LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — One of the high points from Sen. Rand Paul's presidential campaign kickoff Tuesday came when a black local pastor named Jerry Stephenson delivered an impassioned mini-sermon on behalf of the candidate.
After touting Paul's unique ability to reach out to Democratic people of color, Stephenson added some extra heft to his support by saying he was a lifelong Democrat who had only become an independent in 2012. "And I am telling every independent it is time to run out here and run with Senator Rand Paul!" he declared.
On stage, Stephenson seemed like the perfect symbol of the unique coalition of 2016 voters the Paul camp is working to build. Some of the candidate's advisers have identified black and Latino churchgoers as a key demographic they are poised to poach from Democrats — and here was a politically independent black preacher offering a fervent and full-throated endorsement.
After the event, however, the pastor struck a rather more strident tone. Speaking to a couple of reporters, Stephenson got on the subject of the religious freedom debate and — after a bit of prodding from a radio interviewer — began musing about why he believed President Obama wasn't backing up conservative Christians.
"In five years we'll find out what [Obama's] real religion is," Stephenson said.
Asked to explain what he meant, he said, "I think the evidence of his actions are not friendly toward Christians. Once he's out, he will 'evolve' like he did on gay marriage. I just believe that's what he will do."
Stephenson wouldn't say how he believed Obama's faith might evolve, saying simply, "That's a question he'll have to answer."
While Stephenson didn't officially leave the Democratic Party until 2012, he gave an interview to The Guardian during the 2010 about his support for Paul and his disillusionment with the president.
A spokesman for Paul's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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