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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. NOT MY CHAIR

    i my eyes Obama should stop lying to the dumb Christians and just let them know he doesn't really believe in fairy tales. the bible says its ok to own slaves!! you cant really pick and choose what you believe in and what ya do if its all written by "god"

    May 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Bill

      Agreed. It's 2012 but Americans still don't understand science and base their discrimination on their belief in gods and ghosts. We don't live in caves and believe that gods control the weather anymore people.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Reese

      yeah, and God also stated how slaves and people should be treated. Something slave owners didn't quite get. Dont cut and paste the bible to support your own idolatry.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  2. Denni

    This position won't hurt Obama. His performance on the economy is another matter.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      The economy has been stabilized and the unemployment rate is gradually declining!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  3. Robert Brown

    What some may call the manifesto of the bigoted, hateful, delusional Christian Taliban.
    1. Love God.
    2. Love each other.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      dont know why you put that 2nd line in, its not part of the manifesto that we have seen.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  4. Observer974

    Well, 80% that black community believes in creationism, believed O.J. was innocent, and is okay with black mobs beating the h*ll out of Asians, Hispanic, and white because "It's payback for Trayvon", so evidently these violent rubes will buy anything. They voted 98% for Obama last time, rather like the brainwashed starving peasants voting for "Dear Leader" in North Korea and no one expects that they have woken up to the fact that Obama and the rest of the black "leadership" have been conning them and ripping them off.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • NOT MY CHAIR

      says the white guy from the suburbs

      May 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Reese

      who the hell beat up asians, hispanics, and whites for Trayvon? seems like your the one brainwashed!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • JC

      No blacks voted Democrat. Just like they have done for many years now. Lets not confuse them voting for race, with blacks voting for a party that hasn't gone out of its way to make blacks feel like they don't belong. And please let me know where you are getting these random percentages from. I hate that about these comments. People just pull these unverified percentages and numbers out of their you know what, and then spout them off like they are the truth. Judging from how you are talking, I bet you don't even know any black people, yet somehow you know what they think, what they believe, and how they feel. Give me a break.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  5. CJ

    I am sure that they will all still vote for him if only because of the color of his skin instead of the context of his character.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bill

      Not everyone is racist like you seem to be.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • dumbfounded

      I love how you are considered to be racist by calling out racism... The facts are right in front of you Bill.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Ali

      Your right assuming that all blacks are racist and as racists they will vote based on race and not based on shared political beliefs or specific issues that they care about is not racist in the least. Seriously?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  6. Common Sense

    In 2008, around 15 million blacks voted , and 94-96% of them voted for Obama. That gives Obama around 14-15 million votes from the black demographic in 2008. Around 40 million whites voted for Obama in 2008.

    WHY AGAIN ARE THEY ACTING LIKE THE BLACK VOTE IS SO PIVOTAL FOR OBAMA TO WIN IN 2012????? THE TOTAL BLACK POPULATION IN THE US IS ONLY AROUND 12% !!!!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • meccano

      Well Common Sense, as common sense will indicate, a landslide presidential victory can be had we less than 5% of the vote.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Observer974

      Because they vote lockstep, like a brainless mob. 98% voted for Obama last time. If 98% of them vote for Obama and they turn out in a herd, they swing elections. On the planet earth, no other group votes like that, brainlessly and like some stupid jelly fish or fungus, bit they do.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Reese

      well 'Common Sense' that 12% is for total population NOT the voting population numbers are quite different 'common senseless'

      May 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      90% of blacks voted for Gore in 2000, 88% voted for Kerry in 2004.
      It wasnt really a big surprise that Obama would get high numbers as well despite observer's spittle filled rant about herd mentality.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Ali

      @ Cedar Rapids, so what you are saying is that statistically blacks are more likely to vote democrat. Who knew? BTW, didn't Obama win a unprecedented % of the young vote in the last election? I seem to remember a him winning by a larger than expected margin that was at least partially explained by the fact that the younger generation was under polled.
      The younger generation does tend to be a little more accepting of those with other views.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  7. funnyhowitworks

    It's funny how black americans fought for,(equality) and got, what they wanted 50 years ago but don't believe in equality for gays. What would MLK say? Gays are people too.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • NOT MY CHAIR

      its amazing how religion utterly destroys peoples moral compass

      May 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • CJ

      Sorry to burst your bubble but being gay is NOT a civil rights issue. Black people cannot change the color of their skin. Gays were not born gay. They choose to be gay. BIG DIFFERENCE
      This wouldn't even be an issue if they would accept civil unions in order to receive the benefits that married couples receive.
      They want gay 'marriage' because they want to legitimize their immoral lifestyles. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Never has and never will. They were all for separation of church and state until this issue came up.
      They are all like a bunch of selfish two year olds who can't have their own way.
      Stop forcing your gay views down everyone elses throats!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • gager

      actually it is whites that fought for and got equalty for blacks.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • gager

      Sorry CJ, gays are not gay by choice, that's just more religious nonsense.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • michael

      Oh yeah, being gay is a choice. I guess all those gay kids just thought hanging themselves was just an easier choice.

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

      I agree with CJ. They want legalization for 2 reasons....1. socail acceptance b/c then it makes it okay and 2. for the financial and whatever else benefits that married couples get. Go get a civil union and be done with it.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Reese

      equality, okay? go do your research buddy

      May 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "Go get a civil union and be done with it"

      they cant in NC, they banned those as well.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Ali

      @ C J, I think a lot of people would disagree that gays can just decide not to be gay. Your ignorance is insulting. It doesn't work that way? Who are you to say so?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  8. bresson

    CNN wishes this would divide black voters... what a thing to cover! This is such a non issue. You've really got to be a bigot to care about gays getting married. How about have some security in your own life, and your own marriage and let go of what others do...

    And if anyone's going to take anything from the Bible: "Judge not, lest yee be judged"

    May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  9. dumbfounded

    I can't believe Rev. Fred Robinson actually thinks America is a democracy. Wake up people. Oh, that's right, nobody has to say our pledge of allegiance anymore and you absolutely wont hear the truth from the liberal media (what a joke).

    May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Michael

      It might do you well to leave that bunker you live in with Fox News piped in and take a look at the world around you.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • dumbfounded

      That's the only answer you ignorant liberals can come up with – Fox News's fault. Can you quote the pledge of allegiance for us all and then tell me what you think?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "you absolutely wont hear the truth from the liberal media"

      it is so funny that you would spout a lie about other people lying.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • dumbfounded

      Wow, you seemed to have gotten quiet there Michael. Did something happen or did you just realize that BS you spit doesn't really add up when presented facts?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  10. Tim Rigney

    I guess Obama is going to have to fire Biden for his actions this past week. Who, oh who, would be wiling to serve as V.P., and has the drive and ambition to use that spot as a "launch pad" to run as a strong candidate for President in 2016?
    With their own loyal following that would bring Obama enough votes to JUST push him over the top in the swing states? Perhaps there's someone available in the Department of Agriculture?
    Well, I'd imagine they'll think of someone.....

    May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • bresson

      Biden did Obama a favor by forcing this issue. It showed conviction and authenticity. Anti gay policy is a huge negative for anyone taking that stance. Biden said it correct, society is evolving. This is a step towards America being more free, which is what we are all about. Huge victory for USA and what we stand for (or claim to)

      May 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  11. The Don

    How quickly we forget with slavery and equality for African Americans. Now they want to condemn or scrutinize against gays. Forget what they as an individual thinks; what does the Bilble teach; about loving thy neighbor and not condeming lest you be so condemned. Hopefully we will never go back to segregation because of what someone thinks they read in the Bible or because of religious beliefs

    May 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  12. sean50

    I find it amazing that people who were denied rights and freedoms during Martin Luther King's day, would be the same people who would deny rights and freedoms to others simply because of who they are.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  13. It is immoral to impose your religion on others.

    Obama did the right thing. He could divorce Michelle and marry Biden and he would still get the black vote.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  14. MightyQuinnnn

    CNN it was so stupid of you to use this sub creature Jamal Harris Bryant as the voice for African American Church's!!!!! How could you think that this heretic could represent us as a whole. This man isn't a liar, and a money hungry soul stealing pimp. He will say what you want for the right price. CNN shame on you!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  15. gager

    You can be stuff on a stick but if you're black you'll still have the black support. Look at the mayor of N.O. and Wash, DC.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  16. N'dege

    This is one of the many reasons I don't identify as "black" most of the time. It's highly correlated with religious-based intolerance of which I do not approve or condone. Civil rights should not be up for a popular vote. Had it been in 1968, black people wouldn't have rights today. These attempts to pull a "Zionist" by oppressing other people is shameful, sick, and ultimately counterproductive. The Bible belongs (if anywhere) at home, not in our laws.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • MightyQuinnnn

      Down worry you don't have to identIfy your skin will do it for you. This was classic and twitter verse is getting a kick out of it.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  17. Ken

    All I'm going to say is ... Double Standard. Just think about what these same churches and leaders have said in the past. But now that's it's Obama, the annointed one, well......

    May 11, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  18. phearis

    Honestly!!! Who gives a flying rat's @$$ what the Christian Church thinks?!?! They're stuck in the friggin middle ages! If you don't agree with a book that's been rewritten and changed so many times, there's nobody alive that knows what the original intent of the "stories" were, then you're going to hell! Christians are just as psychotic as any other religion, they just hide it with false kindness, until you disagree with what THEY believe.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • JoePub

      Uh, actually the Bible has not been re-written and altered. The Dead Sea scrolls prove that.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • John holmes is a pervert!

      If Christians were really "Christians" the divorce rate wouldn't be at 50%....
      Its easier to blame others for their own inadequacies!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • meccano

      There is no one translation of the Bible.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  19. emily

    MARRIAGE is between a man and a woman! How many preists, preachers, etc are going to be willing to perform a gay marriage in a house of worship? On the other hand, a civil union is a legal union and I guess it can be between man and man, woman and woman, maybe man and dog, or between a man and his garbage can if he so desires. Quit referring to it as a marriage. It is a civil union. If 2 men or 2 women , or a man and a woman want to have a civil union, I don't care. But they aren't "married" , no matter how bad they want everyone to believe it and socially accept it. Social acceptance by no means makes it right!

    May 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • John holmes is a pervert!

      Emily you're a dolt! Why do you thin the preacher, says "by the power vested in me by the "state" of ____" before pronouncing the marriage?

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

      So according to you, because you don't "believe" in gay marriage, civil unions should be good enough. How incredibly shallow. I sure hope you don't have kids who are gay and want to be MARRIED to their loved one. But I'm sure your life is perfect with your rose colored glasses, right 🙂

      May 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "How many preists, preachers, etc are going to be willing to perform a gay marriage in a house of worship?"

      It's already happening I've been to a few. There are thousands of churches that support the gay community and have stated being gay as we know it today is not a sin. There have also been pastors that have written apology letters to the gay community. Not everyone is as prejudice and bigoted as you.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "maybe man and dog, or between a man and his garbage can if he so desires"

      This just shows your stupidity on this subject.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • meccano

      Civil marriage is very common. There is no attempt to alter anyone's religion.

      Why do some people start talking about bestiality when disagreeing with gay marriage. What is it about the molestation of an animal that one equates with a relationship between two consenting adults? I think it says more about the person that their mind goes in that direction that it does about those they are criticizing.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • MsRepublican

      Emily.. You are correct. What difference does it make to me as a believer? Nothing. God Loves the person, hates sin, and I think many forget what they have been forgiven for. Pharisee, Pharisee....

      May 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Ceitte

      someone is sleeping with their brother!!...

      May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Ms. K

      how can a civil union not be considered a marriage...because they are not religious people? That's crazy like you. So couples that eloped are not a married based on your thoughts and beliefs? Not all married couples are wed in a church or religious setting. STFU

      May 11, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • emily

      I'm not judging and I'm not anti gay. I have gay couple friends. I am pro marriage, man and woman. I am pro civil union for gays. For legal purposes its a civilunion, for religious purposes its a marriage. I think that for gay couples who want to join in a civil union, they are deserving of all the same rights as a married couple. But the wording of a gay marriage seems to say that its not only legally accepted but religiously accepted as well, whcih I'll say again, goes against separation of church and state. We might be able to change public opinion and legal laws and proceedings but most christian belive that the Bible and the religious beliefs of many are not subject to [ublic opinion and easy change. I wish someone would seriously explain to me the difference in civil union and marriage. If it's about feelings and acceptance and feeling okayfrom a religious standing, I'm sorry but I just dont; think that's good enougjh.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • jj

      I am pro marriage, man and woman. I am pro civil union for gays. For legal purposes its a civilunion, for religious purposes its a marriage. I think that for gay couples who want to join in a civil union, they are deserving of all the same legal and financial rights of those who are married.. But the wording of a gay marriage seems to say that its not only legally accepted but religiously accepted as well, which goes against separation of church and state. We might be able to change public opinion and legal laws and proceedings but most christian belive that the Bible and the religious beliefs of many are not subject to [ublic opinion and easy change. I wish someone would seriously explain to me the difference in civil union and marriage, other than the religious connection. WHy is it so important to be called marriage?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • TR6

      As I recall there are many places in the bible that define marriage as between one man and as many women as he can get. God also seems to pretty mellow with guys doing their wives servants. In fact god blessed the children produced when Lot did his 2 virgin daughters.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  20. August

    So I'm wondering how many White Christians will vote for a man that belongs to a religion that most Christians consider a cult and also teaches that pigment of a Black person's skin is a result of sin? Talk about hypocrisy.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • John holmes is a pervert!

      Only the ones that dont know what's best for them!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • MsRepublican

      True, August. John Holmes, if you consider yourself a Christian.....you really need to go examine yourself.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:03 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.