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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. Ann

    If Blacks do not vote for President Obama because of this issue, they will wish they had if Mitt Romney wins the election. I do not agree with President Obama, but, I would never ever vote for Mitt Romney. I just keep hearing him say "Let the
    auto companies go bankrupt" and "I don't care about the poor" that is reason enough for me to vote for the President.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • He who has the last laugh

      Just stay home on election day then !.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      I agree with you! But as far as this gay marriage issue is concerned, people across the country are so up tight with the whole issue, those for and against gay marriage! But this is the way I see it! If Mitt Romney was to be president the issue of gay marriage would be irrelevent and a matter of fact, if Mitt Romney was to be president, our existent on the face of the earth itself might be irrelevent especiall when he ends up ignighting WWIII and getting all of us nuked! let's just keep Mitt etch a skect Rumney's hands off that red button! Period!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  2. Sagebrush Shorty

    Obama will never lose the black vote, church going or not. He can do no wrong in the eyes of most blacks and he will continue to enjoy and even exploit this blind allegiance.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      No, the blind are trailer trash idiots like you who re-elected GWB after he murdered so many innocent people in his senseless foreign wars over WMD lies, only to allow him more four more years to f-up our economy!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  3. John holmes is a pervert!

    John, god made gay people! Why you think that god made you and you alone just shows how self serving and self righteous you are. All in all you're simply a pious pig! Get over yourself! Come out already and get yourself a boyfriend! That would be the best thing for you and your wife!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • B

      Someone says, "God made gay people." So I say, God made pedophiles too. What's your point?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      God made gay people but he didn't make pedophiles! In other words, being gay is not a choice but being pedophile is a choice, a sinful choice! There's a big difference!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  4. Saywhatyoumean

    Some of you people posting here are acting childish – maybe you really are children, but I doubt it. You probably have a very low self-esteem and cannot stand when a person makes a statement that goes against what you currently "know" to be true. All some of you want to do is be rude and incorrigible. There's no real discussion on this site and I'm about done with it.

    You can flame away at me all you want (it proves my point) – I don't read responses anymore.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Jim

      you're the smart one. I give.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  5. trex

    ............WHERE ARE YOU.....REPUBLICAN GAYS AND LESBIANS.................I KNOW you are there.............BUT VOICELESS..........................SPEAK UP, OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR PIECE......(spelled that way on purpose)

    May 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      LOL!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. R W N

    Perhaps one of these days White America will realize that all Black people do not think the same. We are not a monolith.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Aces Full Mike

      last time around over 90% of blacks voted for Obama, I doubt it will be any different this time – looks like a monolith from here

      May 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • BFD

      UM, Aces Full Mike, go check into the percentage of black voters that voted for Kerry, Gore and Clinton. Not much difference. Sorry to burst your racist bubble.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  7. Isma'il

    I came to read the comments, didn't even waste my time reading the article.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Chut Pata

      Moslems like you voted Dubya because he was a bigot like you. Anti-gay, anti-choice, and pro-death-penalty. Millions of your people died as a result of that. However nobody how many more these crusaders will kill you, you will continue to support them. A bigot respects a bigot.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  8. Newport Pagnell

    He lied to them with his "revolving" statements.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  9. Moon

    First allow me to say im a republican who believes in gay marriage. I also believe in god. Having said that i dont see what everyone is upset about. Just because the president says he is for gay marriage doesnt mean he will do anything about it. So until he actually says he will do something about his beliefs or does something like try to get a law passed saying the everyone has the right to marry whom they love there is no point in having a discussion about what the president believes or doesnt believe.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • A Serpentine's Thought

      What then will become of the "Bi-sensualists"? Will they just be the lonesome dove?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      As they say, you have to creep before you walk! The whole gay marriage issue is a REVOLVING or EVOLVING concept for all of us including gays! Therefore, it must be debated at the state level first before it is taken up at the federal level!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  10. he is in the closet

    I am very much against Baptist. In my opinion all Baptist are going to hell because of their beliefs and how they live their lives. If my children have friends over, I ask what religion their parents are, and If I find out they are Baptist, they are asked to leave my house, because I don't want my children exposed to Baptist beliefs.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • jasie

      I guess you might be a hater.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Patriarchae

      Wow. Yet more proof that fundamental Christianity is one of the most intolerant things on earth. You even discriminate against other branches of your own faith.

      Good job, I'm sure your jesus is so proud of you.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • he is in the closet

      No, I am not a hater. Gays and Lesbians are welcome in my house.... just not Baptist. Why do they allow Baptist to marry... when we all know they are sinners and bad examples for our children?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  11. ObamaJoe

    What is holiness is changing,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,dude,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    As human beings are more civilized,,,,,,,rules are modified by GOD,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    May 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  12. Marie

    The African American community will still go out and vote for President Obama.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • jasie

      Don't be too sure.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  13. souptwins

    So here's a question– What makes marriage a civil rights issue? Is it because Govt. gives certain privileges to married couples such as with taxes? Why do we do that? Marriage is not requisite for living the way access to employment, housing or medical care is, so what makes it a civil right? Should the Govt. get out of the marriage business all together and should we quit giving advantages to those whom are married?
    I've tossed these things around and will defend gays about their right to jobs, housing & insurance all day but don't really see marriage as a civil rights issue. The best I've come up with is that the govt. sees marriage as the vehicle that forms families and perpetuates our society through children. If gays (without outside help) can't do that, then why would that couple deserve those advantages? If there's another reason we offer these advantages, I'd be willing to consider them. Certainly hetero couples are sometimes unable to have children, which is why we have adoption but there aren't enough children for adoption to go around as it is. Maybe the govt. should stick with civil unions all together and leave marriage to the churches or even get rid of the benefits for marriage. Could help the budget at the same time.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • meccano

      You seems to refute your own argument. Marriage is a civil rights issue precisely because the government grants laws and protections to married couples. When the government says they can exclude a certain minority group from being able to marry, they are with holding those rights from them based on their minority status.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • michael

      The United States Supreme Court disagrees with you and has already ruled marriage is a civil right.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Well, there are millions of orphan kids out there waiting for a warm loving home and many gay couples have been stepping up to the plate and being their guardian and their parents through adoption! Hope that answers your silly question!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • souptwins

      No one has answered "why do we give privileges for marriage?" That doesn't seem like a silly question to me and seems to be at the root of whether it should be considered a civil right. As far as the orphans go- where are all these orphans? China maybe? I'm not sure because I thought there were thousands of married hetero couples wanting to adopt but the kids aren't available.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  14. Bill

    To all black people who think it is OK to vote for a law that prevents another group from their civil rights: If any of the civil rights that you gained in the 60's had been put to a popular vote, You would still be enjoying your "separate but equal" public restrooms, your back alley food windows at restaurants, public schools and your seats on the back of the bus in the South. It might have even spread to other states. It is absolutely shameful that a group who has been oppressed is now oppressing others. THAT is a SIN.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Jim

      EXACTLY!! But noooo. "this is different". blah blah blah.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Byteme

      As an out, proud, gay black male, I COULDN'T AGREE WITH YOU MORE!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Agree!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Lynda Jones-Owings

      I agree, there are so many undercover black ministers until it is unreal. Church is not what it use to be anyway. It is now all about money, it has been commercialized and if you ask me most of the Church's today have forgotten about God and have moved on to the money getting thing.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  15. sweet

    Instead of judging President Obama on the content of his character, many seem to be judging only by the color of his skin and voting FOR him based on that fact only. This is in complete opposition to the principles and motivations of the founding of this country and the Civil Rights movement. Or have you forgotten about the "I Have a Dream" speech? If you would be angered and incensed at the thought of anyone voting AGAINST

    May 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • jasie

      He has no content of character. He only likes those who like marxism.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      interesting that someone who talks about content of character then spouts a lie to try to make a comment.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Lynda Jones-Owings

      President Obama has great character and he has handled hisself very well in office. He has accepted all the bad things that people have called him with the utmost elegance. President Obama and Michelle have more character than the majority of President's and first ladies. Barack continue to handle your business in a minor that will have people debating all over this country and aboard.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  16. Dave

    The good thing about Obama is that he forces you to make a decision...either you stand for God or you stand for Obama? You can't support holiness and immorality at the same time. Encouraging sin and leading the innocent into eternal doom is also an abomination to God. We can no longer hide behind catch phrases and religiosity. Everyone must choose. Therefore, choose wisely.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • DPCFOH

      And they will, and Obama will be reelected.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • he is in the closet

      Yes, make sure your children follow the teachings of a swindler and crazy man. Make sure your children know that Jesus was nothing more than a prophet, just the same as Joseph Smith. Be sure they know that blacks really can't get into heaven... Yes people... choose wisely.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Ali

      Do I go to Hell if I don't stop my neighbor from sinning?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • michael

      When you use God as the excuse for your bigotry you have no idea who God is.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Who's right it is to judge?

      May 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Lynda Jones-Owings

      Dave, good point; however, it is not Obama that has produced this issue. It is the American people; all people should be treated equally. God should be the one to deal with abomination.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  17. ObamaJoe

    Where is the news of Zimmerman,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    May 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  18. me

    First he held focus groups, then he took a poll, and after
    he measured Ellen and Rosie's audience, he decided he was
    pro gay. He's a dyed in the wool politician and as calculating
    as a rattle snake.

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

      Don't forget how he sent out his favorite weather vanes named Biden and Clinton to see what reactions would be.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      And there are WMD's in Iraq!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Lynda Jones-Owings

      Are you upset? LOL

      May 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  19. DrDoITT

    We need to protect marriage!

    no fault divorce was a mistake, is the undoing of society. we need to go back to divorce for abuse and adultery only. Of course, gay 'marriage' is absurd.

    Im looking for a legal way to have a prenup that says that I and my spouse opt out of no fault divorce. Not married yet, preparing for the day...

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

      Stop pushing your religious views on everyone. If I'm married and 20 years later something changes and I'm no longer happy with the marriage, I should be able to get a divorce instead of suffering a miserable life because fundies like you want to push your particular brand of religion on everyone.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • sam stone

      Of course gay marriage is absurd? Based on what?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • sam stone

      Why stop there, doc? Why not no divorce at all?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Ali

      Protect your marriage from what? Exactly how does two men marrying endanger your marriage? More importantly WHY does the rest of the population need to be forced to live according to your beliefs? What makes your needs more important than the man next to you?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  20. Common Sense

    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.”

    Maybe Pastor Pearson should have read Revelation 2 when Jesus said he would take away a church's "lampstand" if they fail to preach the truth of the gospel.

    "Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place." Revelation 2:5.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • J.W

      Tell me which parts of the gospel specifically address hom0s3xuality.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      does this lampstand come from italy and have fragile stamped on it?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • michael

      Could you point out where in any of the four gospels being gay is condemned? Jesus met a gay man, via the Roman Centurion, and said if him, "never have I seen faith greater than this.". He also refers to gay men as "born eunuchs" in Matthew and again does not condemn.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:00 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.