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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. n8362

    Imposing your religious superstition on others is immoral.

    You do not believe in religion because you honestly think it is true, you believe in it because you fear mortality or are seeking meaning in your life. It does not take a genius to figure out all religion is man made, so for humanity's sake, please stop lying to yourself.

    Deluding yourself in religion does not change reality. Lying to yourself is probably the worst possible way to try to find meaning.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • JM

      ?

      Obviously people believe God is real and that the Bible is true; otherwise, we wouldn't read it.

      I wish God would show up. This world is nuts; all we do is argue, argue, argue.

      “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
      I was found by those who did not seek me.
      To a nation that did not call on my name,
      I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
      2 All day long I have held out my hands
      to an obstinate people,
      who walk in ways not good,
      pursuing their own imaginations —
      3 a people who continually provoke me
      to my very face

      May 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  2. achepotle

    I hope the black community realizes these hateful rednecks also hate jews, blacks, "chinàmen`and the mentally disabled...they would have you back in neck irons by ther next `referendum`.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Wade

      Are you kidding me. Blacks commit ten times the crimes against Whites and others and even against them selves. No one is more full of hate and anger and violence than the black community. Not all blacks obviously but far too many of them

      May 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • sam

      Wade – show us, or admit you're a lying, race-baiting bastard.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  3. postedbygeo

    33 years old, no children, no wife, no girl friend, only has males for friends. Followers hiding in dark spaces, praying for insight and ignoring the light. Followers castigating those they call sinners who will not join them in the dark and allow themselves to be touched. Followers that relish being sheep led by Shepherds who relish the communication and pleasure gleaned from the herd. The Shepherds are keeping the light away, for fear the sheep will see that the 33 year old man joyfully loved men and then the sheep will return to being individuals and walk into the light as a free person no longer a sheep from the herd. But, the Shepherds should not fear the loss of the herd, it will only be diminished, as there will always be those who are afraid to be individuals and enjoy hiding in the dark as sheep, while castigating those in the light who will not go into the dark.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • TED

      WHAT!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  4. ARM

    Pls see through the smoke screen. This is to take everyone's eye off the Economy and bluff everyone to talk about Gay marraige. People, can't you see what is been done. Talk about the Economy ..get back to the main topic. That is what matters and will drive you guys out of the ditch America.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • TED

      Kinda nice to hear something other than our economy for a day.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  5. Wade

    Look I personally have always been for Gay's and Lesbians to have the right to marry but I am not a PREACHER nor do I pretend to follow a religion. You cannot be a Preacher and condone gay marriage. It is like saying I will follow the parts of the bible I like and ignore the rest. That is fine with me to each his own but do not call yourself a preacher when you do so.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  6. Tlew4512

    Black Christians who know the meaning of "The Christ" as the power and wisdom of God, willl support our President because he is one who is wise and powerful , and because he stands for justice, peace and intergrity of creation. What a mighty president we have.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Wade

      Like I said Blacks in this matter are totally racist.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Ehh

      Mmmm.... not so much. Actually not at all.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  7. suzibee

    OBAMA 2102!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I am proud of our President and I will go on record saying he will go down in history as being of the best presidents we have ever had.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • BOB

      YOU MEAN THE WORST PRESIDENT, HE'S A PANDERING EMPTY SUIT WHO IF HE HAD AN ORIGINAL THOUGHT IT WOULD DIE OF LONELINESS.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  8. The Truth Teller

    No !! Blacks are not a single issue voter as the Pub party faithful ! We have more to loose than most white folks on this matter !

    May 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  9. Wade

    BRC

    I see, so you can explain why there were married egyptians

    Show me any history that says there were MARRIED Egyptians or any other race. THEY WERE JOINED. The term married means united by GOD the term UNION means by state. The definition of marriage is the recognized Union or Matrimony of two people. In Egypt's time you were bonded or enslaved or sold to or given to you did not CHOOSE. Their is no UNION or Marriage if their is no choice.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Eric G

      Sorry Wade, Egyptians were married and they selected their own spouses. If you continue to make things up, you will be called out on it.

      Please play nice.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Wade

      SHOW me or admit you are lying.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • BRC

      @Wade,
      Entymology of the word- The modern English word "marriage" derives from Middle English mariage, which first appears in 1250–1300 C.E. This in turn is derived from Old French marier (to marry) and ultimately Latin marītāre meaning to provide with a husband or wife and marītāri meaning to get married. (The adjective marīt-us -a, -um meaning matrimonial or nuptial could also be used in the masculine form as a noun for "husband" and in the feminine form for "wife."[11] The related English word "matrimony" derives from the Old French word matremoine which appears around 1300 C.E. and ultimately derives from Latin mātrimōnium which combines the two concepts mater meaning "mother" and the suffix -monium signifying "action, state, or condition."

      The concept of marriage (which can and always could be spritual or contractual) originated long before your religion. the name apparently long after. JUDEO/CHRISTIAN structure does not own marriage, there are formal marriages recorded in ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese history.

      Egyptian specific- Pharoahs had their queens, they were corronated and chosen in ceremony... sounds an awful lot like marraige to me.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  10. Max

    We all have the marvelous ability to justify actions that do not correspond and measure up with our words. The moral of this story is not to put all your eggs in your religious teachings because it is only a man or woman standing up there and they teach what is important to them and not necessarily to those of us in the pew. Both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King were exceptional men. They both understood their purpose and would not budge from it in order that you and I could put our trust in them. I would have loved to see that conversation, any conversation between two men who were so committed to human prosperity that they would not give in to the others roles. Exceptional demonstrationof truthfulness and honesty- one who prepared the world we live in and one who prepared us for the one to follow.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  11. Charlie from the North

    Whose rights would Jesus take away? That's right nobody's that's who.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  12. DrDoITT

    Last time I voted for Mr Obama. This time, even though im of color like him and dont like Romney's pro-rich policies, I may just abstain. When finding no good candidate, dont vote for anyoen....

    May 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Lynda Jones-Owings

      You are an idot.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. Not enough

    Wade yes, Consider that many blacks in 2008 during the Democratic Primary Voted for Hillary Clinton in fact the Mayor of Philadelphia, Nutter campaigned for Hillary over Barack Obama. The problem was the Hillary started the whole issue with BOs citizenship and open attacks on his experience. Black people got upset and it didn't help that Hillary Clinton lost some primaries. So there.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  14. Px

    Gays should get married if that make them happy. Im happily married to my half sister and we r happy. Them repubs or them chrtns didnt oppose but now it's gay they are attacking. I think them straight chicks are jealous cuz they can't get them cute gay boys, with celeb style and money.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  15. Robert Brown

    What some may call the bigoted, hateful, delusional manifesto of the Christian Taliban Teabaggers, we are all sinners and we all have access to the savior. Thank God for Jesus.

    Romans 3: 19 – 28, Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • satan

      Law of faith = oxymoron
      Your an idiot.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Huebert

      @Robert

      Their is nothing to be saved from. It's just not real

      May 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      satan,

      Reading the posts here it is quite evident that your namesake disagrees.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Lynda Jones-Owings

      SATAN..........................WHAT.........................LOL

      May 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  16. Wade

    BRC

    @Wade,
    The concept, act, and name of marriage predates and has always existed outside of your church as well as inside it. Religion doesn't own it, that's just not how it works.

    Nice try but you are totally wrong. The UNION of two people was present from centuries before Marriage. Most of them were performed by what was for each culture their religion by religious leaders or elders. MARRIAGE is specific to Judaism /Christian teachings as the BIBLE clearly says. 700 years prior to the teachings of Islam.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • sam

      Again, no facts, just you blathering out your ass in all the wrong places on this forum. Begone, troll! The big kids are trying to have a discussion.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Wade

      SAM don;t be an ass and a bully. Play nice or leave. No one is afraid of you! This is the internet learn how to read. GOOGLE!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • BRC

      I see, so you can explain why there were married egyptians before Moses was even a twinkle in his fathers eye? Can you show the passage in the Bible (NT or OT) that declares teh FIRST marriage?

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

      The fact that no one has agreed with a single thing you've said this whole time should be a stunning clue for you, Wade. You're wrong, on every count, in every post. You're either trolling, or you're almost unbearably stupid. I was trying to give you an out by calling you a troll. If you'd prefer to be stupid, no one can help you.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  17. FGJ

    We aren't concerned with his position on Gay marriage, we're concerned with more "important issues". The black clergy who've I talked to are still in support of Pres. Obama. We can't afford to lose this president by electing a man who has never understood the true meaning of suffering. We still support Pres. Obama. By the way, to all the ignorant people on here with the racist comments.....wake up! It's 2012!

    May 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • TXJack

      Of course you don't care.
      You just want a Black president no matter what he stands for or does to this country.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  18. Donald in CA

    The black church should know better then anyone what it means to be descriminated against. What are they going to do, go be a republican or stay at home in November. This is ridiculous argument because the right wing of this country has no respect for people of color period.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  19. Nat Turner

    Hey white people...

    Blacks always vote Democrat... You need to come out of the trailer parks and do some googleling sometimes instead of speaking with your butt holes all the time..

    May 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • GE

      I resemble that remark!

      May 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • satan

      Yes, you probably do "resemble" that remark....

      May 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  20. Lynda Jones-Owings

    I don't think anyone has the right to say what people do with themselves is right or wrong, they are the ones who will have to answer to God. It is not the place of the Pastor to say who will get into heaven or who want. If they allow gay pianist and other members of the church to attend who is to say they can not get married. Me personnally, I don't really care it has nothing to do with me. I don't agree with it, but these people are here and must be accepted by all as human beings and they deserve to be happy with whom ever they choose to be happy with. Just take a look at traditional marriages they don't last a year sometimes. These people are marrying and staying together. This is the 21st century and they are not going to fall off the earth. They deserve to be treated with diginity and respect. We fought for generations to be treated as human beings. God did not give man the right to condeem a human being. God will handle all of this, even the ones who think they are are hollier than another. No person is without sin, but God.........

    I am very proud of President Obama; he as proven to be more man than any president has ever. Mr. President, I say cudos to you!!!!

    May 11, 2012 at 3:16 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.