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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. Cheeseburger

    Naw, they'll give him a pass. "400 years, 400 years" and all that BS. Hey, look at Marion Barry. Obama could be a pedophile and they'll find a way to rationalize it and vote for him.

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

      Making uneducated comments like that clearly proves you didn't graduate High School.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  2. Kay

    Vote on the issues. If you like the direction this country is going and believe we have made economic progress during these last years, vote Obama. If you aren't any better off than you were 3 1/2 years ago and don't like the direction, vote him out. Only an idiot would decide something so important, by race or gender.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  3. Angry Annie

    Obama just left los angeles. thank god! what's up with this guy and the celebrities? how can he demean the presidency into a popcorn and cotton candy side show?

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

      Where have you been the last 50 years.

      Marilyn Monroe singing to Jack Kennedy: "Happy Birthday to you........"

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

      Shut up!

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

      But when îdiots like Ted Nugent and Kid Rock campaign for Mitt Romney, that's all good – right?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • heydude

      Agree. I see the other comments but....what about a SEATED Pres, going on talk shows and the like? REALLY? Hes a SEATED President!!! get back to running the country and OFF the late show. I dont think any other SEATED Pres did talk shows.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  4. OneFineBlonde

    Most black pastors will not advise their congregations not to vote for Obama because of his endorsement of gay marriages. A few (who take the Bible seriously) will do so. Most won't advise either way.

    But many INDIVIDUAL black Christians will withhold their votes based on their conviction that gay marriage is not in keeping with Christian teachings. I don't think these people will necessarily vote for Romney (although some will). But there will be a significant (though not majority) segment of black Americans who cannot go with Obama because of this.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • DrDoITT

      You don't know anything oneuglyblonde

      May 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  5. larrydavidsandwhich

    I'm surprised CNN had the balls to run this story. Props.

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

      How did it take "balls" to run this story considering that the slant is that most black pastors will continue to support Obama? That is just in keeping with the pro-Obama bias which CNN normally exhibits.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  6. mandarax

    " Should my ideas about personal holiness trump my notion of justice?"

    No.

    In all likelihood, your instinctive notions of right and wrong provide a better moral compass than the arbitrary dogma put upon you by "faith."

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

      Mandarx,

      I hate to break it to you, but serious Christians don't give any credence to the advice of non-Christians. I know that you're campaigning for your guy and that you may have some luck in swaying some undecideds. But people who take their Christianity seriously are going to look to God - and not you - for guidance.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Andre

      Well said, Mandarax.

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

    GREAT ARTICLE. IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: THE BLACK CHURCH IS NOT MONOLITHIC. There are nuances-theologically and politically...and shades of black brown and beige. BLACK Bible quoting LITERALISTS must be reminded...that THE BIBLE SAYS... that SLAVERY was justified:...that The African Slave Trade justification is IN THE BIBLE. But the BIBLE also SAYS: Love THY NEIGHBOR and Do unto OTHERS as you would want others to do unto YOU. This is HUGE and This must PREVAIL... ==>FORWARD: OBAMA 2012

    May 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  8. Px

    What's your problem with gays getting married??! I just marry my half sister(from the same mother) and we are happy. Why shouldn't the gays be happy too!

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

      ignorant troll

      May 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  9. Bob

    CNN's gay agenda is completely out of control. Please, just report the news as it happens. Obama endorsed gay marriage days ago. Move on.

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

      Gay agenda...really? Don't be a tool, Bob.

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

      Because people want to hear about it. If you don't like it you can always watch Fox News.

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

      Bob: This is all over Fox, O'Reilly, Limbaugh and Hannity.

      I suppose they have a gay agenda too, eh?

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

      Bob,

      I agree with Sam. What on earth would make you think CNN has a "gay agenda?" They've only got three gay males featured prominently on the air.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • DrDoITT

      that's because everyone at cnn is gay

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

      OneFineBlonde: Please name the three gay males at CNN who are "prominently featured on the air".

      May 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Well Then

      Your ignorance is out of control, Bob. Go educate yourself.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Peter

      DrDoITT wrote: "that's because everyone at cnn is gay"

      Gotta love posts like that.

      Our national IQ is droppng by the minute, folks!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Bob

      Funny how intolerant people are of my opinions...just because you don't agree doesn't mean you have to be insulting. But hey, this is the Internet, right? There's still a person on the other end...remember that.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Primewonk

      CNN is obviously a leftist organization. I'm positive about this because I know at least 3 on-air personalities are left-handed! [snark mode off]

      Jeez – are you fundiots really this ignorant? On a global scale CNN is actually conservative. It's just that lies spewed by FOX have skewed your perspective.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      "CNN is actually conservative."
      That is hilarious.
      Primewonk you made my day.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Thanks Robert. You proved my point.

      Folks who get their information from FOX – the only network that has gone to federal court stating they have a constîtution right to lie to the public in their newscasts – have no idea what the realities of the world are. They just keep sûcking up the drivel the tea baggers spew.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  10. jagelissa

    It is beyond me how minorities, who suffered indignities in their own lifetimes due to prejudice, would perpetuate the same kind of prejudice on other minorities. It wasn't that long ago that state laws were telling blacks they couldn't marry whites. And plenty of people used the Bible as an excuse for slavery, so maybe black churches should stop using the Bible to perpetuate oppression against another minority.

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

      Well spoken

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

      Listen, being black is nothing related to being gay..
      you can dream of the likeness all you want, but it is only YOUR dream..

      May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Joshua

      The bible speaks of slavery in general, not a specific "minority." Secondly, that was prominent in the Old Testament, and thirdly, if we were to take every single detail of the bible out of context then some would then think that blacks are the new chosen people of the Father.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @ unclesocial –

      The point is that people are born black, and for hundreds of years, Christians have spun their bible to justify slavery and discrimination against black folks. Even today, in Mississippi, half of republicans in a recent poll, said that interracial marriage should be illegal.

      The point is that people are born gay, and for hundreds of years, Christians have spun their bible to justify hate and discrimination against gay folks. Even today (well, Tuesday), the ignorant religious fundiots (fundamentalist îdiots) in North Carolina, voted for more hate and discrimination.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  11. Bill

    Do not legalize interracial marriages! Black and white folk marrying will destroy the country! Oooops , wrong time period.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Blacks Have Short Memories?

      When "I Love Lucy" first aired people were up in arms! A White Cuban marrying a White Irish woman and parading it in our faces -– on TV!? Today we are much more educated and less ignorant. We continue to evolve and gay marriage will be a non issue just like Lucy and Ricky.

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

      Sadly Bill, you are wrong. Public Policy Polling ran a poll for some republican candidates in Mississippi in April 2011. One question was on interracial marriage. 46% – almost HALF! – of republicans said that interracial marriage should be illegal.

      In this day and age, half of these folks still felt this way.

      Simply amazing.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  12. O'Mally

    Nope.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  13. Gerald O'Brian

    What has stopped voters who believed in abortion not to vote for their president who was against abortion? Couldn't this apply to this issue as well?

    May 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  14. d

    'black this, African American that, Latino Hispanic minority population the other. Does anyone NOT discriminate by skin color anymore or is it just me? jeesh

    May 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  15. Fred

    The Democrats have proven over and over that moral issues are of no concern to the people that vote for them. The only thing that matters is paying for their votes with programs that we can no longer afford. Democrats will whine and moan about some moral issue, but in the end they will still vote for the immoral if it means perceived short term cash in their pockets.

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

      Define moral issue? Like starting a war in a country that didn't attack us resulting in thousands of deaths?

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

      More one-sided, team zombie nonsense.

      As if all Democrats are this way and all the Republicans are pure as the driven snow.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Snake

      IRONIC you say that. The GOP / Republican caucus are the LOUDEST people currently fighting for any type of social change, *including* a flat defintion of "equality" where everyone has access to truly equal rights and therefore where gays would be allowed to marry.

      And it's the DEMOCRATS who are selfish?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Not enough

      Sure and we also forget about the military actions that we have to pay for that cost a lot of money. Yes fighting wars are free.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  16. unclesocial

    you can't not put the color of the church in front of GOD'S word..

    Scripture is color blind.....

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

      can NOT.. was the intent"

      May 11, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  17. Blacks Have Short Memories?

    How D-A-R-E 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 2:29 pm |
    • JB

      LOL, Not confusing racial issues with moral issues are you?

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

      @JB racial issue IS a moral issue as well!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Blacks Have Short Memories?

      No one "chooses" to be Black" and no one "choses" to be gay.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  18. DrDoITT

    Ben you're an idiot! Go play with your gay friends.

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

      YOU don't have any gay friends? You sure?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • sam

      You're trying way too hard, doc. Don't you have other articles you can go troll on?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  19. Bonnie

    One who claims to be a "Christian" must realize they are claiming to honor Jesus and his and our God and Father, by obeying ALL of God's word. President Obama said in his first campaign that he would never allow his "religion" to interfere in his politics. Typical "christian" of today. False religion, rather than genuine love for God will result in betrayal every time. Now is the time to read Jesus' teachings found at the book of John in the Holy (incorruptible) Bible, and get very close to our God by means of the truth, before it is too late.

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

      God made adem and eve not adem and steve!

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

      I like to touch myself thinking of skinny white guys; but, that's not gay!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • JM

      Do you think God hates gay people? But doesn't hate murderers, adulterers, or other kinds of "sinners"?

      He said if one has hate/anger in their hearts, that's the same as murder (since to Him all are alive). For that matter, He also says that there is no marriage in heaven.

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

      @Bonnie,
      Do you trully not understand that NO scripture of any religion has a bearing on how this nation is run. That by allowing people freedoms regarless of what the Bible says, the President is doing his sworn duty, well, because there are people in this nation who have no regard for your Bible?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Well Then

      So Bonnie, I guess you are okay with it when your husband decides to stone you later this weekend, right? After all, it is in GOD's word.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Not enough

      Well Then, Old testament, Jesus died so that we would not be under mosaic law. But you want to pick out scriptures from the old testament just to prove a point. If we were still under the law, I couldn't have cheeseburgers, Shrimp or Ham.

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

      Poor Bonie.... please examine your book a little better. I would like to point your attention to Matthew 26 (read that chapter and the account of Judas' death) and then Acts 1 (another account of Judas' death); you shouldn't put your faith into a book that's supposed to be "incorruptible" in the first place. Sorry if I break your religious meters, guys but by your own faith if the Bible was written by man it is imperfect (even if it's supposed to be inspired by God).

      Back to my main point; the President would NOT be President if he tried to bring religion into office because there are too many religions who would object (lest we forget a found principle of the separation of church and state). And having gone to church for most of my childhood I can tell you that the church is one of the most political organizations there is. Worry about your OWN relationship with God if that's what you believe.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  20. john

    If you vote for someone based only on his/her skin tone rather than his/her stance, core beliefs and common shared philosophy...does that not make you a racist? I'd say yes. Again, I've met WAY more racist of color than whites, so it is alive and well.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      blacks have traditionally voted democrat, Gore got 90% of the vote, Kerry got 88%, this whole skin color only argument is just nonsense.

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

      Like you don't vote a white guy cuz he's white?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Andre

      Thank you Cedar for setting these guys straight; I would never vote for someone I don't believe in, and it's just that simple. Race is the last thing that would influence my decision, but political matters are different.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:01 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.