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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. DJC2

    Complexity? NO..... Hypocrisy.... YES! As an african american who happens to be the gay son of a preacher man (wow... that's a mouthfull) I have seen first hand the Pink Elephant in the room within MANY Church congregations. All those FABULOUS musicals and special church functions are created by the gays in the congregation and they are "tolerated" as long as they don't live their lives fully and openly and CERTAINLY they must stay on the DOWNLOW to be "respected"...

    American Churches are the NEW SALAD BAR. People pick and choose what parts of the bible to scream and holler about to mask their own transgressions. SAD.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  2. justcause

    Obama lost its spark and now he is playing Washington games........supporting gay marriage for the sake of re-election.........I guess power must be powerful but only on the weak

    May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  3. A Democrat

    Just curious, and mind you I am a Democrat who WILL vote for the President, but why is it when the President changes his view, it is "evolving" but when Gov. Romney changes his, it is "flip-flopping." Keep it balanced, please.

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

      Wow...I knew the left had people that are intellegent. Bravo!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      No, its not flip flopping simply because the whole gay marriage concept has been a REVOLVING concept for all of us including gays! For example, if you were to ask gays three or four years ago how they felt about gay marriages, they would have pause and then tell you that their position on the issue was still REVOLVING simply because gays were still fighting for civil unions as they continue to do even today! So the President didn't flip flop on the issue simply because as the issue of gay marriage continues to evolve for gays, it simultaneously continues to REVOLVE for the rest of us including the President! There's a big difference!

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

      Obama's position evolved. He was previously in favor of equal rights and civil unions, he said he thought a civil union was equal to a marriage, and a marriage was between a man and a woman. After considering pleas from gay friends, neighbors, and constiuants as to why Marriage was important to them he had a change of heart. IMO this rings true and is understandble. Sounds something like my own evolution. When you have personal relationships with people who are gay, friends family ect its much harder to imagine desriminating against them. Romney however....has been FOR civi unions is now agaisnt them, flip flopped on dont ask dont tell, calimed he was more pro choice than ted kennedy and has also flip flopped on immigration, tax cuts, ronald reagan, aligning w the NRA, global warming, tax pledges, and money in politics. And those are jsut the ones I can think of now.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  4. Zorg

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=a4nvhAZ0vr0

    May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  5. gotstosayit

    I am somewhat amazed when I hear blacks or women promoting the oppression of a group. Not too long ago these were repressed groups whose freedoms and equaility were not equal al all which was the majority opinion with biblical references. Perhaps once a group gets their equal rights, they care nothing about the others fighting for the same rights....

    May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • as;ldkfj;aksl

      That's a bunch of crap. In 2008 when they were voting for their first black president they were all gung ho. At the same time they were advancing their agenda they vote against gays having rights.

      So much for fighting for civil rights. I guess it only counts if you are black.

      Yes, when I say "they" I mean black people. Since they obviously don't think they are on the same side as anybody else. They have their rights, now they can take them away from other people. You should be so proud

      What a joke... a bunch of black bigots. Who would have imagined.................................

      May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  6. Reality

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS–

    "Abrahamics" believe that their god created all of us and of course that includes the g-ay members of the human race. Also, those who have studied ho-mo-se-xuality have determined that there is no choice involved therefore ga-ys are ga-y because god made them that way.

    To wit:

    o The Royal College of Psy-chiatrists stated in 2007:

    “ Despite almost a century of psy-choanalytic and psy-chological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heteros-exual or hom-ose-xual orientation. It would appear that s-exual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of ge-netic factors and the early ut-erine environment. Se-xual orientation is therefore not a choice.[60] "

    "Garcia-Falgueras and Swaab state in the abstract of their 2010 study, "The fe-tal brain develops during the intraut-erine period in the male direction through a direct action of tes-tosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hor-mone surge. In this way, our gender identi-ty (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and s-exual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender ident–ity or s-exual orientation."[8

    See also the Philadelphia Inquirer review “Gay Gene, Deconstructed”, 12/12/2011. Said review addresses the following “How do genes associated with ho-mose-xuality avoid being weeded out by Darwinian evolution?”

    Of course, those gays who belong to Abrahamic religions are supposed to obey the rules of no adu-ltery or for-nication allowed.

    And because of basic biology differences said monogamous ventures should always be called same-s-ex unions not same-s-ex marriages.

    From below, on top, backwards, forwards, from this side of the Moon and from the other side too, gay se-xual activity is still mutual masturbation caused by one or more complex se-xual differences. Some differences are visually obvious in for example the complex maleness of DeGeneres, Billy Jean King and Rosie O'Donnell.

    Yes, heteros-exuals practice many of the same "moves" but there is never a doubt who is the female and who is the male
    ============================================================================================

    May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  7. Bob Lewis

    Even though Obama sort of got dragged "out of the close" by bumbling Biden, I think it took a certain amount of personal courage to actually take a stand in an election year. I applaud him for that.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  8. Ben

    Translation from "Objective Media" speak...just how courageous was this man's courageous "evolution?"

    May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  9. Bonnie

    The point folks is hypocrisy and apostasy by people who claim to acknowledge and worship our Almighty God. BTW, Jesus is not God; he is God's son. Matthew 3:16&17. Hypocrisy: Publicly claiming to have qualities that one does not truly possess. Apostacy: The turning away from God, desertion. "They publicly declare they know God, but they disown Him by their works, because they are detstable and disobedient and not approved for good work of any sort." Most of the above are in "church". What a shame.

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

      Sorry, that's apostasy, not apostacy. One who claims to be a "Christian" must realize they are claiming to honor Jesus and his and our God and Father, by obeying ALL of God's word. President Obama said in his first campaign that he would never allow his "religion" to interfere in his politics. Typical "christian" of today. False religion, rather than genuine love for God will result in betrayal every time. Now is the time to read Jesus' teachings found at the book of John in the Holy (incorruptible) Bible.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  10. Bill W

    Equal rights for everyone is a no-brainer. But come Nov., it won't move polls much. People will vote not based on social issues, but on their personal pocketbook.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  11. as;ldkfj;aksl

    That's a bunch of crap. In 2008 when they were voting for their first black president they were all gung ho. At the same time they were advancing their agenda they vote against gays having rights.

    So much for fighting for civil rights. I guess it only counts if you are black.

    Yes, when I say "they" I mean black people. Since they obviously don't think they are on the same side as anybody else. They have their rights, now they can take them away from other people. You should be so proud

    What a joke... a bunch of black bigots. Who would have imagined.........

    May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      That's BS! Eighty percent of blacks voted for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis! So what's your frigging point moron?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  12. Henry

    Some black voters will sit this election out.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Richard

      Not voting is a dumb protest, by not voting mitt wins and take away and or reduce some social programs, like health, education, medicare, medicaid, food stamps, etc

      May 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  13. Steven

    The only people and organizations making a big deal over this is the media and the gay rights groups. Honestly, on the list of things I disagree with Obama about this doesn't even make the Top 25.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  14. Common Sense

    “That includes the right to marry the person of your choice."

    Cool, so can I marry:
    (a) my sister?
    (b) a 13-year-old girl?
    (c) 4-5 women at the same time?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Bob Lewis

      You've obviously given a lot of thought to your fantasies. so the answer is yes to all of them!

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

      So the 2nd Amendment allows Muslim extremists to own exactly what kinds of weapons?

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

      Oh, that's common sense alright. It's outrageous and incendiary remarks like yours that makes all of us know how creepy people like you are.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • More Common Sense

      I have heard the argument you put forward before. No, it doesn't mean that.

      Life is not made of only black and white, clear cut choices; instead it is shades of gray. As individuals and as a society we make choices and draw lines in the sand. But over time, given the changes that go on (new understanding, changing mores etc) we re-draw those lines. What may have been not OK, may become OK; acceptable behavior may change to unacceptable (e.g. slavery)

      In our current times, we, as a society are choosing to re-draw the line on marriage to extend it to include gay/lesbians getting married. The future generations may re-draw these to make some of your "desires" (sibling marriage and polygamy) acceptable – that may be the choices they grapple with. It is a non-issue for our times.

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

      Wow, totally clueless. Go back to your rock please.

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

      Actually common sense would dictate that those are bad choices for a spouse, but if you want to be a GOAT, then I say go for it.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Nicole

      Not too bright are ya?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Doug

      If you really wanted those questions answered, you wouldn't ask them in the comments of some news article. A 13-year old person can't legally sign a marriage contract. A civil marriage is only between two people, the laws regarding the benefits and responsibilities are all written that way. As for your sister, it has been demonstrably proven incest leads to physical impairs in offspring, hence it's illegality.

      Why can't a civil marriage be between two consenting adults who aren't related? Try to use a little of your nickname, Common Sense.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • BFD

      You forgot:
      d) Your dog
      e)Pizza
      f) Walmart (remember, corporations are people)

      May 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  15. Zorg

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4nvhAZ0vr0&version=3&hl=en_US%5D

    May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  16. LOLdogs are better

    I never understood why blacks hated gays so much. Talk about hypocrisy

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

      There are many closeted people who hate being closeted.. It is easy to hate the people who are freely themselves.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  17. Gay Marriage Will End Humanity!

    We are lost.

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

    May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • 4 More Years!!!

      Seems like YOU'RE lost!!!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  18. OBAMASUCKS

    At least blacks know it's wrong

    May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  19. z

    this is not a christian nation, this is a nation of all religions and people who could care less about it (like me). otherwise, america isn't america.

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

      We will see come November! I have a fear you might be wrong!

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

      one day this will truly be a democracy ... not a theocracy ... even people in office have to pretend they are christian when they are not. If being Christian means love they neighbor, but only unless he is not gay... and before that it was only unless he's a white male... then the establishment is pretty said. i'm so glad I'm Atheist and actually care about people, unlike the righteous haters out there. And my brother is gay and Republican and quasi religious... I guess he's self hating. Really, some ppl need to get a clue or just not vote.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  20. Russ

    Churches do not have to take a position on this. It is a legal issue. Churches are like any other private organzations. They can have rules for their members that they adhere to, without being against laws that apply to the population as a whole.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:56 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.