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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. nouk

    The fact is that black pastors may be unhappy with Mr. Obama's stand on this issue, but they have no alternative to him in the fall.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  2. NCT

    I think it is a sin and an abomination in the sight of God. What about MY rights to NOT have it shoved in my face?

    May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • logan

      What's being shoved in your face??

      May 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Richard Miller

      Bull! I am tired of having your brand or "god: shoved down my throat. Isn't religion about tolerance?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • cdgfla

      So gay men and women are shoving their desire to marry the one they love down your throat? Could you explain how this directly affects you?

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

      You don't control the public sphere. I don't like having Christianity "shoved in my face" but I'm not going to try to ban it.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Jackie

      NCT, do you eat pork or shellfish? That is a sin according to the bible. So is wearing blended fiber clothing, getting a haircut, or having any contact with pigskin (ever touch a football?) The bible says women who aren't virgins when they get married should be EXECUTED. Should we enforce that as well?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "I think it is a sin and an abomination in the sight of God."

      “seven that are an abomination: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
      “The devising of folly is sin, and the scoffer is an abomination to mankind.”
      “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination”
      “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.”
      “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me”
      “An unjust man is an abomination”
      “A false balance is an abomination”

      These are just some of the abominations in the bible but you don’t see Christians running out and blocking their civil rights. Adultery is also more of an issue in the bible and Christians aren’t blocking their civil rights either. You’ll make up any lies you can to justify your prejudice towards this minority group.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  3. Interesting

    I find it interesting that anyone would believe this to be more then a political stunt for raising cash. Evolution, please.
    I voted for Obama the last time but he has brought this country to a whole new level of political divisiveness. What other issues will he exploit for distraction, money and his political position. I can't imagine that if he wins that he actually has plans on how to heal this country after shredding it apart for "His Political Future". What difference does it make to him? he can't run again so he can do whatever he wants, very scary. Not falling for it this time around.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • cdgfla

      Please, don't lie and say you voted for him. There has never been a more "Obstruction first, Nation Second" party than the modern Republican party. To blame Obama for "tearing the nation apart" and not Faux news, the Tea Party, and the Koch brothers is utterly absurd and shows how politically illiterate you are. Just don't vote period, do us a favor.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Jackie

      The nation has been divided because of a DIVIDED House and Senate that are at constant odds on every piece of legislation that comes across the table.

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

      Thank you both for proving my point. I will not do you a favor, however do this country a favor and vote.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  4. cdgfla

    Lets see, we have one candidate who believes in equality and will be on the right side of history...and another who believes in Magic Underpants, thinks Joseph Smith was a prophet, believes that Heaven is an actual physical place that exists in the solar system, and that Anceint jews buried tablets in North Carolina that only Joseph Smith could read, which said among other things that it was okay to impregnate 12 year old girls.

    Gee, every black person that I know, religious or not, is smart enough to make the right call on this one.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  5. sherie

    All these people need to get a grip on reality. What is important is the economy, jobs, housing market–not this garbage about who marries who. Who really cares. If a statement about gay marriage is how people choose who to vote for, they have really closed minds. Get over it already! We need to get on with real issues.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  6. NC Dad

    Pastors will use this as a way to leverage media hype. that's all. It's the same as the idiot pastor that crashes dead soldiers funerals. There is no need for it, more power to their ignorant souls as they have a belief, but they just do it for publicity. Stay behind your pulpit and preach to the people who care. it also gives black people an outlet to discriminate.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  7. Barack Obama

    Hussein in the membrane - Hussein in the brain!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  8. Mya Norris

    As far as churches go, there is a difference between denouncing segregation vs denouncing gay marriage. Come on, the world is what it is, but the churches are supposed to be not of the world. They cannot support gay marriage, if they preach and teach God's laws and truths. If they do, they are calling God a liar. Not condoning gay marriage is not discrimination against gays. Just like not condoning living together before marriage means discrimination against people who do not marry. Its about hating the sin, but loving the sinner. NO judgements, no prejudice.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Huebert

      The bible is fiction. All books that contain magic are considered fiction, unless said book is someone's holy text. Why does designating a book a holy text cause some people to accept outrageous claims? Why does designating a book a holy text suddenly make it grounds for discrimination?

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

      Unfortunately the bible is FILLED with hate and prejudice. It even instructs believers to KILL nonbelievers (Deuteronomy 17:12) It's an outdated text that if people actually took the time to READ and UNDERSTAND, they would peobably realize how insane it actually is.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Todd in DC

      Huebert, the bible is not fiction. I, personally, spoke to a burning bush that spoke back to me. RIght after I ate these funny tasting mushrooms.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  9. Tommie

    So people may leave the president. I'm not one of them especially over two dudes who choose to sword fight.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  10. Steve

    Why is it that all the haters are bible thumpers whose book is suppose to preach things like love thy neighbor?
    The fact that they adhere to this double standard is going to be their own undoing in regards to this issue.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Donald

      Love thy neighbor and tolerating their behavior is different than accepting immorality as normal. You can be tolerant and still disagree with someone.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • david

      That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and Eve. Not Adam and Adam. Sorry Jesus did not discuss this issue.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Daniel

      Many so-called Christians believe Jesus is the messiah yet hate the preachings of Jesus. They do not believe in universal love or acceptance. They believe that only the people they themselves deem worthy will go into heaven. Notice how the hate spewing "bible lovers" NEVER quote Jesus? They can't.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  11. Donald

    Support in the black community will suffer but not enough to make much of a difference. Where it will hurt is in the less affluent white church where many moderate Democrats reside. Mr. Obama just lost North Carolina and possibly Virginia and Ohio with this move.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Jackie

      The polls show that most moderates are in favor of gay marriage. Whether that includes people in those key swing states, I'm not sure.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  12. Neil

    Considering the history of white Bible thumper's discrimination against blacks/hispanics/non-christian whites, I think it would be hard pressed to say that anyone other than white religious right has a real problem with the President's beliefs. His life and his presidency wouldn't exist if it wasn't for us discrimination fighting people.

    He owes the black community. He owes the white community. He owes the gay community. He owes the hispanic community. And he more importantly owes this nation the respect of living their lives free of the grasp of the bible manipulators. His parents wouldn't have even been allowed to wed in 95% of this country pre-1967. Can you imagine that??? The black/white interracial relationships that have now given our country 1.1 million smiling beautiful children(2010), wouldn't have existed. 5.6% of our population under 18 are interracial, compared to 2.9% of the total population being multiracial...times they are a changing. With or without him, and with or without you.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  13. Thou Shalt

    It is also a sin to covet the possessions of others, but most black preachers, black churches, black politicians, and black voters take pride in their covetous behavior (that's not to distinguish them from white democrats). That's what redistribution is all about, coveting other peoples possessions. What was the purpose of bringing up Billy Graham?

    May 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  14. IslandAtheist

    Obama should just admit he's an atheist and get it over with.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  15. Mark

    And do what? vote for Romney instead? I doubt that

    May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  16. Now Why

    Unfortunately, there will be a lot of people who will not vote for Obama because of his stance on Gay Marriage. However, there will also be a lot of people who will re-think their own positions on Gay Marriage and "Evolve" to a more accepting perspective because of Obama taking a stand on the issue.

    Thats what you call LEADING

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

      The Black church, in fact all Blacks, will always support Obama, because he is black ... but, God is not so easily fooled as the gullible Obama stooges are. God will remember all the Obama lies, Obama deception, and Obama hypocrisy. America is an exceptional country, which was blessed by God ... and, Obama is tearing Ameerica down.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  17. justcause

    Romnie is simply selling himself to the devil........he is now ok for Gays to adopt after the gay bullying scandal....what a moron

    May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  18. Jackie

    Any black people that have issue with Obama endorsing gay marriage because it contradicts their relgion should simply refer to their bible, which ALSO happens to say SLAVERY is a-okay. (eg. Exodus 21:1-27, Leviticus 25:44-53, etc.) Good thing we "evolved" from that point of view, huh?

    May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  19. Emily K

    I would hope that African Americans would have more tolerance for equal rights of a minority group and be able to recognize discrimination and social injustice at this point. The hypocrisy here is astounding.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  20. Socrates

    Black church, white church, yellow church, red church and any color church are just the most complex way of control created by mankind to control silly and simple minded people all over the world. I just can't imagine some intelligent people allow themselves to be controlled and manipulated by something called God which nobody have seen ever. It is the biggest nonsense in this life. This nonsense hates people such as gays and lesbians in open contradiction with the teaching of Jesuschrist a man who loved everybody. Obama, do not worry about the thinking of these manipulators. It is not worth it.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Civil Union of Sense

      But you have no problem being mindless manipulated by OBAMA.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:07 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.