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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. YouKnowItsTrue

    Blacks vote for whoever promises to throw them the most goodies ... you know its true.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • 100% Correct!

      Couldn't have said it better myself.

      How funny is it when black people don't vote for a Black President and then get excoriated and shamed for not voting for Obama because he's black? Now, turn the tables. If a White person only voted for Romney because he's White.....then Katy bar the door becuase Al Sharp-Tongue and Jessie Hi-Jackson will be banging down your door. Just too funny. Pinnoch-Obama is the biggest lying President of all time.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • MNTaxpayer

      As do whites. Why do you think tax cuts are the centerpiece of the GOP platform?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Garbage! Eighty percent of the black community voted for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis! So what's your race point?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  2. Coastal0ne

    “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.”

    I wonder why he's still going to vote for him?

    May 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  3. It is immoral to impose your religion on others.

    Obama did the right thing. He would get the black vote even if he dropped out of the race.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • ur kidding

      Exactly so stop imposing gay rights onto everyone else. Christians aren't the only ones who do not support it because of the laws of God. There are no believing pagen countries that will put you in prison or kill you for such an immoral unnatural act.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  4. IslandAtheist

    The Rev. is wearing two different fabrics, stone him to death.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Will Black Church punish Obama?

      Wait - wouldn't that be "racist"? Oh snap! My bad....you said "black church"...THAT"S OK then. Whew! It's perfectly fine for a BLACK church to discriminate, just so a WHITE church doesn't "punish" Obama. Think about the question kids.

      THIS is a PERFECT example of how racism lives on......it's all FINE AND DANDY for a Black person to vote for Obama BECUASE HE'S BLACK....but if a White person does not vote for Obama, then he must be a full-fledged KKK racist. Just too funny.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • demrules

      Well the majority of the "Black Church", whatever that is, won't even read this article. Journalism through instigation...it keeps the controversy flowing when true journalism is allusive to the writer. Yes, I will vote Obama 2012 because I like him and Romney just does not have a clue!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  5. Robert

    I voted for Obama and I'm white. I hope balck people who for who's best qualified – Romney. Barack is going nothing as our national debt rapidly grows. Eventually ALL of us will pay the price. See Greece.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Ande

      And you think Romney is going to ride in on his white horse and fix everything? (Keep dreaming buddy)
      – I'm voting for Obama because I know he isn't the reason this country is in debt. He inherited this mess courtesy of Bush and the Republicans who did more spending in 8 years than Obama could do in a lifetime. Republicans have proven they would rather see America fail than see Obama succeed as they have blocked and rejected about everything he has tried to push through to get us out of this mess. I'm only hoping that Americans will vote out all the Republicans and replace them with democrats so something can get done. To put another Republican in office at a time when so many middle class americans and poor americans are struggling would be suicidal to the working class.

      OBAMA 2012!!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      You're an idiot to vote for Romney! Mitt Romney continues to support the very same ineffective, failed and misguided economic policies that have ruined us! He continues to support and promote and agenda that protects the assets of millionaires and billionaires and sleezy business practices to continue the manipulation and exploitation of the poor, the elderly, the middle class and the disabled! let's face it, as governor Romney's state was 47th in job creation simply because he layed off thousands, out source businesses overseas for profit and then invested his funds in foreign accounts to avoid paying his fair share in taxes! let's face it, Mitt Romey is a phony who doesn't know diddly squat about job creation! When our economy collapsed, who do you think were running it? Republicans like Mitt Romney! But its your choice, so go vote for Mitt Romney!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  6. God reigns

    all i can say bob is you have some pretty messed up opinions

    May 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  7. 12321test

    Does anyone else find it ironic that this guy was talking about the civil rights movement but then in the next sentence started talking about "the black church". If you want to not be segregated, don't segregate yourself. You can't have it both ways.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Coastal0ne

      Exactly! What the heck?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  8. bdl1978

    Your gods won't protect you from nuclear war. Religion has no place in government. The public is ignorant. Keep praying to your fairy tale men in the sky you mindless sheep.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  9. Name*Chedar

    If the black truly can separate religion from politics, then I will conclude that blacks are more superior than white.

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

      This is funny how Obama saying he is going to nothing about gay marriage is causing such "complexities". Obama just said its up to the states to decide, which have at a score of 32-0!! This is hilarious!!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • J.W

      I am not sure I understood HAHA's post

      May 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  10. Coastal0ne

    “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.”

    Well, that's terrible. The only issue a preacher should have is a theological one. Good grief!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  11. Gregory

    Carlton Pearson does not appear to be of the Christian religion. Christians believe in the deity of Christ. In his own words:

    “It’s more important what Jesus said about God than what the church says about Jesus.”

    Nor does he take the Bible seriously. I saw an interview in which he described the book of Revelation as the ravings of an angry lunatic–as he considered the apostle John to be. Pearson is also no martyr to the cause. Going left is what made him famous. It was the secret to his original success, so he went further and further left until he's the go-to guy for CNN, etc.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Dave

      Gregory, you need to do a little more study on theology. Pearson is correct when he says IT IS more important what Jesus says about God than what the church says about Jesus. Jesus is divine, God is divine, the church?......not so much.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  12. Chad

    We are in 2012 or we are in the 21 century or get with the times is the most ignorant remark anyone can make.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  13. Lazaro Echemendia

    Dear Disciples of Christ who post here. We all voted for our leaders, believers and none believers and as an obvious result they represent all of us. No policies should be based on religious prejudice; no government should be run Vatican style. As far as I know that was the case in the middle ages and if you want to review the meaning of horror, go for a history book.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  14. Mbane18

    Dumb article. Let's not vote for Obama because he supports gay marriege so lets vote for Romney and his mormons and his disconnected views of the country.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  15. Rufus

    The only way black guys would vote Republican is if they ran a hot white chick for President ... that's why the Democrats were a little nervous about Sarah Palin.

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

      too funny

      May 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • demrules

      Possible point Rufus- but Sarah Palin is hardly a "hot Chick". I don't know, but maybe it's that irritating voice of hers. Maybe if she didn't talk.....!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  16. Lets Face It

    When all is said and done, Blacks will come to their decision that unless they are wealthy they Need to vote for Obama in 2012! After all, the price for not voting for Obama is to acquire Mitt Romney who is not going to lift one solitary finger to help the poor or minorities as that is a foregone conclusion. He is not favored by Blacks either as is any Republican. But considering how standoffish Republicans have been to Blacks is it any wonder! As for Black support for Obama, again, Blacks cannot make this a one-issue race. They need to see the whole picture and put it in its proper perspective. Once they do, they will find that President Obama is their Only Choice unless they are going to allow Gay marriage to be a driving wedge issue that could give them a president with absolutely No Sympathy to their plight to get ahead and maybe just to survive.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  17. Get Real

    That's silly. Almost every black person is going to vote for Barack Obama purely on racial grounds.

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

      Most will just stay home

      May 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Oh My God

      I fear they will show that they are more racist than Christ like...either you are for equals right or you are for your own rights, equality is really simple. But if you layer it with your personal belief, and you just want to vote for someone that has the same color skin regardless of whether or not that person is at the time of voting the best decision to be made at that time, then yes my friend you are an f ing racist and very far from being Christ like.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • demrules

      Blacks will turn out more this time than last time. Yes, some will vote because Obama is Black/White- but no more than people voting for Romney because Obama is Black. Some people still cannot accept the fact that the "good ole boy" tradition was finally broken.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • MNTaxpayer

      And just as many whites will vote against Obama purely on racial grounds.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Idiot! Eighty percent of the black community voted for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis! So what's your racist point here?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • BFD

      Baloney. Democratic candidates have gotten the overwhelming majority in all recent presidential elections. Last time I checked, Kerry, Gore, Clinton are white.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  18. Alyi

    Thank God. My parents were not gays. I am afraid our American society is under attack. Moral corruption, the only wepon of our enemies!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • n8362

      Some people are immoral enough to impose their religion on others.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • bdl1978

      obviously your parents were not "gays" you idiot. The morals of your country are not practiced by your fellow christians you bigoted fool. brainwashed delusional moron

      May 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • PTNY

      The only corruption I see is the Government getting involved in Americans daily personal choices. Lately I have been feeling more and more that we here in the USA are not free at all!

      Back when the show COPS started years ago I saw police telling anyone they chose that might be walking down the street to STOP! Then get questioned or whatever. REALLY! I HAVE to stop at the whim of a cop and be questioned...if I don't want to I get beat up...then arrested...charged with resisting arrest! This is freedom?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • HT Miser

      Maybe if your parents were gay, they could have taught you tolerance.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • MNTaxpayer

      Who is attacking? Who are our enemies? Your enemy appears to be the future. Get used to it.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  19. PTNY

    Everyone will EVOLVE by November.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  20. Dr Neanderthal

    religion is dumb and religious people should have no saying in politics. and in fact in anything at all.

    just go do what you do best, like being compassionate and feeding hungry people or something.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Coastal0ne

      Your screen name is the perfect choice for you.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:27 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.