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. Brad

    Why is this even an issue? Do you Americans realize that the rest of the western world is scratching their heads in disbelief that a country can condemn their president because he actually has progressive views about equality in what is supposed to be a civilized society. Put down the bible for a second and just let people live their lives.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Dave

      Gee, Brad, let me think...why is this an issue? We either watch Obama and the Progressives destroy America and send our children to hell or we take a stand for morality and righteousness? Wow, tough choice. The rest of the world can stand by scratching themselves, the rest of us will stand for Christ.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      Gee Dave,
      I am going to send you to hell.
      I just purchased your ticket, when can you leave ?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  2. erik

    It is also a sin to allow a church to tell you how to morally vote.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Heather

      The only reason churches don't talk about candidates is because they can lose their non-for-profit status if they do.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Dave

      You have the wrong Bible Erik. It may be unethical, but it most certainly is not a sin. Besides, any true Christian does not need a church to tell it how to vote. A true believer can see sin from a mile away and knows exactly what to stand for and when to stand.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  3. VM

    All this article states is that the mix reactions can only point to one thing, You can not lump a group of people into one characteristic to make your point. People vote the way they do for all kinds of reasons. The minorities didn't secure BHO's placement in office, other factors made BHO the favorite over JM. Religion, race, orientation are talking points for people to identify themselves. Time to move on...

    May 11, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Aces Full Mike

      Obama will again get over 90% of the black vote, doesn't matter what he does or does not do, for the vast majority of blacks, in the end, what matters is his skin color.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Sarah

      Aces Full Mike is another poster that ignores the fact that every democratic candadite in the national election since Kennedy has recieved nearly the same percentage of the black vote. How narrow and stereotyped your views are Mike.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  4. Marcnj

    Forget black and white.... Christians seem to have a very good memory when it comes to Gays, but they seem to forget the passages about forgiveness and not judging.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Enlightened4

      Well, it's God who has a very strong opinion about men lying with men and women lying with women.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Marcnj

      Yes, but it's not up to you or anyone, but God, to do anything about it.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      **** Enlightened4

      Well, it's God who has a very strong opinion about men lying with men and women lying with women.

      God did not write that.
      Man wrote that and said it came from God.
      That book is full of lies.
      Lies from men.
      Ignorant men.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  5. dbrock010

    What other people choose to do with their lives has absolutely no affect on mine.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • OKC_Guy

      Exactly.........what is done in private has no effect on me. But public shows do.............I am insulted and uncomfortable with the wedding shows.......get a civil union and move on ...........I shouldn't be forced to approve of their choise............

      May 11, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  6. ArtInChicago

    And what...stay home or vote for Romney? Pastors and church members know that some of their congregations are gay. If you are a single issue voter, well...

    May 11, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  7. blake

    No, too far many racists in the African American community that will vote for a brother regardless of what he stands for or his track record. But they should. Obama does not represent the values of the black Christian community.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • vtguy

      Cuz he is a dog eating muslim

      May 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  8. louies

    The bible was written by middle eastern bigots thousand of years ago. It is the word of man not God.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • dbrock010

      Do you believe your personal opinions to be facts that apply to everyone else? Control the dogma!

      May 11, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  9. Trueblood

    Obama has squandered any hope that our human right struggle has been for. MLK and all the ancestors who came to this country have suffered for nothing!!! This brother will not surpise me in almost anything anymore. I won't be surprised if, oe day, he comes out of closet to make his last annoucement that he is the first gay american president. I voted for him last time and I WILL NOT this time. Many black people will not! For all the hypocrit white people out there who have made this possible, yes I am talking to you, stop your bigotry. 80% of drug user are white yet, 90% of our brothers and sisters are in jail. 99% of you are gay, travesty and other unknown animals, yet your people are using our 400 yrs of struggle, sweat, blood and tears for their amoral acts. Stop judging the blacks churches. DO they have choice at all? This vote is a matter of choice between bad and worst. We are simply voting Obama because of that. Simple!

    May 11, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • jk05

      "Stop judging the blacks churches"

      Those that preach bigotry are not above being judged.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Will

      You're an ignorant ass. In regards to not voting for Obama because he supports gay marriage, I say, judge not so that you shall be not judged. In case you don't know, that's a Christian edict that Christ provided for his followers. It's neither Obama's place nor yours to sit in judgment of and condemn other people. If what they are doing is wrong, let God make that judgment when the time has come. I say good riddance to you and your vote as your type of stupidity is not wanted nor needed in the Democratic party!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Jack

      wow this statement is just false statistics of a ignorant racist

      May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  10. Miz

    Slavery is acceptable in the Bible.

    If 'black churches' want to raise this as an issue on Biblical grounds, I hope they have the spiritual backbone to stand behind it. A repeal of anti-slavery laws and the reintroduction of segregation laws (including the criminal punishments for interracial marriages) should be the next thing they demand. If only to keep themselves in line with their religious beliefs.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • angie

      very true

      and the bible also says its ok to kill your daughter or sell her off into slavery

      May 11, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Dee Bee

      These church goers kill me picking and choosing. How many people in these baptist churches are divorced. If that's the case,,,guess what,,,you sinned. And there's not a hotter part of hell for some sinners,,,it's all hot. If black people sit and listen to these ministers intermingle church and politics,,,they are crazier than I thought.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Doechips


      The Bible doesn't justify the heinous nature of slavery. Ephesians 6:5-9 is taken out of context. If you keep reading, it also says for masters to treat slaves the same as Christ has done for them. Which means to protect, nurture, and even die for their slaves. The problem is that man's sinful nature is to take the Bible and make it apply to what we want it to say rather than accept it for word for word. Scripture interprets scripture. Translation: God doesn't need man to tell or describe what He was trying to say because the scriptures already do that.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  11. Mike in SA

    It will be fascinating to see what the black community chooses, their moral values or their skin color.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • OKC_Guy

      An interesting point.......I will be watching that in the next ellection

      May 11, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • YeahRight

      "It will be fascinating to see what the black community chooses, their moral values or their skin color."

      Seeing as many people including whites and women believe in equal civil rights I am sure many will go with their moral values regardless of their skin color. You're an idiot.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Mike in SA

      @YeahRight the idiot is the person who doesn't know Obama's prior position stances yet still comments. You see Obama was pro gay marriage, then he was suddenly personally against it for the 2008 election, before suddenly becoming for it again. And even though any reasonable person could see his STATED position had changed solely for the 2008 election season, blacks still came out in droves voting against their moral values even though most reasonable people could see through Obama's ruse. Now that there is no ruse, I will find it fascinating which rationale the black community will take.

      BTW...I'm a Libertarian, so whatever the states want to do, that's fine with me. I'm neither pro nor anti.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Gwenie

      Well, I'm interested in seeing how many white christians will vote for Romney since his religion is in direct conflict with the beliefs and teachings of Christianity and whom many call Mormonism a cult...Where's the difference?...Black people voted for Obama because we believe in what he stands for...trying to improve the country for ALL americans..not just a select few as Romney and all other republican presidents before us....There have been many blacks who have ran for office that we didn't vote for (Jesse Jackson, Herman Cain, just to name a few)..We listen and are concerned about the issues of this country just like the whites are...Just as the article said, Obama is PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, not PASTOR OF THE UNITED STATES..That's his personal opinion and has nothing to do with his job performance..There is no president that you're going to agree with 100% on everything....Just ask the white evangelicals and christians..they don't like Romney but they have already said, ANYBODY BUT OBAMA..and you have just as many whites who will not vote for Obama because he is black, so stop making it seem that every black person vote on color...that's just not the case...Trust me. if Obama had messed up as bad as Bush did these pass four yeaars, black people would be sitting at home in November rather than voting him back into office...

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

      @Gwenie, I'm interested to see that too. I wonder how many Christians, who are voting based on proclaimed morals and Christian values, will vote for the Morman candadite.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Mike in SA

      If you all are attempting to say that Mormon morals contradict Christian morals, then you're wrong. Their policy positions run hand in hand.

      Oops! Sorry for ruining your straw-man argument and all @Gwenie, @Sarah.

      May 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Mike in SA

      "Black people voted for Obama because we believe in what he stands for...trying to improve the country for ALL americans..not just a select few as Romney and all other republican presidents before us." – @Gwenie

      Funny then that over the past 50 years, the Black economic condition has improved much more under Republican presidents than under Democratic presidents. Hmmmm.....

      May 12, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  12. derek

    Black americans will not punish Obama because look at the alternative: Mitt Romney– a man whose religions used to (or maybe still does) believe that blacks had no souls or were cursed. They also did not allow blacks into their "church" or to be ministers until the 1970s.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Mike in SA

      And now into the 21st century, derek...

      May 11, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Lea S

      And the racist church Obama went to for over 20 years before his association with it could have cost him an election?

      May 11, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • derek

      to Lea S:

      oh please a racist black church?? have they ever hurt anyone?? NO!! Have the white racists hurt anyone?? HELL YES!!

      May 11, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  13. takenobull

    You can either follow the Bible and God or Obama. I suspect many will sell their souls for the "brother"

    May 11, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • rev. david

      thebible is made up as are gods and goddesses.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  14. Neeneko

    Sadly, we are seeing the a classic pattern here. As groups overcome oppression, they tend to want to show how they are part of the 'mainstream' by demonstrating how they hate the same things their previous oppressors do, closing the door to those who would follow them.

    Even sadder, the gay activist community has been doing the same thing over the last 10 years, one by one knocking off their less politically advantageous allies and joining mainstream society in condemning them. "see! gay people were normal all along, we are not like those REAL perverts over there'

    May 11, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • YeahRight

      "see! gay people were normal all along, we are not like those REAL perverts over there'"

      It's the experts around the world that spoke out back in the 1970's and showed everything that was written about gays in the past were done by bias and prejudice people, that included the bible. Just like anything in our society prejudice and bigotry is usually founded in ignorance on a subject and it takes time to educate people so that their prejudices dissolve.. Look at what African Americans and women had to go through to get their civil rights or you didn't learn that in high school. DUH!

      The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Association of SocialWorkers, together representing more than 480,000 mental health professionals, have all taken the position that homosexuality is not a mental disorder and thus is not something that needs to or can be “cured."

      May 11, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  15. Sodomite

    Whites voted for either Obama or McCain. I would bet on it that not a single black person who voted didn't vote for Obama. I'm just saying, he could say he wants to reintroduce slavery and every single black person in America would vote for him

    May 11, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • takenobull


      May 11, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • J

      Alan Keyes?

      Michael Steele?

      You can make your check payable to WorldVision.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • lisa

      This is 'simple minded' thinking! I know quite a few blacks who did not vote for Obama and I know whites who did not vote for Obama because of his relationship with blacks!

      May 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • OKC_Guy

      Exactly....thank you.....it is frightening what the DNC /has done/doing to black citizens and they still vote in the 90% range for DNC candidate.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • J

      It is frightening what white America has done to African-Americans and yet they still voted for white candidates for decades.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • DeTamble

      I live in Rochester New York.
      I am white.
      My street is 99%% black.
      I had an Obama sign on my lawn.
      All the other signs said "McCain/Palin" on them.
      You are a moron.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  16. No Truth, Just Claims

    Religion and personal freedoms are at odds? Say it aint so.....

    May 11, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  17. Peikovianyi

    If we're being honest, black voters would vote for a black robot from Mars if it claimed to be a Democrat. Even if it was an invader that shot laser beams.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Liz Malone

      Same with white folks.For 200 yeas there's been White president's come on now.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • lisa

      @ Liz! Exactly, every race is known for 'supporting' their own but when the black race follow normal behavior patterns; it’s a problem.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Mike in SA

      Peikovianyi was talking about the Democratic Party in general, not blacks specifically. Or did you not understand that @Liz Malone, @lisa?

      May 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • J

      That's amusing given the fact that Republicans are backing a white Mormon robot.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Mike in SA

      @J, what's amusing is you trying to equate a whopping 96% of blacks voting one way to a little more than half of whites voting another. Hint: It doesn't equate.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  18. sam stone

    perhaps we can get eddie long to pipe in with his opinion

    May 11, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  19. Peikovianyi

    Whatever the black church does, white progressives must kiss their buttocks in the name of the community.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  20. Sodomite

    Let's be honest and stop pretending here... blacks would vote for a black president even if they disagreed with every single issue he or she presented.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Liz Malone

      Especially since every President been white fo 200 years.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Will

      Just as you would vote for any candidate who was not black simply to prevent that black candidate from being elected.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Slim Shady

      Not true...The canditdate must be qualified to run the country and must display strong leadership capability. What most people don't understand is blacks vote for the candidate who acts within their best interests. All the way back to the FDR days we found democrats to work toward leveling the playing field for all races and genders. The civil rights amendment, Medicare, and Medicaid, affirmitive action, and all the major legislation protecting the rights of citizens was enacted by democrats. Republicans are considered the evil party, which only looks out for their own.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • junior

      not true

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

      just like a gay republican?

      May 14, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
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About this blog

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.