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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. junior

    why are my comments not being posted!lol

    May 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • DrDoITT

      Because you're an idiot!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  2. Tim Rigney

    People – – *think.* This has *nothing* to do with Gay Rights. They needed an excuse for Biden to step down gracefully, this appears to give it to them. Hillary becomes the V.P. candidate, drawing her followers with her; and that, it's hoped, pushes Obama over the top in the "Swing States." Hillary is then positioned for a strong run for President in 2016. No one in modern times has ever run for President as a Secretary of State; several V.P.'s had.
    I wouldn't be surprised if they engineered this months ago.

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

      Be on the right side of history! Your a smart guy.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  3. Reese

    America is suppose to be a free country and yet we are still tied in our beliefs. Separation from church and state and equality should be awarded to everyone of a free world, America. There are different groups of people in this country atheist, christians, muslim, jews, buddhist, satan worshiper, etc no one should be forced to live by your religious beliefs at least not in a free world. God sun falls on the good and bad, equality likewise should fall on all Americans black or white, straight or gay. WWJD

    May 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  4. Mary

    Don't compare Gay Rights to Equal Rights. That will set off most of the Black Community!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Reese

      and what in the world do you know about being black and the black community?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Ceitte

      STFU you racist bigot! Look at the definition of EQUAL rights and there is no disputing that civil rights are indeed an element of equal rights. Here's an idea for you. Maybe you should go get an education instead of spending time on CNN sounding like a complete retard.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  5. Slag

    Hey CNN, how come when Mitt Romney changes his views he's flip flopping and when Obama changes his views he's "evolving"?

    May 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • jason

      Exactly. I noticed that too.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Reese

      well basically because leaders evolve and the flaky flip flop... LEADER=OBAMA!!!! OBAMA + BIDEN 2012!!!!!! VOTE!!!!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Ceitte

      Because he flip flops on EVERYTHING. This is a spin tactic it's the truth. Even his republican opponents were very eager to point this out. Mitt doesn't have evolving positions. He takes whatever position is favorable for him at the time. Quit fooling yourself!

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

      Because Mittens flip flops on EVERYTHING. Even his republican opponents were very eager to point this out as its happened over and over his political career. Mitt doesn't have evolving positions. He takes whatever position is favorable for him at the time. Quit fooling yourself!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • derrick

      Obama hasn't exactly changed his position. In his 2008 campaign, he was at least accepting of the idea of allowing gays civil unions that offered the same protections as marriage, which was a staunch contrast from the GOP's stance. So this is in fact an "evolution" of his earlier position.

      It's a lot different than going from a position where government healthcare mandate is good to have... to a government mandate is bad to have and must be repealed. That's a flip flop.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  6. NONSENDEM

    Take care your stomaches first before anything else. You have 5 days for living and 2 days for religous....

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

    “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.”

    Capitalist Religion – selling whichever moral codes consumers want the most.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  8. David Swift

    Race is the only issue for blacks, hispanics etc. They could be the 2nd coming of Hitler and as long as they are your race you vote for them.Has nothing to do with what is right.This is America land of the stupid people of all races.

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

      WHEN YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE DISCRIMINATED YOU SHOULD NOT PALY RACE CARDS. YOU PLAY THE RACE CARD WHEN YOU ARE NOT CONFIDENT AND AT THE END OF THE LIARS. (i AM NOT A BLACK, HISPANIC.... I AM AN ASIA IMMIGRANT TO THIS LOVELY COUNTRY)

      May 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • JT

      Whites has a problem with race too. They are the ones who make KKK and white sumpremicst. That why so many had a problem with Obama and still bash him for every single action. Yet Bush led US into a war then steer off to Iraq to fight two wars at once and ppl barely bashed him. Long as the person is white they always get a pass. Cops, and civilians treat minorities wrong but they get off sometimes with either no crime or less of punishment. That y more minorites in prison because whites get off easier.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  9. buttlicker

    Obama does not want to be President. He turned grey the second he walked out of the meeting with Bush when he won. He ruined his life, his wife's and the kids. He wants out ASAP!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  10. jason

    As long as obama stays "black," he will have 96% of the black vote. Further evidence that blacks don't want equality– they already have that. They want superiority. No other country where the majority bends over backwards to accomodate and cow tow to the 13%.

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

      jason, where do you get your news (skinheads publications inc.), that is the most ridiculous thing I have read so far today.

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

      Kerry, Gore and Clinton all got similarly high percentages of the Black vote, so that shoots a hole in your superiority theory. It;'s (D) next to his name moreso than his skin color. Herman Cain running against a white democrat would have just as small about a chance of winning an election.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Fernando

      I forgot, how many other than white Presidents has the "United" States had again?

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

    the ONLY reason obama came out and said what he said, was for VOTES and VOTES alone. Go on and cut it up any way you like, still because of votes.

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

      Your right, he wants to loose votes so he can go home and relax.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      yeah because he will gain faaaar more votes than he will lose right? it must have been for the votes, gaining that few percentage points whilst losing far more from the religious voters, perfect political sense.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Fernando

      I swear I'm coming to CNN website more often to be entertained......your rationale is juvenile unless you know something everyone else doesn't know

      May 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • heydude

      opps..i screwed up my reply....oh well

      May 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  12. Joshua Ludd

    Will they punish Obama? No.. will they punish themselves and the rest of us by helping Republicans win?

    May 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  13. 14401

    No matter what they say, you can't believe a word that is in the media about 0 or the black community.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  14. n8362

    It makes perfect sense that blacks would fight equality for minorities, given their history and everything.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  15. JohnQuest

    JOSE0311USMC, I am surprised and offended that a Marine would be okay with Americans being discriminated against. The Majority does not have the right to take away (or restrict) the rights of a minority. Civil rights should never be up for popular vote. My your logic a state can restrict marriage to ban interracial and mixed-religious marriage and anything else the Majority disagrees with (please note the majority are religious mostly Christian), it would effective turn our beautiful nation into a Theocracy

    May 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  16. DrDoITT

    I resent the fight of my ancestors for equality is being used a precedent for approval of perversion.

    Look, Ma, I found a 'drunk' gene. so lets overthrow DUI/DWI laws. Its not my choice to drink its who I am!!!

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

      I think I disagree but it's hard to tell because you did not make your point clearly and definitively enough.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      DrDoITT, don't be absurd, that anolgy only works if Some people got dui and others did not based on a majority vote, even you would be against that. Would you vote for a DUI law that only effected Asians?

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

      Drunk drivers kill innocent people. Same gender marriages don't. Not even close to a valid comparison. And there are genetic markers that seem to indicate a succeptability to addiction, they use this information for treatment and support, not legislation.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Joshua Ludd

      Getting drunk is a choice... driving while drunk is a choice.. and a crime that actually harms others. Being gay is not a choice and does not harm anyone.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • DrDoITT in the closet

      You're just resentful because you're still hiding in the closet.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • RL

      DUI laws are not about perversion. They are about safety. If you consider drunkenness perversion, then outlaw drunkenness. It is not illegal because it is not dangerous. Gay marriage is not dangerous either and should not be compared to DUI.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • DrDoITT

      You all will burn in hell!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Ben

      you sound like an idiot making this kind of comparison. Love between two does not compare to the need to drink and if you think it does all it does is show your ignorance

      May 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      actually Dr they have found that there is a genetic disposition towards drinking and that children of alcoholics are more likely to become one themselves, but as someone already said drinking isnt illegal

      May 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Ben

      A genetic disposition which means you might. the rest is nature and how u handle yourself. just because you had an alcoholic parent or whatever does not mean that you will become an alcoholic it just means there's a chance and that could do more with living around it than anything else.

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

      Ben: my point exactly.. to be gay is a choice. you may have a genetic disposition, but you can and should rise above it. and help further society.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Ben

      Its not a choice it never was. I mean you must ignorant to think that with huge number of people that hate gays, want to convert them or kill them. To think that a gay person deep down chooses to go through this life with all that when if they truly had a choice they could turn it off and live your version of what life should be. If that were true than this whole thing would never happen, there be no need to convert people, there wouldn't be all this turmoil if it is truly a choice. But them again it is not a choise, that is the world we live in.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  17. Jurah

    Edward Blum was incorrect in his assumption that MLK was more concerned with justice than salvation. He believed as many African American CHRISTians do that you can't believe in one without the other. You can preach salvation to an oppressed people and not lose credibility.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  18. ourjungle

    The whole gay marriage issue is just one of the many distractions to keep folks from focusing on our Nation's devastated Economy. The Economy has gotten 53% worse under Obama's watch.Obama's Economic Plan of Tax, Tax, and Tax can not be sustained with out a supportive Job Creation's Plan of Build,Drill,and Repair.Obama has been President for 3 1/2 years,and he still hasn't come up with a Job Creation Plan,and his Economic Plan of Tax, Tax, and Tax has drivien our Nation's Economy 5 trillion dollars further into.....into,not out of....a devastating Recession.

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

      You shouldn't swallow so much rhetoric without coming up for air first. Maybe then you'll do some research for yourself and find out what you're really talking about.

      OEF/OIF: 3.7 Trillion
      Mandatory Spending: 63% of the budget (3.5 Trillion) *this includes medicare/caid, ss*

      These two items alone are policies enacted by the previous President; lets not just throw out numbers before we understand what they mean. There are a few policies that have cost money: the economic stimulus will cost us 125 billion by 2018 (oh wait, it saved our asses), and lets not forget the traditional military spending which will eventually have to be curbed (this is spending needed to keep the armed forces going at current levels and part of our discretionary budget). So don't just say any old thing because you swallow rhetoric like a champ... you are far less effective in vomiting it back up.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Ceitte

      Right. It's Obama and has nothing to do with the BS infighting in congress that doesn't allow legislation to get passed. You're a jjoke man. Maybe you should back that incorrect statement up with facts IF they can be found.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  19. Ron

    Sometimes typos speak the truth:

    "He’s the president of the Untied States"

    Seems like that's what we're becoming these days.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  20. Kevin

    Meh. He'll still get most of the black vote. It's in every animals' biology to stick with their own, as sad as that may seem to human perception.

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

      Its funny, how people keep framing this argument as if blacks haven't been voting Democrat for years. It has very little to do with the fact that Obama is black. It has more to do with the fact, that the Republican party has the perception(whether true or not) of the party of that favors the affluent majority over the poor minority. Why as a poor black person, would you ever vote for a party that does not have your interest at heart. And in all honesty, whites have a nice long history of "sticking with their own" and demonizing and ostracizing those who are different.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:20 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.