks for opportunities (years ago), so are the LGBTQ community.”
Washington said that the recent rise in white nationalism has highlighted the importance of not discrediting a candidate because of something like their identity.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in my lifetime,” Margretta Knox, an 88-year-old parishioner said after shaking hands with Buttigieg. “But boy, it doesn’t get any better, to get somebody in there who’s going to try to bring us together.”
Gwendolyn Keith, a 78-year-old member of Bethel for more than two decades, echoed her church family.
“That’s not an issue to me because there’s so many other things going on,” Keith said. “It’s just not an issue to me.”
One reason religious voters have warmed to Buttigieg since he launched his campaign earlier this year is the openness with which he talks about his own faith. Buttigieg, who is Episcopalian, has used his faith to explain some of his personal views, as well as to question some of the policies pushed by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
In an interview with CNN earlier this year, Buttigieg said that his party has wrongly ceded the faith conversation to Republicans.
“Because my party’s been so allergic to religious language, we’ve forgotten that people need to be made aware of their choice,” Buttigieg told CNN.
“I’ve got to speak up, if only to point out the hypocrisies of those now in power,” he added. “Time will tell whether that’s smart politically or not.”
Black voters still aren’t moving to Mayor Pete
Buttigieg told CNN before the church service that the prospect that his sexuality would hold people back from voting for him was “all the more reason to reach out” and attend the service.
“I find a lot of these things fall away when people actually get to know each other as people,” Buttigieg said in Charleston Saturday.
After Sunday’s service, Buttigieg said he was pleasantly surprised by how well he was received.
“I know there were questions, but it turns out people are always pleased to see a presidential candidate and I think a lot folks are aware of what we’ve been doing and encouraging,” Buttigieg said. “Obviously, it was pleasant to be so well received, but you never know what to expect and that’s why we need to be out here all the time earning friends and gaining support.”
It wasn’t all good news for Buttigieg’s at the church service, however.
The event stood out as – by far – the most racially diverse event the mayor headlined during the two-day trip, where most of his events were well over 90% white. That’s a problem in a state like South Carolina, where 60% of the Democratic primary electorate is black.
“Obviously,” Buttigieg said at the end of the trip, “we’ve got a lot of work to continue to do to build up that kind of presence and that’s at the core of our organizing strategy.”
But Buttigieg’s problem has been festering for months and, despite repeated claims that he is working on it, little has changed for the candidate in South Carolina.
For a few hours on Sunday, though, Buttigieg felt the warm embrace of the Bethel AME community.
“We thank God that he has a mind for God,” Clark said of Buttigieg during her sermon, “because we’re in the house of God, and we’re a people of God.”