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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. John holmes is a pervert!

    God made gay people!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jim

      assuming there is a god

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

      No GOd mad people and some decided to follow Satan and be gay.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • GodPot

      "some decided to follow Satan and be gay."

      How do you know if you are not following something that you can neither see nor prove exists?

      And by your bible, if God is love and Satan is hate, then which path are you following when you tear down other people around you who just so happen not to believe in your God or your version of God?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  2. hellonews

    "Should my ideas about personal holiness trump my notion of justice?" Here's an idea...if you're ideas about personal holiness don't equal your notion of justice than one of the sets of ideas is incorrect and you should figure out which one is incorrect. You cannot strive toward holiness without also striving for justice. Where do Christians find information about personal holiness?–the Bible. Where do Christians find information about justice?–pop culture and politicians opinion? Something is wrong with this...Not sure how these pastors can logically separate God's word from culture. Compartmentalizing one's life doesn't lead to personal holiness.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jim

      it has to be if the bible says so

      May 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • michael

      When you can't reconcile justice with your religious views maybe your religious views aren't justified.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  3. A Serpentine's Thought

    P pn Obama due his weiner buns being too filled up with condiments of relish and cat's ups slipping sloppiness of 2nd handed loopiness!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  4. fred

    Marriage provisions in tax, benefit, social security and pension plans were put in place 70 years ago based on a Christian / Jewish family model. The old model assumed that the wife stayed home cared for kids and the family while the male role model worked. First tell everyone in the U.S, that effective 2012 no more benefits for marriage period. Each person is now his or her own except those married prior to 1965. Form a family; get married or whatever but no more 1950 style benefits period the traditional Christian / Jewish family is dead. Pensions, medical and social security benefits are based on what the individual earned not the big Daddy Male Judeo Christian figure with a submissive wife that needs benefits.

    I agree with equal rights not special rights but, not fix the religious family model it is based upon. Every one over the age of 15 can marry anyone and have as many wives as they want. In a godless secular world the godless will set the moral code and rule over the traditional Christian / Jewish family because the traditional head of the family has given up.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Primewonk

      SCOTUS has ruled that marriage is a fundamental CIVIL RIGHT. And according the 14th amendment, you cannot withhold civil rights from a subset of US citizens for an arbitrary reason.

      You do not have a legal, or religious leg to stand on.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • fred

      Then why do we block a man and two women from marriage or two women and one man?
      When do you think someone needs to step in and say hey, civil rights can only go this far?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • GodPot

      Here is the important detail you are ignoring fred. One of the main benefits of marriage is being able to choose a partner who is legally able to make decisions for you when you are unable to do so for yourself. Medical and posthumous decisions are made everyday by spouses in this country and that is one of the main rights religious conservatives are denying same s e x couples. That right is not workable for more than one spouse since it would create multiple persons whom that responsibility would be transfered to and the courts would then have to determine who is the spouse to listen to when it comes to medical decisions and other decisions a spouse is responsible for. Now as for living with as many people as you can either afford or are willing is up to you (see Girls Next Door) , but only one person can be considered your primary beneficiary/spouse for legal purposes, otherwise there would be confusion and chaos in the courts.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • fred

      Primewonk
      Your civil rights as to marriage are not unlimited and there are and will be boundaries that are put in place by someone.

      As to God let there be no doubt that marriage was the foundation of the family structure that glorified God. God set certain requirements in place as to marriage. Most people failed to follow what God put in place for the protection and well being of all concerned. Gay marriage is on our heads because we as believers brought this on by our own sinful failures that defiled the marriage bed. There is no end to the depravity of man when God is put aside. Perhaps we can muster up another revival to usher back what is holy before God.
      The reason the Bible is filled with stories of harsh brutal judgment every time a society reaches the peak of wickedness is so no one can say “I did not know”. Just like Adam and Eve knew what they were not to touch and the consequences so do you.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  5. Tim W.

    Religion will not stay out of politics so its time for the politics to get into religions.....its time for religions to start paying taxes....property taxes, income taxes, business taxes, etc etc etc ! BTW.....marriage is a legal matter NOT a religious matter ! Unless the preachers wife, daughter or son is in my bedroom....preachers need to stay out of my bedroom business !

    May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  6. rob

    The religious nuts in this country are getting crazier by the day. We need to rid society of this dangerous vermin.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Nora

      The fact that you just said that makes you the vermin. That's the reason we left England in the first place.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  7. John the Historian

    Liberals are for tolerance and Conservatives are bigots. If you don't want Gay marriage you do not believe in separation of church and state. If you are against Gay marriage you are a theocrat. If you hate Gays go to a theocracy like Saudi Arabia or Iran. Your views will fit in perfect with that kind of society. The Bible was used to make women second class citizens and the Bible was used to justify slavery. Civil law is what we have not dogmatic theological law.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • steve

      I admire the tolerant tone of your post. You don't sound judgemental of otehrs in the least.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Primewonk

      So steve, you think people should be tolerant of folks who purposefully choose to be ignorant?

      Are you tolerant of folks who claim the holocaust never happened?

      Are you tolerant of folks who claim blacks are subhuman scûm?

      Are you tolerant of folks who claim women are nothing more than property of their husbands and should simply shut up and spread their legs?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Nate

      Libs really need to quit claiming tolerance. As an objective observer of both sides, I see neither having much tolerance.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  8. JD

    The black community has proven that when it votes, skin color is more important than anything else.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  9. jason

    Of course they won't abandon Obama. As long as Obama stays "black," he will have 96% of their vote. Racist much? Of course. All the say is race, all the while they tell whites to be totally color blind. And they whine constantly about discrimination all the while discriminating against whites and voting again and again against gay marriage.

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

      I wonder what percentage of Mormons will vote for Romney?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  10. paulm5545

    Will the black church punish Obama? Heck no. He can do no wrong.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  11. cashmeremafia

    I really can't see many blacks voting for someone else based on ONE issue; there will be some, of course, but I doubt very many. Like the article said, they'll grudgingly vote for him, but not be enthusiastic about it.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  12. don

    Why would they, the alternative is to vote for the Republican KLAN party, the all white old male GOP party who dislike Blacks, Latinos, hate women's rights and other minorities including Gays. With the exception of Uncle Toms I do not believe that any if us will vote for the hate party. Plus I think you have to be really stupid to be in the republican party, why else would some middle class people vote for that party when they clearly only care for the super rich and big corporations.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  13. Jim

    But it's different with the gays. They're not like us blacks. Just because they are born that way (and we were born black), they actually don't deserve the same rights as us. There is something seriously wrong with the logic here: either we all have the same rights or we don't. (Hey: I got mine. Screw you. (no pun intended)).

    May 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  14. n8362

    It is immoral to impose your religion on others.

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

      Unfortunetly, many believe they have have a moral obligation to force their moral values on you.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  15. Dave

    Replace the word "black" with the word "white" and reread this article

    May 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  16. Robert

    So the south messed up by simply not claiming that being black is a sin?
    Never mind that the bible doesn't support either notion, so long as bigots have their justification who cares.

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

      The story of Hamm was used to prove blacks were inferior.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  17. n8362

    It makes perfect sense that blacks tend to fight equal rights, given their history and everything.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  18. Marquice Moore

    The question we should ask is would God vote for Obama?

    May 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  19. Andrew

    Judge not lest you be judged, Black America. Do not hate, as you have stories of your families suffering from hatred. Do not use religion to hate others.

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

      You are taking that scripture completely out of contect.

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

      He is.

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

      You are both incorrect. The context fits and it doesn't change the meaning.... if I walked up to any English-speaking person and quoted the words, "judge not lest ye be judged" one and all would come back with the same response. Here you go from the NIV (Matthew 7:3 and 4)

      “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

      3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

      In that context there is only one way to interpret it so what are you really saying?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • GE

      Andrew is out of context and Andre took Andrew further out of context...the blind leading the bilnd

      May 11, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  20. sybaris

    Human rights and religion don't mix

    May 11, 2012 at 1:58 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.