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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. 2020

    Having lived thru the hell of being black, we expect they understand those who suffer just as bad as they have been. Among Faith, Hope and Love, LOVE prevails

    May 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  2. jd

    everybody was happy when housing boom was on and everybody was working then reality set in and everyboudy bleams bush.

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

      I 'bleam" the heII out of Bush. This economic disaster is exactly what was predicted when he slashed corporate and wealthy taxes while initiating two wars. This is what those "un-American" critics of Bush were warning everyone about. Why do people have such short memories?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • CB

      "Bleam" Bush. Heck, yeah. Let's try more of the same policies, on steroids, and see if it doesn't work out better the
      second time around.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  3. sharkfisher

    Black churchs would support Hitler if he was black.

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

      Not if Hitler was gay.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • GodPot

      White churches would support Hitler if he was Christian... oh wait, he was and they did...

      May 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Ian Silverthorne

      No- that's not true. And I'm a white guy. PRetty conservative too- I despise the aspects of Black culture that promote promiscuity. But this comment is just insane, delusional, and ridiculous.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Fernando

      Thank God for people like Ian........the ignorance coming from some of you makes me forget there are actually educated people in this world

      May 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  4. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Nobody complained when black people had no choice but to vote for white people. Don't you find that rather odd?

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

      No, they may hate us , but they know what happens under black leaders.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • glenda kay

      Obviously, you've never had a conversation with a Black person...

      May 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  5. gina

    you

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

      same to you

      May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  6. OneFineBlonde

    I love straight black men.

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

      My guess would be that you are 20-25 years old, black hair, brown eyes, ugly as sin, and male. Try again, sportin' life!

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

      What?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • ZombieNation

      I love gay black men.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  7. Georgia

    Why should they punish him? Many churches have closeted gays, and so are many of the Pastors. Black folks may not agree with his decision, but we sure do not want to have a person like Mit Romney as President, so there is no trade off on this one. Christianity is a personal thing; we all interepret the Bible how we want the outcome to be. Let's embrace those who want to live there lives how they see fit; everyone of us will each have to give an account on the day of judgement; not now, not by someone else, but to God. Bravo Mr President.

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

      Most christians are gay, that's why they need religion to stop being gay.

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

    I have to believe that, to the black community, his being black will trump his being an agnostic. The man has never shown any particular religious scruples, unless it was somehow politically beneficial. But blacks will vote for him even as they are treading water and waiting for the "hope and change".

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

      "his being black will trump his being an agnostic."

      Did I miss the anouncement? Just when did you ignorant Christian extremist sociopaths stop claiming he was muslim and start claiming he was agnostic?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  9. Paul Johnson

    I will vote for Obama because he accept all people not because they are sinless but because Jesus died for all. If my child choose a gay life, I still will accept him or her. Not disown them because of who choose to marry. Will blacks vote for president Obama. Yes we will because he is the president of a great nation that includes all people.

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

      Then you're child will burn in hell!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      guess he will keep you company OFB

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

      I'm not gay so i won't be there!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • OneFineBlonde

      Who's OFB?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • OneFineBlonde

      Oh you know me OPP!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  10. Blacks Have Short Memories?

    Obama is one of the top 5 Presidents in US HIstory. So it is written, so it is done.

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

      Oh, that has to be a joke.

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

      Republicans have extreme short term memory loss. They are unable to even remember 2007 as the housing buble was starting to rupture and the second term of our "Go out and spend during a time of war" president was coming to an end. Their long term memory is not so good either since they don't recall it was their idea to introduce a government mandate for health care in 1994 and the fact that Reagan raised taxes 12 times during his time in office and under Obama we enjoy the LOWEST tax rate we have had in 50 years, lower than the GW Bush years.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  11. Chris

    Unless I'm misreading this article, it sounds like many of the opinions are that religion and the president should be separate items. Wonder if those are the same people who make an issue out of Mitt Romney's religion. Hmmm!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  12. mandarax

    This issue is a moral no-brainer. If you will notice it is only a dilemma for those whose objective thinking has been hijacked by religion, whose moral compasses are muddled by the church.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  13. The Dow

    Why do people like to put a question mark where God puts a period?

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

      Do you mean a uterus? a tampon? Why would people put a question mark on a uterus or a tampon?

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

      becayse they are non-believers.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • AmericanSam

      Because if you don't question something, then you cannot know that it is right.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • mandarax

      Preacherman, that was hilarious!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  14. Truefax

    No the won't put him over their knee and throtle his bottom, he's not catholic.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  15. Kay

    This issue has trumped people talking about the economy and the deficit. Planned worked. Now let's move one.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Greg C.

      Obama, Divider and Chief – This is as much a test of whether Blacks in America are viewed as puppets that can be manipulated by the media to follow the party line and myth that those that enslave them into a live of co-dependency vs. free thinkers that can think for themselves, read and practice the scripture or merely show up for the worship service to get the feel-good and then go on living a life of enslavement. I know many blacks that have/are good souls with strong faith and upbringing despite their obstacles. No, this is as much about a test of their faith and belief in what the Bible says vs. what the world view wants you to believe. Obama has divided this nation, not brought it together, he actions speak louder than words; choose your path wisely, after all we are all accountable to our actions as John Edwards will soon see.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  16. Huebert

    It's difficult to read an article like this. To read an actual debate over the relative importance of personal salvation and justice. Personal salvation is a religious belief that many many people do not share. However, some christian groups assert that their belief in salvation after death trumps a living person's right to justice.

    How, the fcuk did this happen? Can Christians really not recognize the bible for the fairy tale that it is? God's inef.fable b@lls! The only times that h.omose.xuality is even mentioned in the bible is in Leviticus, which no one other than extremely orthodox Jews follow, and in the writings of Paul, a misogynistic prude.

    Then again it doesn't really matter what the bible say about h.omos.exuality because it is a work of fiction. And you know that it is fiction. All books that contain magic, or miracles if you prefer, are works of fiction. Fiction can not be used to deny rights to anyone.

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

      Huebert I am a black man and I agree with you 110%
      I could not have said it any better than what you just did.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • EagleEye2

      Oh..that's too cute the bible is fiction. so you and your male lover should be allowed to marry. Good luck with that Huey. Don't see it happening.

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

      @Eagle

      The bible contains magic. Magic isn't real. The bible is fiction. How hard of concept is this?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • OneFineBlonde

      shut the hell up satan worshiper

      May 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Huebert

      @OneFineBlond

      And i am sure that you are just fine. Satan is a myth to sweet heart.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Huebert

      *too

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

      And why can't you except the Bible for what I beiieve? That it is the inspired written word of Almighty GOD.And Jesus is the LIVING word of GOD. Why do you believe in fairy tales.

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

      You're a work of finction

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

      God made Adam and Eve not adam and steve!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Huebert

      @OFB

      Do you actually believe Adam and Eve were real people?

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

      Well put Huebert. Kind of sad how these people profess to be "Christian" (which is supposed to be about loving) but turn around and say the most hateful un-christian things about anyone that disagree with them? And they wonder why church numbers are dwindling.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Huebert

      @sharkfisher

      I accept that you believe in the bible, I just can't allow you to make laws based on that belief. I fight for equal rights for all. That means any two consenting adults should be able to get married. You don't have to marry anybody you don't want to, just dont' stop others from getting married.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • ZombieNation

      Of course they were real people, you're an idiot! and you belong to the zombie nation.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • OFB

      Do you actually believe that I'm a real person?

      May 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Huebert

      @BlondZombie

      You forgot to change your name back, and SERIOUSLY!?!?!?

      May 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Huebert

      @OFB

      You could be a chat bot but I doubt it, so yes I believe that you are real.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • zombienation i mean ofb i mean right wing gay basher

      ok so yes i'm real, but lunch is over so back to work!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  17. tankette

    The monolithic Black vote will fall in line and vote for him. They will vote for him for one reason...and one reason only. You figure it out...

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

      Because people like you are voting for the opposite party? I mean, you're white and you're voting for Romney. So...

      May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • CB

      Would that be the same reason that they overwhelmingly voted for Kerry, Gore, Clinton, Mondale, Dukakis?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Not enough

      Not always true, there are black folks right now who have been saying that they are reconsidering their votes because of this and other issues. But believe what you want. BTW 94% is not 100% so you still have folks who voted against BO. Is really that much of a difference than the amount of black folks who voted for Clinton, 88% or Kerry 90%? Black folks attribute civil rights and inclusion to the democratic party even if does not actually translate to benefiting black folks in the long run.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • urouttolunch

      @tankette. I suppose for the same reason youwhite racists will vote as a bloc the other way.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  18. d

    DID YOU VOTE for someone who was elected within the last decade? congratulations, you're part of the problem. Did you not vote? you're part of the problem as well, so why all the sad faces?

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

      Did you actually make it past the sixth grade? Your comment is the kind of crap they told us in that grade!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  19. a disgrace

    20 million unemployed, tens of millions foreclosed on leaving many homeless and 46 MILLION! AMERICANS ARE ON FOOD STAMPS!...HOW MANY OF THESE WILL VOTE FOR THE DISGRACE OBAMA...REMEMBER HOPE AND DREAMS!!!!!

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

      Do you think that McCain would have done better?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Stockholm Sam

      Uh...you do realize that those numbers you throw around so casually are a result of the Bush administration's policies, right? And it is those policies that Obama is trying to correct today. Kind of tough, though, with a Republican-controlled Congress fighting his every move.

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

      If McCain won, America would of become one big prison camp.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  20. David Swift

    When all these great people who think God's word means nothing die and face the good Lord and are sent to "hell' for the rest of time. Think maybe then they will say, oh but God, You word is bull as we Americans can be our own God's. Oh I am sure that will work. LOL

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

      You just bought the IQ of the whole forum down by yet another several points. And we don't have them to spare.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • DrDoITT

      They will all burn in hell!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • jim

      Swift (not a description), you talk like the m0r0ns who chant and dance around fires! GROW UP!

      May 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      im not sure you can call a being that condems people to an eternity of torment 'good'
      lets face it, god as described is a nasty, evil, spiteful, egotistical and pyschotic piece of work.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:53 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.