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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. Rev. J.T.

    “America is a democracy, not a theocracy. I’m not going to vote on one issue.” Listen up Tea/Republicans. Listen well!

    May 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  2. Cindy

    In the end only God's laws will matter

    May 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • sam stone

      Which God's?

      May 11, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Crom

      Mine? But I haven't gotten around to writing them down yet!

      May 11, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • God

      You fools have never listened to a thing I've said before – you're not going to start now.

      May 11, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Crom

      @God
      Step aside, small one! You can't even heal an amputee. I, at least, have one devoted follower: Conan the Barbarian. (not Arnold). Just read his adventures and weep for your lack of imagination!

      May 11, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    May 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  4. A Load Of This

    So, ol' Billy Graham would not speak out against segregation even at the urging of Dr. King? Figures. I just have to wonder how God felt about that. And dallasvoice.com/oral-roberts%E2%80%99-gay-grandson-speaks-out-1032465.html this item should therefore, come as no surprise either about the other famous one. It's incredible how much hate comes out of those who are supposed to represent God and speak about love! Just incredible!

    May 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  5. gay guy

    Im gay and DONT SUPPORT GAY MARRIAGE, IM WHITE, BLACK AMERICANS IF U LOVE JESUS AND VOTE FOR OBAMA AND SUPPORT GAY MARRIAGE U ARE SHAKEING UR FIST IN THE FACE OF ALMIGHTY GOD, BEING GAY IS ONE THING, ALLOWING GAY MARRIAGE IN FRONT OF CHILDREN IS WRONG, THE BIBLE SAYS TO CAUSE A CHILD TO GO ASTRAY, IS GREAT SIN, IT IS BETTER TO TIE A ROPE AROUND UR NECK AND THE OTHER END TO A ROCK AND CAST YOURSELF INTO A RIVER THAN CAUSE A CHILD TO GO ASTRAY, THE BIBLE SAYS, SO BLACK AMERICA DO U STAND WITH GOD AND CHRIST OR OBAMA? Vote no to gay marriage, IM GAY AND EVEN I KNOW ITS WRONG, U WILL CAUSE THE DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA, ALL OF U, WHO VOTE TO SLAP GOD IN HIS FACE, IM GAY AND CANT HELP IT, BUT TO MARRY ME TO ANOTHER MAN ( though I love him ) is truly a SLAP IN THE FACE OF ALMIGHTY GOD, REPENT STRAIGHTS OF UR SINS, BLACKS IS IT GOD ALMIGHTY AND CHRIST OR A MAN NAME OBAMA? U CANT HAVE BOTH, THE BIBLE SAYS U MUST CHOOSE? Please dont destroy America, PLEASE

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

      No one believes that you are gay. Troll harder

      May 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • sam stone

      fortunately, not everyone takes their moral cues from iron age sheep lovers

      May 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • sam stone

      how does a spirit have a face?

      May 11, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Snoozie

      Dear Gay Gut – no one is asking you to do anything against your beliefs. God won't punish you for living in a country that supports gay marriage. If you are so concerned about gay marriage, stay single and let others choose their own paths as well.

      May 11, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • GodPot

      " BEING GAY IS ONE THING, ALLOWING GAY MARRIAGE IN FRONT OF CHILDREN IS WRONG"

      Is there even one shred of evidence that says Children will turn gay if they see other people who are gay? Nope. It's funny, but shouting with caps locks does not make you any smarter or right for that matter, it does make you look like a petulant child.

      May 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Snoozie

      Sorry, meant Gay Guy not Gut

      May 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  6. klamerus@pobox.com

    Tt's as simple as this. Almost no religions support the idea of gay "marriage". In fact most include content that outright condemns it.

    There are millions of people running around in this country claiming to be Christian, but then choosing to cherry pick what the bible says (ala God didn't really mean it when he said thou shalt not commit adultery). It's an era of self gratification and these people believe the bible was just a set of suggestions. That god didn't really mean what he said. It was just useful advice and you could choose which you wanted to follow. I don't see why these same hypocrits don't go around slaughtering people since there's no reason to believe "thou shalt not kill" is any more of a "rule" than the rule on adultery or other rules.

    I'm not in any of these christian reliegions so it doesn't matter to me, but it seems that if you're going to say you're a christian you ought to at least have some shred of following the rules in your behavior. Otherwise just don't bother.

    Obama supporting gay marriage is pretty much a statement that he's not a christian. Game over.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  7. Dax

    Are people finally realizing how bigoted the African American community is? I'm black not African-American. I grew up in it. These people hate anyone different or darker than them. I'm not saying all of them, just most, especially the "Christians". They like most Christians are as Anti-Christ as Lucifer. One group they especially don't like is gays. Bush got a lot votes from African-American Christians simply because he supported DOMA. They are only concerned about discrimination when it's focused on them. Otherwise they want to be the oppressors.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • klamerus@pobox.com

      Yes, well the bible is full of other forms of bigotry too. For instance it says don't kill people. That's in there. And don't commit adultery. That's in there too.

      Apparently if you follow the rules in any of the major religions (because nearly all of the major religions have similar rules) then you're a bigot.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • sam stone

      klamerus: when you use your religious books to deny people equal rights, it becomes bigotry

      May 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  8. kamarasune

    Very short sighted to think that this move didn't alienate faith believing voters, and to think that they would trust a mere man over that of their faith.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Huebert

      Why not? men are real.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  9. Rebel4Christ

    Hey atheists if you remember it was Christians that founded this country!

    May 11, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Huebert

      That is debatable but as.suming that it is true. So what?

      May 11, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Kenneth Lord

      Hey Christians, just a reminder, the puritans died and the country was colonized by slave-holding businessmen.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • klamerus@pobox.com

      Well first it's not debatable that this country was founded by Christians – unless you don't believe in american history any more than you don't believe in all of the world's major religions (which all more or less define a marriage as being between a man and a woman).

      But don't let the facts stand in the way of arguing – and please include a few comments that are completely irrelevant to the topic which had nothing to do with slavery.

      May 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Huebert

      @kalmerus

      Ok, so I'm just going to go with you and accept that the U.S. was founded by Christians. My question is: What the fcuk does that have to do with anything?

      May 11, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      Rebel4Christ: So what?

      May 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • sam stone

      klamerus: if you want to keep the religious definition of marriage, get the licensing of marriage out of the hands of government

      May 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  10. Hahahahahahaha

    Belief X: Must love Obama simply because he's (sort of) black
    ----Plus
    Belief Y: Must hate gays and people who support equal rights for gays simply because they're gay or support equal rights for gays
    ----Equals
    Cognitive dissonance and crinkled bow on stupid black christian struggling to simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs "X" and "Y"

    May 11, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  11. Kay

    Yes, there is a point and there is nothing silly about my post. Yes, express an opinion because you need to vent but good greif, be civil. Let's cause more division amongst everyone, eh? Was that your point, Crom?

    May 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Crom

      @Kay
      Sorry if I did not measure up to your standards of what you think is "civil".
      I get a kick out of being polite. But the emotions run too high here on all sides to realistically expect everyone to be "civil".

      When emotions run high, it is better to let the emotional posters get it off their chests.
      This is only a comment section. People have a wide range of comments they feel compelled to make here.

      To insist on respecting hate merely to be civil is imbecilic at best. You want me to be nice to the neo-nazis that show up here?
      Why? They don't deserve it. They need to be shown that other people out here think they are disgusting.
      It's about the only way we can show them that what they do and think is unacceptable in a free society using such lame tools as this comment blog.

      But I enjoy being rude in a polite way. It takes a bit of thinking at times. We've had plenty of people come here and say"all you people are just rude!" when what their REAL problem is the fact that some of us do not respect their religion.
      This sends them into fits of furious hypocritical rants and then we get to see just how crazy they are.
      Brainwashed cult members don't listen anyway. I encourage you to read up on brainwashing and how easy it is to do.
      All it takes is stress. Preferably emotional stress. At such times a person is as vulnerable as a baby for brainwashing.
      It happens to everyone in varying degrees. It is also quite easy to brainwash yourself.
      Civility doesn't make a bit of difference to a brainwashed mind if there is a threat to the belief system involved.
      It's like talking to a wall. Civility doesn't mean squat to them anyway. They will threaten us with burning alive forever.
      Is that civil? Is that what you'd prefer? Threats and curses? But only the ones you agree with?

      May 11, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  12. John Stefanyszyn

    ...it is clear that even for the "Christian" religious that the worship of freedom and equality of rights trumps the belief in the Way of Christ...
    ....to love the One True God and to love your fellowman in the righteousness of the Father ( and not in the self-righteousness of man).

    The mark of the beast, the image of the beast, the "gpd of fortresses" = the belief in and desire to serve one's own self rights.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Tim

      Gay people can do whatever they want. Personally, I find it disgusting but I feel no need to force my views on others.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  13. Rebel4Christ

    I guarantee for king salvation was first also but it's not wrong to fight for justice either

    May 11, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  14. Steve

    Because this is such a trigger issue for the Conservatives they assume that it must be a game changer for everyone. Of course the flaw in their logic is that they are the only ones that try to force their beliefs on everyone through tactics like pasing laws to enfoce needless medical procedures on women while claiming we need to reduce government. Most people see the hypocrisy.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  15. Scott

    That we are even needing to use the phrase 'black church' is abhorrent. We don't talk of the 'red church' for Indians, or the 'yellow church' for the Chinese, or the 'pink church' for women, etc, etc. a;; groups who've been disenfranchised at some point but 'they' keep throwing this around stirring the 'we've been oppressed pot' for WAY too long. Get over it already and integrate with the melting pot to add your pigment and quit whining to try and gain political or economic or social favor. Equality only can happen when we treat all equally. If it 'aint OK for there to be a 'white church' then talking about black ones is self pitying with a dose of bitterness to boot.

    May 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  16. DA

    Unfortunately, some black people just don't get it and really need to do a little research for themselves in regards to religion and not just sit in the pews listening to Man tell them what they want to hear!! Heck for that matter all races!!

    May 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  17. cashmeremafia

    I doubt very many will vote against Obama, the majority will not vote Republican, so they don't have much of a choice...

    May 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  18. Sao

    GAY AND LESBIAN WHAT KIND OF SICK RELIGION IS THAT?!!!OH YOU PERVERTED GENERATION!

    May 11, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • J.W

      Who is the god of the gay and lesbian religion?

      May 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • gay guy

      Jesus died for Gays, But Blacks will slap Jesus in his face if they vote for gay marriage and Obama, im gay and KNOW GAY MARRIAGE IS SIN, WHO DO U SUPPORT BLACK AMERICA JESUS CHRIST OR A MAN NAME OBAMA, PICK TODAY WHOM U SHALL SERVE, GAY MARRIAGE WILL DESTROY AMERICA AND HURT CHILDREN BAD, WAKE UP AMERICA

      May 11, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • sam stone

      Sao: Still on your knees, begging for salvation?

      May 12, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  19. Sao

    IF YOU MIND IS NOT OUT YOU'RE NOT OUT!!!

    May 11, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • klamerus@pobox.com

      Wow, was that supposed to be English?

      May 11, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  20. EMC

    “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.”

    Amen, Rev. Robinson, amen. I wish more people were so reasonable.

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

      EMC... Get real. Rev. Robinson is going to vote on one issue. And that is that he is black and the POTUS is Black. The rest is irrelavent.

      May 11, 2012 at 6:27 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.