National Politics

SC church bridges race, but not politics gap

Members of Redemption, based in Greenville, S.C., are proud of their ethnic diversity. But discussion of the state’s presidential primaries? “A taboo,” one women there said.
Members of Redemption, based in Greenville, S.C., are proud of their ethnic diversity. But discussion of the state’s presidential primaries? “A taboo,” one women there said. NYT

The members of Redemption church, a bracing blend of black and white with a smattering of Latinos, flowed into their arena-size sanctuary on one of the last Sundays before the South Carolina primaries. They prayed side by side in the glow of the animations streaming across a million-dollar video wall. They sang together, arms raised, to carefully calibrated worship music that fused strummy, sentimental rock with melodic soul. They mingled afterward in the church’s Higher Grounds Café & Coffee Bar, standing in line for chicken-wing lunches.

What they all avoided, however, was any discussion of politics, even as they knew that the political center of gravity had shifted to South Carolina. Avoiding such talk is an unwritten rule, scrupulously followed: “A taboo,” said Tamara Mangle, 30, an African-American who works at the gym and favors Bernie Sanders.

“It’s almost like we’re at war with each other,” said Becky Greene, 68, a white receptionist at the church offices who supports Sen. Ted Cruz. “It’s like the conservatives and the liberals, and never the twain shall meet.”

The motto of this Pentecostal megachurch is “Where Many Become One,” and its members are proud of their racial progress. “This,” Greene said, “is how it’s going to be in heaven.”

But heaven will have to wait. As the presidential road show heads to the South, Redemption is a reflection of one of the region’s most persistent divides. Despite the unmistakable, sometimes startling gains that Southern blacks and whites have made in working, living and even praying together, when it comes to voting and politics, the gulf between them is so vast it can barely even be discussed.

Pastor Ron Carpenter Jr., the charismatic, verbally dexterous country preacher who founded Redemption a quarter-century ago, said the political divide largely follows racial lines. Carpenter, who is white, said that for the most part, “whites are Republicans, and blacks are Democrats.”

In Greenville, the church’s flagship campus, he estimated that 60 percent of churchgoers are black. The rest are mostly white, with a sprinkling of Hispanics.

As the praise music leaked in from the sanctuary, Beth Rainey, 46, was behind the bar at the church “lounge,” serving Pepsi colas and candy bars. Rainey, who is white, grew up in tiny Blackville. “True to its name,” she said, chuckling, it was a majority-black town. Multiculturalism is what she has always known, she said.

Her politics are conservative. She said she is trying to decide between Sen. Marco Rubio and Ben Carson. Carson, the sole black candidate in the Republican field, had been her first choice, though she was worried that he has been falling behind.

“He professed to be a Christian and a family man,” she said. “I think we need that.”

Beyond earshot of other church members, she opined on what had brought President Barack Obama to power. “A lot of people probably voted for him as a black man, not knowing who he was or what he stood for,” she said.

A moment later, Evelyn Barton, 53, a church janitor who is African-American, wandered in. The two women, longtime friends, greeted each other warmly. Barton is a reliable Democratic voter, one who will probably vote for Hillary Clinton this year. In a phone interview later in the week, she also recalled quite specific reasons she had voted for Obama in 2008: “I felt like he could turn the economy around,” she said, “and bring our boys home from the war.”

Carpenter, 47, whose father was also a Pentecostal preacher, grew up in a rural South Carolina community called Possum Kingdom, where he played high school sports and made many black friends. Today, the church has 21,000 active attendees spread across seven campuses in the Carolinas and the Dominican Republic.

It has survived heartbreak and scandal: A few years ago, businessmen came to the church and bilked numerous parishioners in a mortgage-fraud scheme. In 2013, Carpenter revealed to his flock that his wife, Hope, a pastor and co-founder of the church, had committed adultery and was seeking psychiatric help.

As long as the rich man’s making money, the poor man’s going to have a job.

Budd Allison, Redemption church member

Carpenter does not always shy from controversial topics: This summer, he preached that “much of homosexual activity is an iniquity.” But he is keenly aware that too much politics can be a threat. He recalled the moment in 2007 when Obama, at that time a senator running for president, asked to speak at the church.

“I put him in a room and said, ‘Senator, I’ve been here 20 years building this, and you can kill me today if you come out here and do a liberal Democratic campaign speech,’ ” Carpenter said. “ ‘I tell you, I’ll be cleaning it up for five years.’ 

Obama limited his comments to spiritual matters. But later, the website Beliefnet reported, members sent “dozens” of emails to the church leadership complaining that Obama was a supporter of abortion rights and complaining, mistakenly, that he was a Muslim.

Budd Allison, 57, a white worker at a plant that makes plastic cups and bowls, said he is a longtime conservative whose political ideas are based largely on his experience in the world of commerce. “As long as the rich man’s making money, the poor man’s going to have a job,” he said.

This year, Allison said, he is intrigued by Donald J. Trump “just because he’s not a politician.”

A few seats away, William Brown, a black church member who is an electrician, said he, too, admires Trump for his business skills. “If he was not a Republican,” Brown said, “he’d be the No. 1 choice for me.”

I just find, economically, I always did better when there was a Democratic president.

William Brown, Redemption church member

But Brown, 55, said he would be supporting Clinton, largely because of the good economic times he remembers during her husband’s tenure in the White House. “I just find, economically, I always did better when there was a Democratic president,” he said.

The next morning, in the privacy of their offices, the employees spoke about their political divisions, and the unwritten rule to stay mum.

Kathryn Tucker, 47, an executive assistant to the church’s chief financial officer, said being a Republican “kind of came naturally” as she was raised in a white Republican household. She said she likes Jeb Bush, but also finds Trump to be refreshing. His idea of temporarily banning Muslims from the country, she said, “seems like a good idea,” especially after the terror attacks on American soil. But she could never imagine bringing up such matters at Redemption.

“I’ve never been one to come up to someone I work with and ask hard questions of them,” she said.

Regina Webb, 49, an assistant director of one of the church ministries, is one of a handful of black conservatives among the leadership who feel that Republican candidates could be better trusted to govern in Christian principles.

She said the church would not feel truly integrated without a more open discussion of politics and policy. “I think that we should be able to come to a place where as a body of Christ we can say, ‘OK, I like this candidate or this policy,’ without going away enemies.”