MACON, Georgia (Reuters) - With its painful history of slavery and segregation, it is easy to presume how Southern white voters will respond to Barack Obama, who would be the country’s first black president, but observers say simple assumptions about politics in the region would be wrong.
Obama won only 25 percent of the white vote in the Democratic primary in South Carolina on January 26 and the figure was seen as evidence of unspoken racial divisions and reticence on the part of white voters to vote for a black candidate.
In advance of Tuesday’s primary vote, Obama leads Sen. Hillary Clinton in Georgia by 20 points fueled in part by strong backing from black voters who represent around 27 percent of the electorate, according to a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby International poll on Sunday.
Southern states Tennessee and Alabama will also vote on Tuesday to choose the Democratic nominee who would contest in November’s election to succeed President George W. Bush.
But pastors and leaders of predominantly or exclusively white churches in the South as well as pollsters said that issues of race for Democratic and Republican voters are complex, subject to a subtle interplay of forces that defy easy analysis.
The South is the most conservative part of the country and many white churchgoers are concerned that voting choices based on ideological beliefs are often falsely portrayed as having a racial origin.
“Southern white Democrats are enormously proud of the gains in race relations and ashamed of their history,” said John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, who said it was notoriously difficult to fathom the role of race in voting choices.
“Southern evangelicals say things like: ‘I have doubts about social welfare programs.’ But people don’t want to talk about it for fear of being perceived as racist,” he said. Blacks are often perceived as disproportionate recipients of government welfare programs.
One cliche about church-going in the United States is that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is the week’s most segregated hour.
Half a century after the civil rights movement helped end legally enforced segregation in the South, many churches in the region are essentially all-black or all-white.
Pastors and church leaders warned that it was an over-simplification to say this situation represents a rejection of the other race or racial solidarity and much of it is historical or social.
Many churches want to figure out ways to move the situation forward and become more diverse, said several leaders of these churches.
“Obama is a wonderful person and he would make a great president,” said one pastor of an all-white church in Louisiana, who preferred to remain anonymous. An Obama presidency could help promote reconciliation, he said.
Another leader of an Atlanta church with almost no blacks said they would, in theory, be welcome but few members saw a need to go to out of their way to make them welcome.
“They (members) say: ‘OK, we got rid of the signs on the water fountains, so we are not racist any more.’ .... White people don’t see that (this is inadequate),”’ he said, adding that if Obama presents himself in a way that was non-threatening and became president it could help to change members’ attitudes.
Steve Sawyer, the white pastor of Harvest Cathedral church in Macon, Georgia, which is multi-racial, said racial reconciliation was an integral part of his spiritual journey, though there was no simple formula for promoting it.
And if little is simple in the attitudes of white churchgoers to race and politics, the same is true in predominantly black churches.
Two weeks ago, Obama attended a memorial service for civil rights leader Martin Luther King in the church in Atlanta he led before he was killed 40 years ago.
Black church leaders often compare King to the Old Testament prophet Moses who led the people of Israel out of Egypt and across the Red Sea but died before reaching the Promised Land.
Pastor Raphael Warnock in a sermon compared Obama to Joshua, who finished Moses’ journey by leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land.
After 40 years in the wilderness, Obama could complete the dream of the civil rights movement, he said.
“Maybe it’s time to finish the job. Maybe it’s time to claim the promise,” Warnock said.
Afterwards, one 69-year-old man who marched for civil rights and had known King personally, said he liked the sermon but planned to vote for Clinton.
Editing by Jackie Frank