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. Seth

    I feel like Jefferson would be rolling in his grave. What ever happened to separation of church and state.

    May 12, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  2. JOSE0311USMC


    May 12, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Gator

      I'm glad you found Caps Lock.

      May 12, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Iamnotfooled

      Nice try at voter suppression.

      May 14, 2012 at 4:02 am |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    May 12, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Seth

      Actually prayer has been proven to do absolutely nothing in real studies done by real scientists who aren't underhandedly funded by the church.

      May 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      May 12, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  4. Les Wong

    Blacks should not vote just on one issue. They should not consider only the sorbid behavior of the depraved men of Sodom and Gomorrah. Blacks should ask what has Obama done for them lately. There are now more blacks in poverty than when Obama took office. Why doesn't Obama give the blacks hope and uplifting messages to inspire them to break out of the ghetto as Dr. Martin Luther King had done, instead of keeping them on the dole and downtrodden. However, the blacks understand and accept that Obama is too busy to be concerned with them; Obama needs to hobnob with his rich banker friends and Hollywood movie stars.

    May 12, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Jen Wong

      Whereas Flip Romney wants to just suck the remaining blood out of troubled companies and reduce employment. At least, that was Romney's position last week. This week, it's...wait for it...
      Flip Flop Flip Flop Flip Flop...

      May 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  5. Peterson59

    Rev. T.L Lowery sounds sadly ridiculous. Being gay is a lifestyle of choice. Why are we discussing extending justice and equality to people who already have it. Because a woman decides she wants to be a man or vice verse? What business should it be of the President? It only is because "He" wants their money and vote."

    Why doesn't he declaire fairness for the disabled citizens who can't find jobs but have to live on welfare or SSI. There are too many people living in this country in poverty. Can't find jobs...

    Why doesn't he make news for correcting that? Perhaps he doesn't care about the black religious community. He's certain thery're in his back pocket. They would give up their religion and sell their souls before speaking agains the "first Black President" Thats exactly what this is....Sadly

    May 12, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  6. 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 4:28 pm |
  7. 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 3:17 pm |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      May 12, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  8. Bernard Goldsmith

    Equal rights is most important as far as the issue goes. I would say issues of church and state should not matter. Hypocrisy has flourished throughout the history of this nation. It was never based solely on what was right according to the Bible. Segregation was incorporated, Jim Crow laws were incorporated voting rights were limited to the white male population, and never a word was uttered in defense of the rights of the discriminated until the Civil Rights movement. I'm basically not for marriage for gay couples but I also don't feel that the government should interfere with the rights of the people. Everyone has their own life to live, whether they choose traditional or non-traditional, and if it's against the laws of god the individual will be judged on his merits when the time comes.

    May 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  9. uluv2bthevictim

    The MEDIA MACHINE turns itself loose on the African-American Church? Focusing its full propaganda effort against African-America culture to get Obama re-elected? I never thought they would be so stupid as to do that. CNN has no creditability.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • lean6

      Hypocrites need to be exposed. There are people taking the liberties of representing the masses there with positions that defy logic. President Obama said it about as good as a Christian could say it with regard to this issue. Black leaders are often too busy talking to listen, and incapable of following, I'm convinced.

      May 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • lean6

      Let me be clear. President Obama said it as well as a Christian involved with politics could say it and practice a fair hand of leadership. If the church wants to play politics, they can start by paying taxes. Otherwise, they can have their influence confined to the boundaries of.the church or through non-political channels.

      May 12, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • sam stone


      May 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  10. uluv2bthevictim

    The MEDIA MACHINE turns itself lose on the African-American Church? Focusing its full propaganda effort against African-America culture to get Obama re-elected? I never thought they would be so stupid as to do that. CNN has no creditability.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  11. Anne Robinson

    Let's not forget the sins of abortion, adultery, racism, greed and fornication. These sins are going on big time in the churches.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Seth

      Sorry, Christians don't get to impose their virtues on everyone else. America is a country for all religions.

      May 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  12. El Sapo Panzon

    If you believe in the Bible adhere to G-D's commandments and teachings. If you don't then go to hell or whatever you feel comfortable calling it..

    May 12, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  13. lean6

    The "black church" really likes to prove their ignorance from time to time. The last time we read about the black church, we were watching them clapping and shouting for King Long...the closeted sugar daddy. This is embarrassing. Tell these people to stop lumping together all blacks and even black people that go to church.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  14. mike tribbet

    Africa for the Africans,Asia for the Asians,white countries for EVERYBODY!

    Mass immigration and "assimilation" forced on ALL white countries and ONLY white countries.

    Genocide is genocide,it makes no difference if it is accomplished by bullets and mustard gas,or mass immigration and social engineering.

    Anti-racist is a codeword for anti-white.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • H0nky

      Immigration to white countries occurs with the permission of whites who suffer from the disease called "white guilt."

      May 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Long Live Gaddafi

      so there's no white people in Africa, are you sure? are you one of those apartheid deniers?

      May 12, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • house

      "white countries" and immigration is contradictory from a historical perspective. the "white countries" are "white" because of immigration and migration...no different than any other country with heavily condense populations of various race and ethnicities...

      May 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  15. Emmax

    It is time for u to pray for Obama as christians otherwise the worse wil happen!

    May 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  16. Dave French

    This is a great article, and it's terrific anyone can be bold enough to point out the black hypocrisy yet again. Of course 94% of blacks will again vote for Obama... it doesn't matter where Obama stands or what he says. It seems to confirm the possibility that blacks will vote for Obama regardless, even if Obama suggested bringing back slavery.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Christian

      I think when most blacks cast their vote for Obama in November, it will be less a vote for Obama and more of a vote against republicans. As blacks see it, voting for democrats and republicans is like voting for the lesser of two evils. Yes, the majority of blacks oppose gay marriage, according to this article, however, this is one of the few areas where they disagree with him. Contrarily, there are many areas where they disagree with republicans and as long as these opposing values continue to exist, they will continue to vote for a democrat.

      May 12, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Ben

      slavery on white people...

      May 12, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  17. Ben

    It needs to be clear that the American people realize a simple truth... This country is NOT based on complete freedom it has limited freedoms. US citizens have RESPONSABILTIES to keep the morality of the country to perserve it.

    Second lesson and question is where do we get that morality what defines it? Morality does not change with time and culture it is the most constant thing we have right is right wrong is wrong... WE have to decind as a country what our standards of living will be. Because you see a rebulican on a family values council cheat on his wife doesn't mean you get to say..."See having morals doesn't work! So lets all do what we want!" Just because he fails to do the right thing doesn't mean doing the right thing gets discredited.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • msbhavin

      Ben- who is in charge of morality? Should we outlaw divorce? Reinstate prohibition? Shall we stone people to death who have intimate relations outside of marriage or eat shellfish? Shall we censor all television that includes references to any of the above mentioned immoral sins?

      May 12, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • sam stone

      ben: first of all, morality certainly changes. do you seriously believe that you see morality the same as your grandparents did? how about their grandparents? that is 4 generations. the bible was written 100 or so generations ago. what does their supposed morality have to do with 21st century man.

      secondly, no one is arguing for no morals. to claim otherwise is either intentionally deceitful of dreadfully stupid. what people are saying is that morality is individual, not dictated from on high. as far as the gay marriage goes, it is simply providing equality under the law. so, the bigots wrap themselves up on bibles and their slobber their false piety on others.

      May 12, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • sam stone

      err....."wrap themselves up in bibles"

      May 12, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 12, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  19. chester surles

    We must treat people the same way Jesus treated the woman at the well. We don't have to like the person's ways, but we have to love the person, I mean love the hell out of them,then God willsay well done.

    May 12, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Ben

      Just because I disagree with the gay lifestyle doesn't mean I don't love them. Jesus loved the sinner and said go and sin no more. He confronted it in a respectful manner.

      May 12, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • sam stone

      ben: is it easier to discriminate against them if you call it a "lifestyle"?

      May 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • momoya


      Ho.mos don't want your love, and you don't need to give it to them.. Your "love" isn't going to magically provide them with equality.. Just give them equal rights under the law and you can keep your love to yourself.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  20. osan

    againts what Obama said dnt mean we shuld not vote for him,becuz loose this election will mean go back to hard moments, republicains have created

    May 12, 2012 at 1:35 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.