Despite Protests, McClurkin's Guest Star Turn For Obama a Crowd Pleaser
COLUMBIA, S.C.--Aides to Barack Obama who are concerned about his fortunes nationally cast his decision not to kick Donnie McClurkin off the program of a gospel concert the campaign was hosting as a principled decision, part of the Illinois senator's constant rhetoric of bringing people together even if they disagree. But in South Carolina it was perhaps important to keep him on the bill for a more obvious consideration: despite the singer's controversial comments in the past about homosexuality, which he has likened to a "curse" and said is a choice, he would be a big draw.
When people stopped by Obama's Columbia office over the last few days to ask about tickets, they specifically checked to make sure McClurkin was still coming.
In Columbia last night, a crowd of more than 3,000 in a packed auditorium cheered and clapped during speeches from Obama aides and taped videos of the Senator and his wife, neither of whom attended, but leaped up for applause and cell phone pictures when McClurkin was introduced. A gay South Carolina pastor, Andy Sidden, gave the prayer that opened the event, a compromise the Obama campaign put together after McClurkin's appearance was attacked by gay rights activists. Sidden's prayer noted the importance of people of all races, backgrounds and sexual orientations coming together.
But McClurkin, who won a Grammy in 2004 for his gospel music and is also the pastor of an evangelical church in New York, quickly became the star of the night, which was the conclusion of three gospel concerts the campaign held around the state. McClurkin essentially acted as the emcee of the event, introducing the other gospel artists who performed, and then took the stage for the last hour. In between sermonizing, singing, and raving about Obama, McClurkin repeatedly defended himself.
"I just said yes," he said of his invitation by the Obama campaign. "I didn't know so much was going to happen. I didn't know my yes was going to mean I was misunderstood and vilified. .. . Sometimes people can take your words and do this with them," he said, making a twisting motion with his hands as the crowd shouted Amens and cheered for him.
After another song, he specially addressed the issue of homosexuality, saying he had been "touched by the same feelings."
"Don't call me a bigot or anti-gay,' he said. "Don't call me a homophobe, because I love everybody. . . Let me tell you something, the grace of God is given to all men," he said to loud applause.
For all the controversy during the week, which included a ten-minute call between Obama and Joe Solmonese, the head of the Washington-based gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign, who urged McClurkin not be allowed to appear at the event, there was little tension there. A vigil that was planned to protest outside of the concert included only about 20 people, almost all white, who held signs like "We are Here, We are Queer, we are voting next year," while across the street long lines of African-Americans, who seemed still dressed for church, waited to go into the event that started at 6 p.m.
That McClurkin would not be terribly controversial at this event is not surprising, because he was the main draw, and it was an audience that may share some of his views.
With 90 percent in most elections voting for Democrats, African-Americans are one of the most loyal parts of the Democratic base. At the same time, they differ from the rest of the party in terms of church attendance (more) and support for gay rights (less). Exit polling from the 2004 South Carolina Democratic primary, which John Edwards won, showed 72 percent of blacks who voted attend church weekly, compared to 55 percent of all South Carolina Democrats and 37 percent of Democrats nationally who voted in the general election. According to Washington Post-ABC News national surveys this year, 43 percent of white Democrats support gay marriage, compared to 22 percent of blacks. Around half of blacks, 52 percent, don't support civil unions or gay marriage for gay couples, compared to only 26 percent of whites.
After the event, Sarah Adger and her 23-year-old daughter Unique, who had driven almost an hour to hear the concert, both defended McClurkin. Sarah Adger, who works for the public school system in the state, said she came to the concert because "I love Donny McClurkin." She said that while she did not believe being gay was a choice or a curse, she believed it was immoral because "the Bible says a man should not with another a man the way he would a women."
At the event, McClurkin said more about himself than the man who the concert was supposed to help, Obama. But the singer said the candidate "is standing for change" and "a man not afraid to bring different opinions to the stage."
In fact, for all the criticism on the left for President Bush mixing faith with politics, some of the speakers essentially described voting for Obama as akin to a religious cause.
"He's more than a conqueror through Jesus Christ," said Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Houston pastor who was on the tour and is backing on Obama.
One of the more persistent problems that polling has shown for Obama among black voters is not his experience or whether he's 'black enough," as some critics suggested earlier in the race, but doubts among African-Americans about whether a black person can win. Rick Wade, an Obama adviser who focuses on black outreach, gave what amounted to a sermon on Obama's electability at the start of the concert.
"There are believers and there are non-believers," Wade said. "Non-believers would say he's the most qualified...but they won't vote for him. He won't win. Believers would say he will win. Non-believers would say 'what can we do?' Believers would say 'we can do all things,'" he said, and paused before the crowd loudly responded "through Christ Jesus."
He continued, "Non-believers would say America is not ready, believers would say we are ready."
Obama's campaign is making religious appeals a huge part of their South Carolina strategy. The concerts were the last part of a "40 Days of Faith and Family" that emphasized Obama's faith as he seeks to win black voters, who could comprise up to half of the electorate in the Democratic primary. The concert was full of black women, who have become a key contested group between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Obama's campaign has also held "faith forums" in the state where people hear from campaign aides about how the candidate's faith plays a role in his life and then discuss how faith informs their own lives and their politics. In a shift from traditional Democratic politics, where campaigns often try to win the support of pastors and the candidate mostly just shows up to services on Sundays, Obama's campaign is trying to build support from individual church members, who are supposed to tell other members of their church and religious people they know about Obama, although Obama aides note they do not want people simply calling their church directory.
The campaign will soon have "house parties" designed for people of faith, and last month, the candidate himself appeared at a predominantly black church and then that same morning went to the service of a white church in Columbia.
The concert was to be the highlight of this outreach and while the crowd left excited, it was clear the campaign still regarded the controversy as complicated. Aides gave reporters a three-page memo detailing McClurkin's and Obama's views on gay rights that noted in capital letters "MCCLURKIN DOES NOT WANT TO CHANGE GAYS AND LESBIANS WHO ARE HAPPY WITH THEIR LIVES AND HAS CRITICIZED CHURCH LEADERS WHO DEMONIZE HOMOSEXUALS," with quotes detailing those statements from the singer.
The next paragraph then stated "OBAMA DOES NOT AGREE WITH MCCLURKIN'S VIEWS ON GAYS."
--Perry Bacon Jr.
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