In the first television ad that his presidential campaign released statewide in South Carolina in December, Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew on the New Testament gospel of Matthew. The South Bend, Indiana, politician quoted a line from the popular biblical passage that speaks to caring about those in need. Buttigieg promised, “In our White House, you won’t have to shake your head and ask yourself: Whatever happened to ‘I was hungry and you fed me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me?’” The ad likely targeted religious black voters, a demographic crucial for a win in South Carolina’s February 29 primary. In the Palmetto state, black voters make up the majority of Democratic or Democratic-leaning voters (nearly 61 percent in the 2016 primary). They are also a deeply religious demographic, both in the state and nationally.
Despite Buttigieg’s top-tier finish in Iowa and second-place finish in New Hampshire—both majority-white states—black voters, especially religious black religious voters, may prove to be his Achilles heel. A Quinnipiac University poll released February 10 shows that he polls at a mere 4 percent among black Democrats and black Democratic-leaning voters nationwide.
The majority of black Americans—almost eight in ten, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report—identify as Christian and three out of four say religion is “very important in their lives.” In one sense, Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, should appeal to these voters. Of all the Democratic candidates, he is perhaps the most fluent in the language of faith. He calls climate change a sin, telling Stephen Colbert that, because it harms today’s and tomorrow’s generations, “I don’t imagine that God is going to let us off the hook.” He also told Colbert that Christianity says “that we are obliged to serve the poor and heal the sick and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.” During a Democratic debate question on immigration and the border, he accused Republicans of hypocrisy because they associate their party with Christianity and yet “suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents.”
Multiple factors affect how Buttigieg is seen by black voters, including religious ones; these include his tense relationship with parts of South Bend’s black community, especially after a black man was killed by a white police officer last June. The now 38-year-old candidate has also stirred controversy with comments he made in 2011 about the lack of role models who value education for low-income minority students, and by comparing his struggles as a gay man with those of African Americans. Also, his campaign’s Douglass Plan for Black America received negative publicity when an accompanying image turned out to be a stock photo of a woman from Kenya and when several African Americans described as endorsing the plan said their views were misrepresented.
The conventional campaign wisdom is also that his identity as a gay, married man is at least partly responsible for his low levels of support among black South Carolinians—a belief that has some merit but that also reinforces racist stereotypes. Most black churches embrace progressive views on a range of issues but many hold conservative attitudes toward same-sex relationships. A 2019 Pew Research Center study shows that only 44 percent of black Protestants are in favor of same-sex marriage. Sociologist Samuel Perry’s research reports that, over the past decade, the majority of twelve sociological studies exploring a possible link between religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage identified black Protestants, along with white evangelicals, as the least supportive religious group. And yet, Pew also found that the majority (65 percent) of black Protestants support laws “protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.”
When the dean of the South Carolina Democratic delegation, Rep. James Clyburn, was asked during an interview with CNN in November whether Buttigieg’s being gay was an issue for black voters in his state, he answered: “There is no question about that. I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise, because I think everyone knows that’s an issue.” He also said that this reticence is generational and one that is changing among younger people, noting that his own grandson works for Buttigieg’s campaign. He added that “it’s an issue not the way it used to be.”
Echol Nix, Jr., a pastor and religion professor at Claflin University, a historically black college and university (HBCU) in Orangeburg, South Carolina, agrees. “I don’t think personally Buttigieg is going to have a very strong hold in the black religious community, to be quite frank,” he told me, adding, “I do think that is going to be a pretty hard push for him to sway an older vote. It’s just because of the conservatism in terms of black perceptions of sexuality and views on sexuality.”
Like Clyburn, though, Nix believes that younger black South Carolinians, especially those attending colleges and universities, may be more open to outreach by Buttigieg. Nix said these students “could have their parents and grandparents think more deeply about his campaign.” He also pointed out that Clyburn’s grandson, Walter Clyburn Reed, “is a big supporter of Buttigieg.”
It was Reed, a paid staffer for the “Pete for America” campaign, who introduced Buttigieg to students during the mayor’s early December tour of South Carolina State University, another HBCU. One of those students, 22-year old Charles C. Patton, told The Chicago Tribune that Buttigieg asked him what he “felt his issues were with the black community, or at least why he wasn’t connecting.” Patton suggested that Buttigieg stop “comparing the struggle of being gay to the struggle of being black” and focus on explaining what he could do for the black community instead. Patton also told Buttigieg that he didn’t think his sexual orientation was an issue, “No. 1, because we don’t really care.”
Patton and other young black voters may not really care, but when it comes to election results, their elders will likely carry the day. During South Carolina’s 2016 Democratic primary, voters younger than 30 years old accounted for a mere 15 percent of voters. Though these younger voters preferred Bernie Sanders, the favorite candidate of the 30-and-over voters was Hillary Clinton, and she won every county in the state. In more than half those counties, Clinton won by more than 80 percent.
To make inroads with the black community, Buttigieg’s campaign also hired Abe Jenkins, grandson of civil rights activist Esau Jenkins, as its state political director for South Carolina. Jenkins worked as an organizer focused on faith outreach for Barack Obama’s campaigns. He was “living a retired life” when he was invited to a lunch for Buttigieg, an event that convinced him to become a supporter. Over the past few months, he tells me, field organizers and political teams have visited different houses of worship every Sunday—he counts anywhere from 300 to 500 services throughout the state—to introduce themselves to the faith community, to make brief presentations when permitted, and to invite worshippers to house meetings. The campaign has also organized breakfasts and luncheons where they talk to ministers and religious leaders about Buttigieg’s programs and “allow them to have a real fruitful discussion regarding our candidate and faith and inclusion and the church’s role in social justice.”
To coordinate faith outreach to religious voters nationwide, last summer the Buttigieg campaign hired Shawna Foster, a white, queer Unitarian Universalist minister. During an interview, Foster brings up South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel Church, the African Methodist Episcopal church where, in 2015, nine black members were murdered by a white man. Buttigieg has met with the church’s pastor. Foster said, “There’s a feeling that we need to protect one another, that we need to be there for one another, that freedom of religion is not the freedom to discriminate but it is about making sure people really are free from fear to be able to worship.”
South Bend, Indiana, is a largely Christian city with strong ties to the Catholic Church, thanks in part to nearby University of Notre Dame. Buttigieg was already mayor of South Bend when he came out as gay in 2015. Later that year, he was reelected with 80 percent of the vote. In terms of LGBT rights and religion, Foster told me, “So I really feel that his candidacy is a testament that this country has moved on in a lot of ways.” Asked about Buttigieg and the black voters of South Carolina, Foster said “people just meet Pete and they like him. The more they read about him, the more they hear about him, the more they see him, the more they like him.” She said, “Pete’s just talked about how his marriage strengthens his faith, which is true, and people love that. That’s what people of faith really want all marriages to be like.”
Lauren Brown, Buttigieg’s South Carolina communications director, issued a press release after the New Hampshire debate with new endorsements from seven South Carolina ministers, three African Americans among them. The Rev. Ann McCants, of the non-denominational A More Excellent Way Church, said she was swayed by Buttigieg’s “respect for religious freedom.” Her husband, Pastor Mike McCants, also endorsed the former mayor. The Rev. DeMett Jenkins, director of education and engagement for faith-based communities at the International African American Museum in Charleston, was swayed by her belief that Buttigieg’s administration will hold health insurance companies accountable for focusing “on payment as opposed to people.”
In the current election cycle, much is at stake in South Carolina for Buttigieg. It will be the fourth state to hold a contest but the first to signal which candidates black voters favor. Since they make-up about 20 percent of Democratic voters nationwide, their support, or lack thereof, could make or break a candidate vying to become the Democratic presidential nominee. A lack of support could also depress crucial voter turnout in the general election. Some political analysts argue that if all racial groups had turned out for the 2016 presidential election at 2012 levels, Hillary Clinton might have won key swing states.
Former Vice President Joe Biden holds the lead in South Carolina but, after abysmal finishes in other early primary and caucus states, his ability to beat Donald Trump is in question. Black voters, long-time supporters of Biden and essential to securing his bid for the nomination, are looking at other candidates. Buttigieg, a fellow moderate, no doubt hopes to pick up some of those voters. Leading up to the primary, his campaign began airing a new television ad in South Carolina featuring staffers Reed and Jenkins, both black men, talking about their famous grandfathers.
Only time will tell how helpful Buttigieg’s outreach to black religious voters has been. He slipped into third place in the Nevada caucus, but the candidate has done better than once predicted in the fight for the Democratic nomination. Before primary voting began, on a Sunday morning in late October, he offered remarks at a worship service for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church regional conference in Rock Hill, South Carolina. In the pulpit, he again returned to the gospel passage of Matthew, quoting it as representative of his social justice policies. “They call me Mayor Pete,” he said in his introduction, “and God has been very, very good to me”—a line that drew applause and a round of “amens.”
Myriam Renaud is a Chicago-based writer with a PhD from the University of Chicago. Her work has appeared in Religion & Politics, The Atlantic, The Conversation, Religion Dispatches, The Globe Post, and Sightings.