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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. Jerri

    Gods Justice and His Holiness work together. You can't have one without the other. I love it when those who don't know God or His words try to explain His words. They are blind guides. Don't listen to them.

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

      And how about those of us who don't want or need anything to do with your "God"?

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

      You're absolutely right Jerry! We need to kill these non-believers!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • JIM CROW

      Romney and the Mormons will babtize them after they are dead and save them. You are not even safe in your grave from romney and his angles.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Huebert

      Most of us don't try to explain god's word. This is largely because we have realized that god is not real.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  2. robert

    The Black church wont do a damm thing about Obama,hes black and they back him 100 percent,just like waters here in L.A. she hasnt't done a thing for her people in all these years,poor jobless,uneducated,drugs and they still vote for her. sounds stupid but true

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

      Doesn't sound stupid at all. BO's doing the same thing on a vastly larger stage. 40% of all aborted babies are black. Unemployment highest among blacks than any other minority and at record levels for young adult black males. Lowest average wages earned by blacks. Another 4 years of BO and blacks will have been set back to the 19th century. Blacks used to vote Republican as the leftylibdems perfected poll taxes, barriers to voting, intimidation, and obstacles to participate in democracy. Then along came Johnson's embrace and blacks jumped on the leftylibdem band wagon and haven't looked back. But most of the preliminary work overcoming democrats sponsored segregation had already been done by Republicans.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  3. matt

    Go ahead America, vote in a filthy stinking rich republican because of a social issue. First it was billionaire, reformed coke addict Bush, now it'll be a billionaire bible thumper. I'm afraid the ship, she's taking on water. At least Jesus will love you on the way down.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Truth For Real

      or we can keep a guy that has no clue how to bring/create jobs and watch the economy crash as Europe goes under and oil prices continue to skyrocket. Romney has been running companies his entire adult life and know how to fix ailing companies. Obama is clueless when it comes to business and thinks letting the market "work itself out" is the best way.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Everett Wallace

    black or white church period sides with barak on the issue.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  5. Dawn

    Do you forget Bush administration left us in a deficit???? Obama took office with a mess. Why do people keep putting this on Obama. Did you also read earlier this week Obama reached first SURPLUS since Bush Admin. TRY SOMETHING NEW!!!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • dogs rule

      Good for you Dawn. Finally someone with a brain!!

      May 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  6. David Swift

    Kevin if that statement of yours was true Obamba would never have been voted in as president.Without the white vote no black person would ever be president. Whites vote sometimes to show they are not racist after all the lies our President has spoken and all his fake ideas. watch the whites will put a non- Christain back in office again.Crime is on the rise, taxes have gone up and we are still at war. Seems like the president lied last time he ran.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  7. a disgrace

    obama gets booted out of nevada!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  8. EEP!

    WAIT! There is a black church? Is there a white one and any other colors of the rainbow ones? Black is a religion now too? I am sooooo confused. So you have Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Muslims, and Blacks, etc...?

    May 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Will Smith

      I don't know where you've been living for the last, oh... 400 years but for that amount of time or longer Sunday morning has been the most segregated time of the week — white people go to churches attended by white and ONLY white people (hence the term, "white church"); black people go to churches attended by black and ONLY black people (hence the term, "black church"). The same dynamic holds true for many other ethnic groups. It has only been in the last decade or so that that has begun to change.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  9. Veteran for Obama

    I voted for President Clinton twice and no one called me a racist then, and I plan to vote for President Obama a second time, why? because as far as I'm concerned he's more intelligent than Mitt Romney and better for america. I'm a american with the right to vote for whom I chose.

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

      You don't possibly believe that nonsense you just wrote on here do you?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • A Serpentine's Thought

      I chose! You have chosen! We two will choose! Others' choices are chosen! I choose against that which you chose! I even am against the others' chosen choices! To choose one's choice are the choices one does choose! Choose your chosen wisely you Vet 4 O!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • dogs rule

      Good for you!! He's done more for the country that the Bush Boys; they're the ones who caused it to circle the drain.
      I am proud to say that I will have voted for President Obama twice! As for "Chuck" , the id1ot who posted below you: please grow a brain!

      May 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  10. respect gay aganist gay marriage

    civil union has all the rights as marriage. if you ask the same right, then you have it already. Why fight for the name of " marriage"? The name "marriage" was created by the straight for a man and woman. If it is between a man and a man or woman and woman, it is not the same at the first place, why you want to use the same name?

    May 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      NC has voted to ban civil unions as well. Actually they even voted to make straight couples cohabiting legally unrecognised as well. Not sure their supporters actually saw that one but there you go, thats religion for you.

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

      respect gay aganist gay marriage, would you as a tax paying American settle for less than any other tax paying American, as far as your rights are concerned?

      Would it be fare to pass a Law that Lutherans could not marry Lutherans? or that Left handed people could not marry who they wanted?

      Please note, it is Wrong to discriminate against a part of the population, the same laws should Apply to everyone equally. If it is against the law for a Woman to marry a Woman then it is to me against the law for a Man to marry a Woman.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  11. Rusty

    Any preacher or pastor who puts popularity or acceptance ahead of what God says is in the wrong profession. This is not an equal rights issue- marriage is God's idea.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Blacks Have Short Memories?

      How DARE black Americans vote against equal rights for Gays! Don't they remember when they had the same rights as a horse in the USA?

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

      Accept that god doesn't exist.

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

      Agreed. Pastors should not have any doubt on their priorities. Also, the question of salvation vs. justice is mute. The article assumes only BO can deliver "justice" to blacks. If justice is the subject, and not preferential treatment, then any fair-minded politician today will espouse justice for all minority citizens. What I suspect the leftylibdem media really means is justice for liberal blacks and liberal minorities, which of course, is not justice at all but bias and prejudicism. But BO will probably not loose much in black support because it's not about salvation or justice but race.

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

      Except that god doesn't exist.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • JIM CROW

      So I can blame god for 50% of marriages failing? If god thought it was such a good idea, why didn't she give us an idea of what it was really like, you know, prepared us for all the crap that goes along with it?

      May 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  12. DaveinIL

    Let's keep it simple. Messiah Obama made the calculation that his skin color would outweigh his gay marriage position with the 95% of the African-American community that votes for him no matter what he says.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      another right winger calling Obama the messiah. Really you guys need to stop deifying him, hes only human.

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

      You GOPers are the only ones that do this messiah and "the one" thing. Is that because you are jealous of us having a candidate that is smart, articulate and popular.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • dogs rule

      I'm white and straight, and I am proud to say I voted for Obama in 2008, and I will do so again.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  13. Joe

    Not a chance.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  14. jason

    Hey media: IT'S STILL THE ECONOMY, STUPID!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  15. don

    The answer is NO, because the alternative is 100000000 times worse. 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 of 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 2:18 pm |
    • Jeff R

      "Uncle Toms'?? You just showed your own bigotry with those two words, no need to read anything else you say.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • john

      It is obvious you have not facts or know history. Civil rights were passed ONLY because of the Republican party. Maybe before you spew your hate and racist views – loser

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

      Wow.... you are one prejudice person.

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

      Wasn't MLK a Repiblican?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Mike in SA

      Bigotry, thy name is Don

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

      @john, this may be true, but just like a bad news story you have left out the context of the situation. The Republican party of old is now the current Democratic party. There was a massive switch post Civil War. And if you are referring to the Civil Rights Act, that definitely isn't true because from my understanding, BOTH parties voted in an overwhelming majority. So it wasn't ONLY the Republican party.

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

      we all must remember that the republican party was a completely different group of thought and action...back then the dems hung black men like crazy

      May 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Andre

      I almost want to put a disclaimer on this posting on behalf of black people everywhere: "The opinions of this poster in no way reflect..." lol just nonsense.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  16. Bill

    It's a shame that so many blacks have forgotten what discrimination feels like.

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

      Some of us haven't.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • JIM CROW

      IT HASN'T GONE AWAY

      May 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • zbear

      And some of us will never forget, because it is still going on today.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  17. pseudorambo

    Screw the church.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • dogs rule

      I agree!!!!!

      May 11, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  18. Al Sharpton

    To ansnwer the headline: No. Black people will vote for Obama NO MATTER WHAT.

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

      Exactly. As long as he doesn't change his skin color, he will have the black vote no matter what he does or says. Sad, but true.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Mary

      @Alex – Why do you think this makes Obama desperate? For the most part the GLBT community is liberal minded, they would have voted for him regardless of his true stance on SSM.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • A Serpentine's Thought

      The "black voters" are not "black-aided" by Obama's sensualisms which are not of nationalisms' concerns!

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

      There is absolutely no way that he will get less than 95% of the African-American vote. No matter WHAT!.

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

      This statement is false. I am black and have a few black friends who aren't huge fans of the President right now. If only the Pubs could find a suitable candidate to run, some of those guys would gladly change their vote! It's a question of policy, not racial preference.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  19. Patrick Manley

    Obama is desperate. You can count on him trying to make headlines wherever he can to deflect attention from the economy that he ran into the ground. I don't care if he supports marriage between furniture. We need a new President who can get America back to work! Obama's on the job training failed big time. He is not smart enough nor does he believe in the American Dream. And it shows.

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

      LOL @ Obama running into the ground. Did you have your head up your rear end from 2001-08?

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

      The US economy started TRENDING downward during Reagan's 2nd term, directly as a result of his so-called "trickle down" bs. I also remember losing almost 30% of my stock portfolio in the market meltdown Oct. of 2008 which was well before Obama took office.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Truth For Real

      @Bill: You must have a short memory. On Jan3, 2007, the Democrats took over the House and Senate, as well as the Banking and Financial Services. In the months leading up to the market crash, Bush and the Repubs begged the Dems to fix Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They, including Barrack Obama, denied them saying it was fine. What happened the economy crashed and which 2 sections crashed it? Finance and Banking, ran the previous 2 year by Democrats.

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

      Amen to that, bro. Let's stay focused on the real issues, not the diversions that Obama is creating (I.e. gay marriage, Romney as a high school bully, etc.) to keep our focus off of the real issues. Obama certainly cannot stand on his record, so he will do anything that he can to divert attention from it. C'mon, voters, don't be suckered in by this obvious campaign poly. We're smarter than that (I hope!).

      May 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Patrick Manley

      The funny part that Obama's supporters fail to grasp is that marriage is a state issue. The federal government has no power over marriages at all. This means that whether you support gay marriage or oppose it, its irrelevant what the President says or does. Its only a diversion. Stay tuned, as soon as this fades away, he will create some new issue to deflect attention from his incompetent presidency.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • dogs rule

      I'm so sick of people like you. Obama didn't run the economy into the ground. Bush did that all by himself. Obama inherited it, and he is trying to fix it.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  20. zbear

    No matter what, you still have to listen to what the person is saying and pick the best person for the job. My opinion, the repubs are not going to do anything for the people. This is one reason the president is going to stay in office. The other reason is, look at the face of the repub party, mostly all white. I think the repub party is done.

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

      On the contrary, I think that Obama has caused enough damage to this country to last a lifetime. Voters are sick and tired of him creating new diversions (gay marriage, for example) to take the focus off of the most important issues (the economy, for example). The last thing Obama wants is to have to run on his own record, but hopefully Americans are smart enough to see that.

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

      ObjectiveGuy – I think you're wrong but I just don't feel like whipping out the numbers again; too much postings to sift through. zbear – I think that's a lot of what it comes down to; it's not so much a matter of Prez's popularity, but more about people not liking the Pub candidate (as has been with most of the people I know who actually follow the issues and debates during an election).

      May 11, 2012 at 3:11 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.