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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. Scott

    "“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.”" Well that's just stupid. Let me state the ways. 1) Serious but not read in a normal fashion? Can we take ANYTHING serious if we can just chuck it out cause we claim arbitrarily that its allegorical? 2) So where is the source of 'what Jesus said about God?' Got another source than the Bible that you don't take seriously? Oh, this too, 3) 'What the church says about Jesus' means what? Does this refer to the NT? If so realize that its God's Word, yes using the fountain pen of man but God's Words about Jesus. Th early church fathers you can feel free to chuck out if you want not the Bible.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  2. Kay

    I'm amazed how everyone is accusing everyone else of being hateful, a bigot, whatever name you can come up with. Stand in front of a mirror, now judge that reflection, then get onto to something else more productive.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Scott

      Not that what you're saying isn't true about bigotry, etc but anybody can stand as judge over others and yet this appears self righteous. Maybe instead of judging everyone for their poor judgments you could just not do what they do.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Crom

      Did you have a point, Kay? I mean, other than sounding silly? You can do that if you want, of course. We all have to vent sometimes.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  3. ug

    Darn right they are going to jump all over the odopey one...LOL!

    May 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  4. john austin

    This is hilarious. I can't believe how many of these pro-gay supposed tolerant & loving people will post in a public forum about how stupid and ignorant religious blacks are for not supporting their cause. It's rank racism; it's been there all along with you people just waiting to spill out. Disgraceful.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  5. Fr33th1nk3r

    Amazing how quickly the members of the "black church" have forgotten their own generations-long struggles to achieve equality in this nation....now the opporessed have become the oppressors.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  6. amarjeet

    Obama just upheld Bidden comments. Obama is 100% safe & has people support only Bidden is gone from public opinion.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  7. jim

    I cannot even believe it. After centuries of oppression, their oppressing someone else's equal rights? I swear that the majority of black people are complete and total idiots.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Matthew

      Find me one letter or publication by any of the Founding Fathers or better yet from John Locke, Jean Jacque Rousseau, or the French Revolution that talks about a right to engage in Sodomy? You cannot make up rights just because they suit your needs.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • mandarax

      Hey, that may just be the most blatantly racist comment I've seen posted in a long time. Congrats.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • mandarax

      Matthew, you're trying hard, too. But your defining of an entire population based on a single s.ex act is only dirty-minded and bigoted, not quite racist. Really good effort, though.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  8. Tim Knecht

    Hey, black church,

    According to the Bible, Jesus said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about gay marriage.

    Stop cherry-picking the Bible to suit your own agenda.

    If there is a God, He is about LOVE.

    YOU are about HATE.

    If there is a God, when you die, He is going to have a really serious talk about you, and then send you to hell.

    Have a nice day.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • becool

      Tim; Love of Jesus is about discipline because He loves us He disciplines us! Love never means to go wild or chaotic! What's a gay marriage? I just don't get it! Why they need this marriage.. Give me a break!

      May 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      becool, would you be okay if you did not have the Right to marry who you wanted? Do you think someone else should have more rights than you do (assuming you are both tax paying, honest citizens)?

      May 11, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • TXJack

      @becool
      Just because you do it does not make it right.
      Or that the rest of the country be forced to accept your lifestyle.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  9. Ben

    I hope you are all prepared for the next step in this objective media campaign. That is to deploy a series of pieces about the Mormon faith's views on Christianity. Not to bash Romney for being Mormon...no, of course not...just to point out the "facts" in light of Obama's evolution...

    May 11, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  10. TeaPatriot

    What else can you expect from President HUSSEIN , member of the Obama Bin Biden team?

    May 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      I know, supporting equal rights for all– what was this President thinking?

      May 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Huebert

      Yeah, because radical Islamist groups are renowned for their support of h.omos.exuality.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • mandarax

      Huebert – right?!?

      TeaPatriot is a living stereotype of his redneck political movement.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  11. Rita

    50% of the United States may accept gay marraige, but the majority of the voting block DO NOT. And I will gaurantee the polls that were taken framed the question as gay marraige/civil unions, NOT outright gay marraige. LET THE PEOPLE VOTE. This is a democracy. CNN may have found several Black pastors who say, I'm against gay marraige, but I'm still voting for him, but I know a HANDFUL of other Black pastors who won't. Personally I am voting for President Obama because I am terrified of the Republican's plans for the poor and middle class. I am dissapointed in Obama not looking at the bigger picture, WINNING THE ELECTION. This is bigger than President Obama. It's way bigger than him wanting to be commended as the first president to support gay marraige. Poor and middle class Americans are counting on him to win. We are counting on him. I don't even understand the purpose of coming out with that 6 months before Americans go to the polls. It's almost selfish in a way. I honestly believe he either did it as a cushion in case he loses, or he is not interested in serving a second term. He wants to be know as the President who lost because he spoke what he believed in rather than the President who lost because he wasn't good enough to get voted back in. He cares more about being remembered for what personal values he held than the American people. And for the record, I am black, I'm not very religious, I believe in civil unions, and I believe if the people vote on gay marraige and the majority passes it then it should be legal. This is a democracy afterall. I can't deny, however, that there is a nagging irritation with the way President Obama pushed that issue to the forefront of his campaign.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Abraham

      For the record, this country is not a democracy.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      Rita, are you advocating that your rights should be put to popular vote? (or just other peoples rights)

      May 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • TXJack

      Blacks and minorities voted for him last time just because he is black.

      They will vote for him again just because he is Black, regardless for what he stands for.

      That is the plain truth.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Rita

      Good point JohnQuest, but has it been established that gay marraige is indeed a right? The law has to be interpreted.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Crom

      @Rita
      It is equality under the law that is the basis for the whole Constltution itself!
      Without equal application of the laws, our Constltution becomes a sham.
      Marriage equality is a government function. That's why you can get married in front of a judge. No religion needed.
      Without government-based marriage licenses, a marriage has no legal support under the law.
      What your private religious belief is doesn't matter. Your religion has absolutely no legal authority in this country.

      May 11, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  12. Jim Hahn

    It really is amazing how (little) people think.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Crom

      Amazing is not the word I would have used.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  13. Matthew

    Black people are amazing. They have more morals then my fellow whites. Southern Whites and Black people need to put away their hatred and join together and work to make this country stronger and remove the Federal Government from everything. We need better schools to help minorities in our nation. Liberals keep minorities down and only care about their moral arguments and keeping everyone on welfare.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Christ

      Matthew is a troll. Please ignore his "comments".

      May 11, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Guest For

      Never happen.. Blacks are wed to the Democratic party who are the main ones who insisted on segregation. However, black leadership has convinced them that their form of revisionist history is the correct one.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Rita

      Blacks are NOT wed to the democratic party. I know holiness Black preachers right now telling their congregations to vote on morals. Democrats better watch it, they are walking a fine line with religious Blacks right now. They may not go to the polls for Mitt Romney, but they may just stay home on Obama too.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • ARM

      Economy my Friends, that's what matters. People have the right to do what they want, but please ..come on. This issue will be settled eventually. Right now America is in trouble and Obama has no answers. There needs to be a guy to kick start the Economy with new ideas. Obama's only interest is to stay in power even at the cost of the Country. This is no time to think of a guys colour, but to get the right guy to fix the problem.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Matthew

      ARM, America wasn't in trouble when we use to put God first. We removed God from everything and turned decadent (ala Wallstreet) and everything went choatic. Remember it was a Christian leader (Martin Luther King Jr. who wasn't alone as many other Christian leaders were involved) who was the strongest leader that helped end racism which is a black eye on my part of the country that the decadent Yankees still talk about 50 years later. Also the abolition movement before that as well as many movements defending Native Americans and their lands were pushed by Christians.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  14. ARM

    Truth..this is why Obama is trying to distract people ..

    The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Friday shows Mitt Romney earning 50% of the vote and President Obama attracting 43% support. Four percent (4%) would vote for a third party candidate, while another three percent (3%) are undecided.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  15. James

    Black people have no choice other than Obama. Romney and the Republicans are the sworn enemies of black people and the working class . This issue means nothing to black people.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  16. Matthew

    My girlfriend grew up in New York and moved to Tennessee. She says she will never go back. People up there are so rude, heartless, selfish, and marriage couples jump to other couples all the time. There is no decent people in the North. South should make its own country and leave because there is still decent human beings in the South.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Crom

      Spoken like a true bigot. Thanks for coming out. We'll be in touch. Buh-bye.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Rita

      LOL @ Crom.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  17. Matthew

    Hurrah Hurrah the Southern Rights Hurrah, Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that wears a Single Star! Down with the media. Great job North Carolina. Way to tell the liberal media to go F themselves. I really don't care too much about gay marriage, only gay guy I have ever met, I gave him advice about grad school. I just get sick of all the stupid media telling everyone to follow one moral code, idea and calling half the country bigots, backwards, etc. The South needs to be there own Country. New York and the media hate us so much, they should just let us leave.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Michael

      You don't speak for everyone in the South, we aren't all as intolerant as you are. As far as the media, it can't influence you beyond what you allow it to. It's no more evil now than it was in the 50's when it was on both sides of the issue for civil rights.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Matthew

      Michael, the media doesn't influence me or most of the intelligent part of the country. It influences the nitwits that grow up in New York or other big cities that walk around clueless about the rest of the country, history, etc.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  18. Rundvelt

    You'd think that africian americans of all people would recognize the pain that comes along when you're denied civil liberties based on how you were born. It's almost like they've forgotten.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Rita

      You know what? Stop comparing Black civil rights to gay rights. They actually had laws about where we could eat, sit, sleep, use the bathroom, go to school, and buy a house. Up until the last century, we weren't referred to as merely sinners, we were viewed as ANIMALS and PROPERTY. I'm not saying gay people should hide being gay, but if push came to shove and their life was in danger, they could hide it if they wanted to. Black people didn't have a choice. We were being lynched and killed by the hundreds. Instead of criticizing Blacks for their lack of enthusiasm for gay rights, you need to be thanking them for all they did to pave the way for fair treatment for gays. Don't even try to boomerang civil rights back into the face of Blacks. Don't even try it.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      And despite all that, Rita, look how quickly your people forgot how it feels...

      May 11, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      Fr33th1nk3r, We did not forget, I think it's the church that is the impediment on this issue. Those of us that can think for ourselves believe everyone should be treated the same. The church believes that some of us should get less rights than others.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Rita

      The point is, we are not REQUIRED to champion gay rights for you, and should not be looked down upon for not doing so. I could care less whether gays get married or not.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  19. jeanninehanson

    ME II
    Thank you. I stand corrected.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  20. Matthew

    Civil War II is just around the corner. It is only a matter of time before the rural conservative states of the South, Great Plains, and Midwest start succeeding and fighting the West Coast and Northeastern States.

    May 11, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • satan

      Your a as$hat.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Crom

      I believe we are actually in the middle of the Second Civil War, with all the same sorts of people on opposing sides as last time.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Guest For

      No need for that. Just prevent the conservative state's tax dollars being used to bail these socialist states out when they go bankrupt. They will cease to be relevant in short order.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Matthew

      Yeah libs ruined California which sucks because I know a lot of good people from California. New York is a cesspool. Chicago isn't much better. I know a lot of Yankees moving South for a better life. The North is in chaos. Liberal economics and moral agenda at work.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
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