How far is Bishop Gilbert Thompson willing to go?
The answer could help determine Deval Patrick’s fate — especially if the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination keeps getting tighter. Ever since Patrick, a former US assistant attorney general and Coca-Cola executive, entered the fray earlier this year, he’s enjoyed considerable buzz among progressive voters dissatisfied with the current frontrunner, Attorney General Tom Reilly. The excitement stems largely from Patrick’s enthusiastic embrace of same-sex marriage. Unlike Reilly, whose stance on the issue has shifted from opposition to grudging acceptance, Patrick has been a clear and emphatic supporter of full marriage rights. This progressive loyalty has helped Patrick gain momentum; while he still trails in overall fundraising, he outraised Reilly by over $50,000 ($178,000 to $105,000) in May. Still, for Patrick to win the nomination and become governor, every other constituency that might support him — from suburban independents intrigued by his corporate background to voters of color eager to elect an African-American governor — will have to be on board as well.
This is precisely where Bishop Thompson could pose problems. Thompson is the leader of Jubilee Christian Church, situated on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, just north of the Milton border. On Sunday mornings, the cars turning into Jubilee’s parking lot grind traffic to a halt. Close to 1500 people routinely attend Thompson’s services. And with approximately 7000 members, Jubilee has the biggest congregation of any black church in greater Boston.
Thompson’s influence goes even further. He recently became president of the Black Ministerial Alliance (BMA), an organization that represents Boston’s black clergy and (indirectly) the 20,000-some members of the churches they lead. Furthermore, as the gay-marriage battle has continued to rage on Beacon Hill, Thompson has served as the BMA’s designated attack dog on the issue. When State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who is African-American, spoke out in favor of gay marriage last year, Thompson condemned her for endorsing "a radical sexual agenda that will destroy the family as it now exists." And just last week — when Mitt Romney endorsed a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages without creating civil unions — Thompson was front and center, standing next to the governor in a photo that got prominent play in the Boston Globe.
It wasn’t the first time the governor and the bishop had mugged for the cameras together. In 2003, Thompson hosted Romney’s inaugural prayer breakfast at his church, then known as New Covenant Christian Church, and praised Romney as "an obviously great man with great wisdom." Since then, the Bay State Banner, Boston’s African-American newspaper, has described Thompson as a "Romney advisor" and quoted Romney calling the bishop his "kitchen cabinet."
Keeping the faith
Thompson’s opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t surprising. "African-Americans are less supportive of gay marriage than whites," notes David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and an expert on African-American political behavior. (Poll numbers vary, but about 60 to 80 percent of blacks are thought to oppose gay marriage.) In addition, while some of Thompson’s colleagues in the BMA have publicly backed more-liberal candidates — for example, the Reverend John Borders, of Mattapan’s Morning Star Baptist Church, supported Linda Dorcena Forry’s bid for state representative this year — African-American clergy, like clergy of other backgrounds, tend to be more conservative than the people they minister to. (Thompson’s fixation on gay marriage also reflects a larger preoccupation with sexual matters. He teaches a class at Jubilee called "Great Sexpectations" with his wife, Yvonne; during his Father’s Day sermon, after lamenting his own battle with sexual addiction, Thompson urged the males in the audience to treasure the "gift within your loins.")
Thompson’s ties with Romney also fit a larger trend. Ever since George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, the Republican Party has shown a keen interest in forging links with African-American clergy. Thus far, the payoff has been small; in 2004, Bush received only 11 percent of the African-American vote. But there may be more substantial gains in the future, especially given the ongoing gay-marriage debate and the president’s "faith-based initiative" program, which has steered millions of dollars to black churches. "The Republican Party is taking the initiative to engage the black religious community in conversation, and they’re prepared to do it in a way that is respectful more than paternalistic," says the Reverend Charles Stith, a former minister at Boston’s Union United Methodist Church who served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Tanzania. "I think the Democratic Party is really blowing an opportunity in that it’s not doing the kind of outreach that it ought to do."
In short, it would be foolish for Deval Patrick to expect Bishop Thompson’s endorsement. But Thompson may be gearing up to actively oppose Patrick’s candidacy. Last week, a few days before the bishop appeared with Romney at the State House, a rumor began circulating among Democratic insiders and close observers of Boston’s black political scene: Thompson — with Patrick’s sister, Rhonda, who attends Jubilee, sitting in the audience — had allegedly condemned Patrick in a recent sermon.
The Phoenix has been unable to confirm precisely what Thompson said. Patrick’s spokesperson, Kahlil Byrd, doesn’t deny the incident, but refuses to repeat Thompson’s comments. Patrick’s sister doesn’t deny it either, but balks at recalling Thompson’s words. Thompson declined comment for this story, and Jubilee Christian would not make any other church representative available for comment. The alleged remarks may have come in Thompson’s May 22 sermon — titled "Judgment Begins in the House" — which inveighed against stem-cell research and gay marriage. On a recording of that day’s 7:30 am service, material seems to have been deleted just as Thompson’s anti-gay-marriage tirade reaches its crescendo.
A house divided
To hurt Patrick, Thompson could urge Jubilee’s members not to support his campaign. He could lobby behind the scenes with his colleagues in the BMA, or work to highlight the gay-marriage issue heading into 2005. And if Patrick gets the nomination, Thompson could chisel away at his base by cozying up to Romney or whomever the Republicans nominate.
If so, Bositis thinks any damage to Patrick would be minimal. "I would think that African-Americans in Massachusetts would be proud to have a serious black candidate running for statewide office, and probably would support him pretty strongly," he says. "African-Americans are very churchgoing, and they’re perfectly happy to hear from their ministers that they’re against gay marriage, and that gay marriage is bad. On the other hand, by and large, they’re not going to vote the way their ministers tell them to vote." To make his case, Bositis contrasts African-American support of the various state amendments banning gay marriage on the ballot in 2004 — most of which received overwhelming African-American support — with Bush’s poor showing among the black electorate.
In a recent interview with the Phoenix, a source close to Patrick cautioned against conflating Thompson with the BMA as a whole. "He doesn’t speak for the whole BMA," this source said. "And in fact, this is probably a situation where he’s getting out in front of a lot of the ministers, and that is troubling to a lot of people.... There are a lot of people in the community who want to see Deval Patrick in office, and this issue is not the central one in their minds." (Patrick responded to questions about Thompson’s alleged comments by issuing a statement that read, in part: "I believe in the principle of equality before the law, including in the case of marriage. I respect that others may have different opinions on marriage equality. Those who seek to divide us will inevitably concentrate on those differences.")
Even so, Joyce Ferriabough — a veteran political consultant and Patrick backer — seems troubled by the current situation. "I’d be surprised and saddened if someone of Bishop Thompson’s caliber, or if any of the ministers [at Jubilee], publicly denigrated Patrick over an issue that isn’t a priority in the black community," she says.
Thompson, though, may be more interested in promoting himself than in demonstrating race-based solidarity. In his sermons, he often speaks of leading a religious revival that will begin in New England and sweep the world, and exhorts his congregants to make their collective mark on history. "Say it with me," he urged during a recent service. "Impact a generation. Leave a legacy." Playing kingmaker in the governor’s election would be a good way to start.
Adam Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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