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May 11th, 2012
09:24 AM ET

Complexity in black church reactions to Obama’s gay marriage announcement

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first gained wide public recognition in the mid-1950s, he made a special request to evangelist Billy Graham.

King was poised to join Graham on one of his barnstorming crusades, but he would do so only on one condition. He asked Graham to publicly speak out against segregation, a request Graham declined, says San Diego State University historian Edward Blum.

“What Graham feared was losing all of his influence,” Blum says. “For him, personal salvation was primary, justice secondary. For King, justice was primary.”

After President Obama this week became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage, black clergy and churchgoers could be facing a question that's similar to the one that fractured King and Graham: Should my ideas about personal holiness trump my notion of justice?

The answer to that question is evolving – just as Obama’s views on gay marriage have been. Poll numbers and interviews with black clergy suggest it’s simplistic to say that the black church is anti-gay marriage and may desert Obama, as some pundits have suggested.

Equal rights for some people?

Some black pastors take the approach of Graham, who recently came out in support of a successful drive to amend North Carolina’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships.

For them, personal salvation is primary; homosexuality a sin, and so is gay marriage. Their enthusiasm for Obama will be diminished, Blum says.

“It will be, ‘I’m going to vote for him, but I’m not going to talk about him much,’ ” Blum says. “It’s the difference between voting for him, or voting for him and putting out a street sign and making sure your neighbor gets to the poll.”

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Others in the black church say their approach centers on justice.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who was a part of King’s inner circle, says Obama had to support gay marriage because he believes in equal rights.

“You can’t believe in equal rights for some people and yet not believe in equal rights for everybody,” Lowery says. “That includes the right to marry the person of your choice. Equal rights for some people are an oxymoron.”

Lowery says Obama’s announcement was “more revolutionary” than the moment that President Lyndon Johnson went on national television during the heyday of the civil rights movement and called for racial equality, declaring, “We shall overcome.”

Obama’s “We Shall Overcome” moment will force Americans – black and white – to reexamine positions on same-sex marriage, Lowery says.

“A lot of white people didn’t believe in desegregation until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional,” says Lowery, who presided over Obama’s inauguration. “And then they began to rethink it and basically came to the same conclusion.”

Pastor or president?

At least one black minister in North Carolina captures another neglected dimension to the debate. He opposes same-sex marriage but doesn’t like the energy Christians devote to opposing it.

“He’s the president of the Untied States, not the pastor of the United States,” says the Rev. Fred Robinson, who lives in Charlotte. “America is a democracy, not a theocracy. I’m not going to vote on one issue.”

Robinson says some Christians are better at being against something than for something. Christian divorce rates are just as high as those for secular marriages, he says.

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“Our witness is stronger if we actually show that we believe in marriage and lived in and honored it,” he says. “That would be a greater witness than running to the polls to enshrine discrimination in the state constitution.”

The Rev. Tim McDonald, founder of the African-American Ministers Leadership Council, says he opposes same-sex marriage, but he is more concerned about issues like health care, education and jobs.

He's interested to see how black pastors handle Obama’s announcement when they step onto the pulpit Sunday.

“I don’t see how you cannot talk about it,” he says. “I have to. You can say I’m opposed to it [same-sex marriage], but that doesn’t mean I’m against the president.”

McDonald says more black pastors are talking about same-sex marriage than ever before: “Three years ago, there was not even a conversation about this issue – there wasn’t even an entertainment of a conversation about this.”

Polls show that black opinions on same-sex marriage are changing.

According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in April, 49% of black respondents described themselves as opposed to marriage between gays and lesbians, 14% fewer than in 2008. The percentage of African-Americans in favor of it increased from 26% in 2008 to 39% in 2012.

In 2008, Californians voted on Proposition 8, a measure that would make same-sex marriage illegal in the state, at the same time that they cast ballots for president.

CNN exit polling showed that 70% of California African-Americans supported Prop 8 but that the overwhelming majority - 94% - also backed President Obama.

Black pastors who preach in favor of same-sex marriage know they may pay a price if they take Obama’s position, says Bishop Carlton Pearson.

Pearson is a black minister who says he lost his church building and about 6,000 members when he began preaching that gays and lesbians were accepted by God.

“That’s the risk that people take,” he told CNN. “A lot of preachers actually don’t have a theological issue. It’s a business decision. They can’t afford to lose their parishioners and their parsonages and salaries.”

Pearson navigates the tension between the Bible’s call for holiness and justice this way:

“I take the Bible seriously, just not literally,” he says. “It’s more important what Jesus said about God than what the church says about Jesus.”

CNN staff writer Stephanie Siek contributed to this report.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Christianity • Gay marriage • Politics

soundoff (2,207 Responses)
  1. Stephen

    Why the COLOR of anyone's skin is even a factor here is SAD....racist no matter WHAT color one may be. Think about it, why would anyone make decisions based on the pigment of someone's skin? Stupid and ignorant at best. As far a MLK and Billy Graham....the GOAL should have been, and SHOULD be, to bring black and white together.....NOT to preach a segregation sermon that would further split (aka segregate) an existing division in the Church. MLK and Billy Graham would have gone far teaching by EXAMPLE and working together. Haven't we had enough TALK???

    May 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  2. cdgfla

    Religion is without a doubt the human species greatest disaster and case of group psychosis. Is it really that hard to accept that we are here for x number of years, so make the most of it, be happy, and treat others with respect? Apparently for the supplicating sychophants the answer is yes.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • joefrombflo

      I agree. i am so weary of reading articles about religion and bigotry. Ironic that African Americans, who suffered so much from bigotry should be such bigots on this issue.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  3. Deist

    No, because the realize that a tall, well spoken, sincere black man who accepts people for who they are is the textbook description of Jesus as well as Obama.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • joefrombflo

      Here Here

      May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Stephen

      No offense but reread the text on Jesus.....He wasn't about 'accepting' people for who they were; He was about paying the price of sin for those things that were unacceptable. Obama stands for whatever it takes to stay in office. Someone who stands for everything, stands for nothing at all. ("Those who stand for nothing fall for anything." – Alexander Hamilton) A good description of Obama in my opinion.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Say What?

      Um, actually Jesus gave us two commandments and one was to love your neighbor as yourself. He also reached out repeatedly to the marginalized and also said that when you serve the least of these, you serve Him.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  4. Everett Wallace

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the only one from the clergy in Heaven, he is not in Paradise he is in the second Heaven, I consider him a martyr.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • OOO

      And you know this.... how?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Joe's brain

      What is the URL to the video camera you have installed in Heaven? Obviously you can see into it in order to make a pronouncement like this.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  5. Kim

    I cannot think of a topic that matters less to me in this age & economy. Social issues are awesome when things are good. Are things good & I just missed the memo?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Clark

      Kim, so social progress should only happen when times are good? Your fellow citizens should wait until then to be fully equal? Sorry it doesn't interest you. Not everything that happens will.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Statue of Liberty Says What?

      Breathtakingly shallow view of the significance of social justice. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance we don't pledge loyalty to "a job and cash for all", we pledge to liberty and justice for all.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Joe's brain

    Anyone who thinks this will hurt Obama with the black vote is fooling themselves. Blacks will vote for their own no matter what.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • h

      Really I would not vote for Alan Keyes for dog catcher

      May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Blacks will vote for their own no matter what? Really? Like 80% of blacks voting for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • mmad5camp

      And don't forget the scholar Herman Cain, would'nt vote for him either.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  7. Listen

    Can I marry my grandfather?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Nick

    Bible is the best fiction book ever!!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Nick

      Personally I will be reading it in Hell.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Nick

      There is no Heaven or Hell! It's as real as Hollywood!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • JohnQ

      Prove your statement so that all us simple folk can be enlightened.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Nick

      Please join my in my weeping and gnashing of teeth!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Nick

      I am a child of Satan!!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  9. liz48

    Pearsons says it is a business decision – yes, if the so called pastors run their church on the basis of a business decision, that means they are NOT of God...This is a great time to weed out the false from the true; something God is doing for the past several years. It is house cleaning time as many have been calling on the Lord to clean up the mess in leadership that profess to follow Him but are tools of the enemy.

    Good...if the "business decision pastors" tell people to vote for a president to supports sin, then God will have a cause to cleanse the pastor out – remember many people, including ministers are being taken out...

    May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  10. Art

    Do the President believe some parts of the Bible and not other parts. I have lost all respect for him and will not vote for him in November.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Joe's brain

      Do you believe in all parts of the bible? Like "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."? Like, "Slaves, obey your masters."? Like, "A woman is neither to teach nor usurp authority over a man, but rather to sit and be in silence."? The bible is FULL of garbage that modern man is wise to ignore.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • joefrombflo

      You never planned to vote for him, bobo

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Who cares who you vote for? Its a free country! Go vote for the obstructionist and the communist teapublicans!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  11. Gay Marriage Will End Humanity!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrSkmpHp_T0

    May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  12. SallyinChicago

    "
    The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who was a part of King’s inner circle, says Obama had to support gay marriage because he believes in equal rights."

    Nope, you got it wrong. Obama believes in $$$ contributions and noticed that he wasn't getting any from the gay community. They sure as heck opened up their wallets after he made his declaration. Must have been hard to swallow.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • flambeaux

      You're nuts if you think he didnt know that he'd lose a ton of votes.
      Some people are just on one side and will talk like a child would talk no matter what the facts.
      I suspect you confuse integrity with usuary here.
      He's a fool because he just threw away 20% of his vote but he tried it cos he thinks its the right thing to do and they pressured him to take a stand on it and he did.
      He's a fool cos he let them force him into this election-losing stance, but he's an angel if it works.
      I don't give a toss about gay marraige. Doesnt affect me. But some people do – the gay ones and thats good enough

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • liz48

      T D Jakes who cleared his position on the issue, said that the pastor's job is to tell the congregation what the Bible says, not his personal opinion or to tell God what he, the pastor, thinks should be equality! S_odo_my is a aberration of mankind and an affront to Holiness – The Bible tells us to be Holy as God is Holy....

      May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • sam stone

      again, liz48, you have no authority to speak for god. neither does anyone

      May 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "S_odo_my is a aberration of mankind and an affront to Holiness "

      Let's guess you probably don't even know the real definition of Sodomy. LOL!

      1. anal or oral copulation with a member of the opposite sex.
      2. copulation with a member of the same sex.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  13. Everett Wallace

    The church loves barak he thinks like they think, dumb.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Wired

      Republicans think like church thinks. Dumb.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      And its was your folkes dumb thinking that resulted in you!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  14. flambeaux

    People need freedom. You stop it from happenning and not only are you vulnerable to others taking yours, but you deserve the ire of the future, when they are making TV programmes about the next civil rights issue and calling you out on the fact that you were on the side of non-freedom. Is that you? Are you like the white segregationists?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  15. Odumbo Obama

    Can we also have equal rights for incestual folks? And also equal rights for those who want to marry many people at the same time. I can't stand this discrimination. If people just love each other, why can't they have equal rights to marry their mom, brother, sister, a couple of friends or even animals? I demand equal rights! !!! EQUAL RIGHTSz!!!!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • flambeaux

      You look like a scaredy-cat. Hush. You're embarrassing yourself. Folks said stuff like that in the 50's – you don't know that?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Wired

      Incestual folks are the ones fighting for Gays to not be able to marry.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Liz

      Incest is against the law...the ACTUAL law that matters in this country. Being gay is not against the law. There's a pretty big difference.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • josh

      I think that is one of the most rediculas arguenments. Being gay is no different than being black or white or having red hair. this is not a matter of opinion or up for debate.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Those would be questions for Mitt Romney and the Mormon church!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Ummm

      Or the right to marry your pet!

      Don't be ridiculous. Halting progress for fear of more progress has never worked. That reasoning didn't work when our country tried preventing interracial marriage, either.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  16. Jack

    Irritating beyond belief that so many liberal gays have worked so hard to make certain blacks had civil rights over the years. Now, they respond this way. You'd think a group that knows the pain of prejudice would be more sensitive to the issue, but, as with so many, fear of death and belief in fairy tales trumps intelligence. Disgreaceful.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • josh

      You got that right. I really dont understand why black people follow the religion of there oppressors anyway, but i guess if you break the will and intellegence of an entire race they will beleave anything. Besides that it is amazing that it always seems to be the uneducated ignorant that love to discriminate.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  17. Richxx

    Obama is BLACK, well at least half black, so he will get the black vote no matter what he says or does. Racism is still alive in America.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Nonse! Eighty percent of blacks voted for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis! Your race argument is pointless!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  18. Mike

    I see CNN using the race card yet again, blanketing Obama and the black community in some sort of impenetrable blanket of of color first, forgiveness second. Rev. Billy lived, Martin Luther lived, in different times of US history. I think very highly of both, especially Dr. King for his bravery. Now we use Obamma's stance as evolution, not flip flopping. Bogus. This was planned, tactically disseminated to the main stream. Bamma isn't brave, he isn't a trend setter. He just happens to have the biggest stage and a media that folowes him like sheep. I found Jesus in a black church. How could you NOT? Instead of this convo, why not talk about forgiveness as Jesus taught? Justice? Look it up in your Bible, what does it say? Let God deal with those that would smite you. Look at the Koran. It's LOADED with HOW to seek revenge. No, Bamma won't lose the black vote.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  19. bored already

    We have black churches?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  20. George

    I believe people should be able to make their own decisions and do whatever they wish.....however saying that doesnt make all of those decions right. Man kind was given free will, it's up to us what we do with it....THE END

    May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • LinCA

      @George

      You said, "I believe people should be able to make their own decisions and do whatever they wish.....however saying that doesnt make all of those decions right. Man kind was given free will, it's up to us what we do with it....THE END"
      I agree. There is no way that denying fellow citizens equal protection under the law, isn't right no matter what the reasons are. Unfortunately, spreading hate, based on fairy tales, is some of the worst behavior people still engage in.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.