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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. whatthe

    What is "the black church" supposed to be? There is no such thing as "the black church." I am continually dismayed at the garbage headlines I see on CNN every day.

    May 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  2. Tracy

    Seriously what if obama was a muslim – why would anyone care. america is getting more and more ridiculous.

    May 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  3. n8362

    It is immoral to impose your religious superstition on others.

    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 12, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. SomeGay

    What a horrible article.

    May 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  5. Independant Jack

    Romney is a cult leader and is not a christian.He believes in morman magic underwear that protects him from eveil and the most devout should nnever thake them off.Plus he believes in supressing women children,and forcing arranged marriages with kids and the molestation of them,The morman religion is very sich and anti christian,I urge anyone who is a christian not to sell out your faith and vote for this sick man.

    May 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Gooze

    Only a little over a century ago, some Americans justified slavery by citing biblical verse. It is a shame that the decendants of that discrimination now use the same tactics to discriminate against others.

    May 12, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  7. Vinman151

    If we are born in America should we use America first? I should be called an American Italian. Should other be called American Africans or American Mexicans?

    May 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  8. X

    You would think after all the oppression African Americans went through in this country they would understand completely what gay people go through. Yes of course no one knows someone is gay half the time unless they say something. But is hiding who you truly are your really okay? No it's not, and it's far from mentally healthy. As a black man I don't get excited when I see two guys kiss or anything, and it far from turns me on. But leave them alone, and for all the religious people out there it's not your job to judge anyone. Doesn't the bible teach to love everyone or does that not apply when it's convenient for whatever you feel?

    May 12, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  9. Etah

    Sure he (Obama) neither represents Africa nor America; Christianity nor Islam but some occultic form that is yet to exist. If he feels courage, then he displays shameful values. I bet you he doesn't even know what he believes.

    May 12, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Ehwhat?

      Huh?

      May 12, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • docame

      Where did you just come from...and did they use words there?

      May 12, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • docame

      Wrong. It changes nothing. It hasn't changed anything here.

      May 12, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  11. deapp

    “What Graham feared was losing all of his influence,” Blum says. “For him, personal salvation was primary, justice secondary. For King, justice was primary.”

    Let's be TRUE here. Graham knew his followers were damned for hell racist. Martin stood for the salvation and deliverance for the white racist soul. He fought for black men to be men and black women to be women because they were children of God not products of some mire man's civil rights. Salvation of the white man's soul was primary and civil rights was secondary.

    May 12, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  12. Vinman151

    Sounds like segregated churches to me. Don't we all agree that segregation is bad for everyone? When you have BET, Jet magazine, ebony magazine, black only colleges, black business men of America, Black entertainment awards. I think say we all need to treated the same. Them people put up boundaries and say we are different. Sorry for the black kid that got killed by a racist in Florida. I didn't see Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton marching when 2 white college kids where killed by 5 black people. Saying this can't happen any more. Respect others the way you want to be respected and all will work out fine......

    May 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • lyrker

      Morgan Freeman doesn't support Black History Month. He said: "Racism will only end when we stop talking about it." As long as there's BET, the UNCF, Black History Month... there will be racism. You can't have it both ways. You can't have racial blindness AND segregation.

      May 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  13. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    The only thing Black churches and the black voting population should be talking about is how long we have voted for white presidents when we were given voting rights and nobody complained.

    May 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  14. W.G.

    It´s perplexing for me as a Christian Also . But the N.C. Preacher was right . This is not a theocracy the U.S.
    is a Democracy . Give to Ceaser what is Ceacers and give to GOD what is GOD´s

    May 12, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Ehwhat?

      How bout just cease religion altogether. It's silly. How could a god need anything given to him????

      May 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  15. DrDoITT

    To give you an analogy, lets say you fought tooth an dnail against some stupid rule and established a small business in a neighborhood (e.g. no corner grocery store shall be more than 1.5 mile from another corner grocery store).

    Then comes along a bunch of peiple who want to set up a brothel and use your public fight as a precedent.. wouldnt you be outraged?

    May 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  16. TeaPatriot

    Barack HUSSEIN Obama pandering for votes again, to get re-elected and create his socialist utopia.. beware!

    May 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Howard

      The Obama supporters and main stream media don't care about truth, or facts ... they deal in smear campaigns, and lies. Like their corrupt leader, Barack Obama, they will say, or do anything to keep Obama in power. In November, replace Obama with a man who is honest, and competent ... Mitt Romney.

      May 12, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Ehwhat?

      Easy to be "honest" like Flip Romney when you never stick to your stance. Flip Flop Flip Flop sounds of Romney the old business death horse.

      May 12, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Ben

      I love how when you point out a flaw at the left they say well look at your guy bush or romeny they did this! They are wrong too, as if we actually like them, sorry I don't drink the koolaid of my party leadership and stand buy them no matter what... Obama and Romney are both tards. At least I'm smart enough to have my own principles.

      May 12, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  17. DrDoITT

    Im a man of african american descent, and my blood boils when the struggles of my people are used as a precedent for 'gay rights'

    I dont care whether they get marriage, yadda yadda.. just that its a DIFFERENT issue. Just by looking at my grandfather, you could see what he was. and he could not change that!. Not so for so-called hays.

    I dont hate them. "hate the sin, love the sinner" is my motto.

    May 12, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  18. Andrew D

    There is no harm to me because of what some or all believe ,only what I choose to live and believe in. Belief in the masses or the truth.

    May 12, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  19. Namedd

    Was never a big fan of Obama till recently . During an election year to stand up on a not so popular issue wow. Finally someone was brave enough to do the right thing. It will take years but he will be recognized in the history books as a leader and a hero .

    May 12, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Joeyjoejoe

      Totally agree. Well done Mr. President. Principled stand in the face of losing and election over it = courage.

      May 12, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • SuFiSm iS dIfFeReNt

      yes he will

      May 12, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  20. MLK

    Just accept Obama for who he is and what he stands for, and move on! "Can't we all just get along?"

    May 12, 2012 at 11:40 am |
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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.