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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. Like It Is

    One has to also remember that the late and great Coretta Scott King was in favor of Gays and their rights! That was brought out by the press a long time ago. But the overriding question is that Blacks have known discrimination and prejudice for most of their lives, especially the older folks. It would be quite hypocritical of them to see this same kind of thing being inflicted upon Gays and Lesbians and just stand by and not do anything but add their own prejudice and discrimination to it by speaking wrongly about them. Logically speaking, they need to see things clearly that our President is a President For ALL People, not just a select few that some may favor over others. He was elected to represent Everyone, including Gays who certainly work hard, pay their taxes, own property, adopt and even have their own children, etc. So, embracing what Jesus said about Loving One Another is something they need to also practice to be known as loving Christians. After all, Jesus spoke not one word against Gays or Lesbians and it is by His Blood that we are Saved!

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

      Jesus is written as saying something about every issue, but we all know that Jesus closely followed the religion of Israel. What he was against was using the law above love. That said, most Christians would agree he was against gay marriage but still loves the gay man.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • For Clarity

      Actually you are not correct about that, GauisCaesar. Jesus would not have thought that way as He, being the Son of God, knew much better in His omniscience and it would have been a dichotomy. He was also not known for cowering down to man's law over God's. Besides, Scriptures used by some just to discriminate against Gays are not speaking about Gays, they are speaking to other things not related to them such as in Leviticus, popularly known for discriminating against Gays, that is actually speaking about crime done to the visiting angels. This is backed up according to learned theologians. The following Scripture speaks about loving a person in their entirety. "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also." - 1 John 4:20 (KJV) That means you can't have it both ways such as to love the sinner but not his sin as that may be man's way of viewing it but it is not God's. Either you love the person unconditionally, that is without ANY conditions placed upon him, or you don't love him at all. Remember that God is the only One to judge any perceived sin, not you or I. End of story.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  2. Noel

    HOW CAN CNN USE ANYTHING FROM THE CHILD PREDATOR BRYANT??? HE GOT A CHILD WITH A 17 YR OLD YOUNG GIRL AND YOU'ALL USE HIS COMMENTARY!! HOW FOOLISH!! AND SHOCKING!!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  3. Jerry

    I hope so for slapping them right in the face and for incessant pandering. Clueless/divisive will do as clueless/divisive will do!

    Once and for all, the Black and Latino communities across our nation need to demand respect from this Imperial President.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  4. wluv777

    They will still support

    May 11, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  5. josie

    It's long past time for blacks start thinking for themselves and stopped being 'preached" to by self anointed, self appointed and self serving preachers. Frankly, black preachers and politics are so interwoven with "under the table handouts and favors" that dictate most their decisions and positions. As for following the dictates of the Bible, where are those preachers who have taken on an ' oath of poverty'? Most are millionaires who have no shame running a guilt-trip on their congregations(mostly women) to get the money, It's sad to see the old women barely existing on welfare or social security continue to enable the preacher to live the life of the 'rich and famous' on earth in exchange for their 'heavenly mansion.'.' It's crazy... Don't care what the preacher say...'As for me and my house, IT'S OBAMA.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  6. TXJack

    I agree withMike in SA..

    The Blacks and minorities will still vote for him because he is balck just like they did the 1st time.

    Most I spoke with did not know what he stood for and did not care.
    He was getting their vote because he was black plain and simple.

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

      And maybe that is the same reason you are not voting for him. I know Texas is smarter than this...

      May 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      That's garbage! Eighty percent of the black community voted for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis! What's you point?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  7. DJ

    I do not understand how a single black person can persecute any group. The fight for marriage equality is very much a replay of the fight for civil rights in the 60s. In fact, this is a continuation of the civil rights movement. How can anyone from a persecuted group persecute another group? How could they, knowing that racism against them was stupid, that they are humans like everyone else and we should all be treated as equals, turn around and say "except for THIS group"? Either you believe everyone was created equal or you don't. You can't have it both ways. And yes, I know this is only coming from the religious right of the black community, but that's who I'm talking to here. Seriously, it is beyond hypocritical.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  8. wluv777

    Hahaha

    May 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  9. tokencode

    Jesus rose from the grave and ate the brains of all his followers

    May 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  10. Alina1

    I think Obama will do just fine.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  11. Benjamin

    "Rights" and "equality" have nothing to do with gay marriage. It is a false argument. The issue is gay activity is irrational, immoral and a sin. Being human does not mean you have the right to any and every activity.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • momoya

      Your opinion does not const.itute fact, but your statement of it does indicate that you're a stupid, hateful bigot.. Enjoy.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Alina1

      So, you think gay people have no rights to get married and be miserable just like everybody else?

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

      Says who? Your 3,000 year old book of fairytales that condones slavery?

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

      Human beings exist as male and female for a reason. Read a basic human anatomy and physiology book to learn the meaning of your bodies. Gay people are like delusional schizophrenics who fail to see the truth.

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

      Your wonderful presentation of facts, rational thoughts, and logic has won me... oh sorry, wrong post.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • sam stone

      benjamin: you have no authority to speak for god.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • sam stone

      speaking of delusional, benjamin, jesus is coming, time to get back on your knees

      May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • JWT

      It has everything to do with gay rights. The only argument against is begotry and hatred,.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I don't recall any addendums to that saying, "unless my religion doesn't agree with it"

      May 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  12. It is immoral to impose your religion on others.

    Obama did the right thing. If he got a divorce and married Biden he would still get the black vote.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  13. Jason

    So apparently black people don't care about equal rights? I think it's totally hypocritical for ANY black person to deny that gays should have the right to marry. If so maybe they should go back to being 3/5 of a person.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  14. thes33k3r

    CNN is the greatest ever!!! Let's see if this comment gets posted.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • thes33k3r

      I was being facetious.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  15. Tom Tucker

    Only those churches that are true followers of Jesus Christ will punish Obama. The rest will not. You cannot stand for Christ and immorality at the same time. Endorsing sodomy and leading the innocent into its horrible clutches is also an abomination before God.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Jason

      You're an idiot

      May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • PTNY

      You think? Punish? True followers do not punish.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Jeff

      The true GOD is Thor. He carries a hammer. Your god was nailed to a piece of wood. ANY QUESTIONS?

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

      Not necessary, I might disagree wit Obama on this issue only or few more, but overall I still agree with most of his plans for example universal healthcare.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • AJ

      JUST NOT RIGHT.WHAT MESSAGE ARE WE SENDING TO OUR CHILDREN AND CHILDREN CHILDREN..DONOT WANT MY SON FEELING LIKE IT IS O.K. TO BE WITH BOTH MAN AND WOMAN..THAT IS NOT CHRISTIANITY!!!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      And what about these so-called true followers who sleep with their female congregation and perpetrate incists and bigomy?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  16. EGH129

    Those racist pigs will still vote for him.

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

      I'm laughing my ass off with his. The media is in a tissy over Obama saying he is going to do NOTHING about gay marriage. The biggest pro-federal govt president leaves it up to the states to decide? Well they already have. 32-0

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

      So does this mean you are not voting for him?!? Stupid Tea Baggers. 😉

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

      Like they voted for Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Mondale and Dukakis? No sir, you're the racist pig!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  17. Darryl

    Funny how the Black community people are the first to scream Discrimination, civil rights,negelect,suppressed,race disscremanation and yet they have the guts to actually do the very same thing to the Gay population.It's discusting and they should be ashamed of themselfs.How dare they play GOD.Go back to Africa and live.We, the gay community have supported your CIVIL RIGHTS and freedom for years and years and this is how you show your respect and graditude ? Get out of the U.S. and don't come back.I will never ever support your freedom again.My mother was a civil rights leader in the Black Civil Rights Movement in 1958 in Arkansas and helped stop the discremination.If you can't give back the very freedom to a sector of society that has done NOTHING to you but support you then you need to GET OUT of here and never come back, EVER. You do NOT have the right to play GOD in anyones life but your own. You are the most discusting people on this planet and nothing more or less than EVIL.

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

      In all honesty, how would you feel if a ped-ophile said the same to you? Really, if you object to it morally, but they thought you should be on their side because they have been supporting you, what would be your response? I'm sure they'd be as offended as you are. It wouldn't make them right.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      What black community are you referring to sir? Most of the black community is supportive of the gay community, so what's your point?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Barbara

    In response to Hayden71.... AMEN! I agree with you 100%. Like myself and other blacks, regardless if President Obama is black. I'm not selling my soul to the devil. People must remember President Obama is bi-racial.

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

      I don't agree with his opinion either, I think the gay marriage thing should definitely be put up for a vote by the people. If the people don't want it, then it shouldn't happen. But I'm sure there are alot of things I don't see eye to eye with Obama on. But, he's a better choice than the other guys.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      WalklikeMan, do you really think it's a good Idea to put civil rights up to vote? If we did, half the population would loss the right to vote, interracial marriage would be a crime, all NON Christians would loss rights and so on. Civil Rights are not up to the majority.

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

      What does his being bi-racial have to do with it? You seem to be insinuating that you don't have to be allied with him because he really isn't one of you, etc., etc.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • sam stone

      sell your soul?

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

    The Black Church? I'm a black man, I live in a large city, the black church has larger problems than gay marriage. And the church doesn't have enough pull to persuade their followers to vote otherwise. Obama is in, no matter what. And as far as you folks talking negatively about black people voting for Pres. Obama because he's black, yes we do, get over it. Black people get passed up everyday because of their skin color. Everyday. From Taxi's to high & low paying employment positions, to crappy health care, housing, in every genre of society. Yes, we are going to vote for the black guy.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  20. Mike in SA

    Nope, don't think it will. A Black woman I work with told me this just last night "Well, I'm sorry he feels that way about those sinners...but by God he's still my President and I'm voting for him regardless of what he feels about these gays."

    See...don't think there's going to be that much loss of votes at all. The majority of Blacks will still vote for him because he's Barrack Obama, period.

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

      That is sad that they base their vote just because of skin color and not ability.
      Obama is half white anyway...and he is an inept putz

      May 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      Mike in SA, do you really think we as a Nation would be better off with a President Romney or Paul? If you think that please let me know how we would be better?

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

      marisombra, what has he done that makes you say that?

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

      I agree with Mike in SA..

      The Blacks and minorities will still vote for him because he is balck just like they did the 1st time.

      Most I spoke with did not know what he stood for and did not care.

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

      TXJack, I think there is Some truth in what you say but consider this, Blacks would Never vote for a Clarence Thomas or a Michael Steele for President. I think if Obama had been a Republican he would not be in office now.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • TXJack

      @ JohnQuest

      Point taken.

      But I did not vote for Obama before and will not.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      TXJack, why not, it will be him or Romney, I think is the lesser of the two evils.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:45 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.