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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. Thomas

    Well, if they punish obama, they can't complain when the Grand Ol' Racist Party takes the helm.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Jsd

      Good job Thomas. You keep 'em in line. They should never think for themselves.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  2. Jsd

    Perfect political move by the president. Have Biden toss it out there, then act like you have pressure to express your opinion, and the pull the Romney bullying story out to off-set any impact, while bringing in millions with George clooney. Billiant. He knows how to keep his base in it's line. Or, best said, emotional

    May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  3. jmartin7

    How racist can CNN get?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • John

      As racist as any journalist, blogger, or any other person can get.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  4. lilsfgal

    As a black person who emphatically voted no on 8 ....this bugs the $#|T out of me...the same rhetoric used against gay marriage was used ONLY 50 YEARS AGO against people of color who wanted to marry outside of their race. I was even angrier when my mother went to her friend's daughter's wedding reception TO ANOTHER WOMAN just before the door shut on gay marriage in California – knowing she voted in favor of it. ANYONE of any color who's against anyone's personal freedoms (no matter what their religion says) is wrong. Plain and simple.

    Whew just needed to vent. 🙂

    May 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Bill

      It's too bad more black people don't think like you.You would think they would, for every reason you pointed out. But they just don't, and it's really a shame.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  5. really?

    OMG just let them get married.....I would NEVER do that again........and they will learn that soon enough !

    May 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • arose4yu

      LOLOL..

      May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  6. Ron

    Jason is right.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  7. chongno

    i'm just curious about the word "equality". Does this mean that polygamy will be ok? Brothers and sisters can now marry each other. Mothers and sons? It sounds like the author is advocating when he quotes Lowry as saying “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.” Help me understand what is being proposed.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Bill

      Brothers and sisters are allowed to marry each other in Mitt Romney's religion.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • chongno

      Wow Bill. I was looking for an answer from someone who wouldn't just make things up. Anyone with an IQ over 60 knows what you have said isn't true

      May 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Anthony Caudill (tcaudilllg)

      Let people marry who they want.. but marrying a close relative sounds quite dumb.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Bill

      Look it up.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • chongno

      Bill, getting it from Uncle Buck's web site of hate lies doesn't count as "looking it up". You should try just 30 seconds of actual research.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • chongno

      Anthony, are you saying it should be legal? Just clarifying

      May 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Pat F

      @Bill: Not only are you a religious bigot, you are a liar.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  8. AnAmerican

    Let's see – Black people vote for black people for President just because their black hummm – let's see:
    1972 – Shirley Chisolm – nope didn't happen
    1984 and 1988 – Jessie Jackson – didn't happen in those years either
    1988 – Leona Fulani – somehow blacks missed this one too
    2004 – Carol Mosley Braun – they didn't vote for her in large numbers either
    1996 and 2000 – Alan Keyes – missed that one too
    2004 – Al Sharpton – funny, but not this black person either
    2008 – President Obama – Yep as well as most White Women and Most Hispanics too

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

      obama doesnt belong in that group-he is a white african

      May 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Jeff

      In 1984 Jesse Jackson got 77% of the black votes. In 1988 he got 92% of all black votes. I'm not sure about the other candidates you mentioned. But I'm willing to bet that over 70% of blacks voted for them. Just because they didn't win doesn't mean that Blacks didn't overwhelmingly support them. It also takes votes from other groups. Mainly whites since they are the majority. Obama was popular among many white voters. Add that to the number of black voters and you get a winner.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • denise

      Well I'm black and I did not vote for Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, but just like I lived ot see a black President, who I feel most blacks voted for because he was without controversy, intelligent, and articulate, I hope to see the day where blacks are judged as individuals as well. No offense to the other two because they've done a lot for the black community and are accomplished as well, but bottomline a lot of us didn't vote for Obama just because of his race. And its getting old that people are so quick to point out the fact that he's not fully black, obviously because hes the President of the US. I wonder how many would be quick to do so if he was famous for robbing a bank, or anything else negative. Probably None. I'm sure it would be perfectly ok to call him BLACK.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  9. Rabbit One

    think about the diverse landscapes in which the holy books and diverse myths and literature were composed – different people lived close and yet practiced different things – thus in america there is room enough for people to believe and practice differently – and the govt should be open to all of it – with the exception of non consent ... you know

    May 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  10. ruth

    So now he calls it "evolving" nice word......funny how politicians expect us to actually believe them anymore!......they are just like used car sales people.......

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

      Typical lieral media – Romney is a flip-flopper, Obama is an evolver. Pathetic.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Is there some reason to believe the word choice is inaccurate?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Pat F

      Obama does not say or do anything that does not have a direct political advantage to him. He is the most non-ideological president ever. He is driven only by ambition. He would back ANYTHING to get votes. Poor ol' Biden – dumb but honest. Obama is the exact opposite. We won't ever know what he thinks about anything – even after the presidency, he'll be trying to sell books, or personal appearances. Why do you think he dropped his confidant and mentor of 20 years – the racist minister Jeremiah Wright?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  11. Toro63

    They SHOULD punish him (politically), but I doubt that they WILL. I hope they do. I will, and I'm Hispanic.

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

      Your hope is malice. Nothing else.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • h

      You are missing the point. I would have voted for Hillary as I voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Most blacksvote Democratic. I have always with the expection of a few local elections where it some one I knew well. The Republican party is not inclusive and no longer has any moderate members. George Zimmerman cause the entire situation from begiining to end. He never reported a crime being commited yet he pursued and instigated an argument for no other reason that is angry paranoid and most likely mentally unstable who told the police an inconsitient story that at least one officer did not buy. I do not know if Zimmerman is a racist but I know that he is mentally unnstable and had building this up for years. The investigation and decision not to charge him is where hte bias came in. I am sure if he had killed a white kid than you would want him charged and depoerted.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  12. Martin

    Only religion can cause otherwise decent people do evil hypocritical things. You'd think that of all people, a black man would see prejudice when and where it exists. Thanks to religion, these black preachers exercise selective blindness.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • mikeM

      Prejudice against immoral behavior? So a Black or a Jewish person should accept and condone gay behavior?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Rob

      It's the behavior we're talking about. We're not talking about their skin color, religion, national origin or other things like that. I love how the behavior has been skewed into something they have no control over. That is not the case.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  13. Huebert

    It's difficult to read an article like this. To read an actual debate over the relative importance of personal salvation and justice. Personal salvation is a religious belief that many many people do not share. However, some christian groups assert that their belief in salvation after death trumps a living person's right to justice.

    How, the fcuk did this happen? Can Christians really not recognize the bible for the fairy tale that it is? God's inef.fable b@lls! The only times that h.omose.xuality is even mentioned in the bible is in Leviticus, which no one other than extremely orthodox Jews follow, and in the writings of Paul, a misogynistic prude.

    Then again it doesn't really matter what the bible say about h.omos.exuality because it is a work of fiction. And you know that it is fiction. All books that contain magic, or miracles if you prefer, are works of fiction. Fiction can not be used to deny rights to anyone.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Atomico

      @Huebert: Your beliefs are fiction, if not downright comical. Please don't bash believers out of your personal disbelief.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Anthony Caudill (tcaudilllg)

      There is no salvation without justice. Salvation comes from within... it can be neither offered nor granted by anyone.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • QS

      Well said Huebert....Atomico doesn't get it! 🙂

      May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • justthesame

      Defending the right to a belief and religion is just as sacred moron!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Huebert

      I didn't bash believers, if i bashed anything I bashed beliefs. I Pointed out the fact that EVERY story that contains magic is considered a work of fiction, unless of course that story is someone's holy text. I don't see why as soon as a book is designated as a holy text some people just accept things that are obvious fantasy. A world wide flood is impossible, people can't walk on water and once you're dead you're dead.

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

      @Anthony Caudill

      I'm saying is that salvation is a silly concept because their is nothing to be saved from.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  14. ajk68

    It's amazing how this author tries to frame this as an issue of justice. Justice is to give one his/her due. There is no debt to render to "gay marriage." It is actually an injustice to recognize "gay marriage." This only illustrates how confused people are about basic notions of virtue.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Alicia

      Thank you sister mary pita.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Huebert

      How is it an injustice to recognize gay marriage?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      Why would it be injustice to recognize something that happens in nature?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • QS

      Speaking of illustrating how confused people are.....

      May 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Mel

      Your view is to deny people their happiness. Life Liberty and Justice for All. Please understand that your fears are keeping us in the last century.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Anthony Caudill (tcaudilllg)

      No, that's fairness. Justice is a judgement as to the acceptability of another's pain or pleasure.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Sid Airfoil

      Nonsense!!! The injustice is treating a fellow human being as an ethical inferior because he or she doesn't subscribe to YOUR old, dusty book of fairy tales.

      Sid

      May 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  15. Nick C

    We are all slaves.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  16. Nick C

    We are all slaves to something.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  17. al in memphis

    Mike in SA

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

    Unless I am mistaken, a lot of white, asian, latino, german, jewish, italian, cuban, communities will be voting that day as well. Will they choose moral values or skin color? That should tell you how ridiculous your statement sounds. Morals has no color. Jesus made it very clear when asked who was his brother. His answer was they that do the will of Him who sent me.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Dwayne

      What a dumb question. The African American community will vote for the person who represents their values believe it or not values represent more than ones position on gay marriage. Which candidate will be concerned with 99% and which candidate will be more concerned about the 1%.

      If that's the choice President Obama will win the election handily.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Val B

      It's not about choosing skin color... I am black and I would NOT vote for a black republican. It is about choosing the party that is for us, black people. This party is the democrats. Republican pundits and leaders are always saying racist things. From Gingrich black kid comment to Fox news calling Michelle, Obama's baby mama. It is about how republicans never tell their pundits not to be racist.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  18. danny

    Forget Obama and Romney. They are essentially the same and these silly issues are just made up in order to distract you to make you think there is some big difference. Ron Paul is the only candidate that represents true change, individual liberty, and is not owned by the corporations.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Paul

      Amen, brother.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  19. Atomico

    Churches should abide by Christ's teachings:

    "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched (Mark 9: 43)."

    May 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      But that doesn't mean you need to go cut off the hand of your neighbor to keep him from sinning.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Alan

      AMEN!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • John

      Well, since you are not perfect, does this mean you no longer have hands?
      By extension, if you"ve said a "bad" word before, does that mean you no longer have a tongue?

      I'm not saying its wrong to cut off your own hand. I'm just curious to see how literal you take the bible's "teachings."

      May 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Because cryptic and indirect are the best way to handle these issues. Yes.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Atomico

      @danielwalldammit: I'm sure beliefs look cryptic when you don't accept them.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  20. Jason

    This article attempts to suggest a situation that will never happen. Suggesting that any noticable percenage of black people won't vote for Barry is ignorant and nobody believes it. Blacks are incredibly racist. Several notable black Republicans (Colin Powell for example) came out and said that they didn't agree with Obama on the issues but that they were going to vote for him because he was black. Any white person who said that I agree with the black man but am voting for the white guy because he is white would get hate mail, death threats and beaten by an angry mob. Take the Trayvon Martin case. A case of clear self defense. The black community manufactured a situation everyone knew was bogus and nobody cared. The entire main-stream media picked this up like it was a racist hate crime. The fact is that Trayvon was bashing this guys head into the sidewalk and he shot him so that he wouldn't die. The police refused to arrest him because there was no evidence to dispute his claim. There was evidence supporting it (blood on his face and the back of his head from the violent assualt). However they eventually caved into the pressure and justice was thrown in the garbage. So in rebuttal of this entire article, 99% of all blacks that vote on election day will vote for Barry Obama only because he is black. That is a sad story of racism that is looked over in this country.

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

      1. Yes, the majority of blacks will support Obama, just like they have supported every other Democrat that has run for president.
      2. Please tell me when and where Colin Powell ever said he was voting for Obama because he was black. Last time I checked, he stated he voted for him because of his politics.
      3. Even if Zimmerman was acting in self defense, he was an armed individual who followed somebody and confronted him. The kid started beating him up and he shot him. Its hard for me to believe that this guy should have walked away when he was clearly the aggressor.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • John

      Wow! there are a lot of inaccurate facts in your posting.
      1) Colin Powell did NOT say he voted for Obama because he was black.
      2) The police detective handling the Trayvon Martin case DID want Zimmermann arrested.
      3) Blacks DO NOT just vote for other blacks: look at the low number of blacks that voted for Rev. Jackson and Al Sharpton when they tried to be nominated as the democratic presidential nominee.

      Please, stop making up lies.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Thomas

      First of all, it's not a clear cut case of self defense. The 'stand your ground' law does not permit you to kill, when the person that you followed, and put them in fear for their life, kicks your Walter Mitty ass.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Laura

      Everything you said is sadly but truely correct..

      May 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • youloze

      How was that clear self defense? Were you there?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Angela

      African Americans primarily vote democratic for many reasons, but the major one being that it was liberals that helped to take down segregation, they are the party for the people. Also if you want to state that blacks only vote for Barack because of his color, why don't you address that most whites in the bible belt only vote for Republicans because of their religious views. In regards to the Trayvon case, even if Trayvon had started it and had pummeled Zimmerman like he claims, there was never any reason to shoot to kill him. Unless someone is aiming a gun back at you or has a way of kililng you immediately, there is never any reason to shoot to kill. I know none of this will get through to you just like nothing you say will ever make sense to me but I do feel sorry for you. I hope someday soon you will wake up to the fact that stereotyping is wrong and if we continue to do so, we'll continue to be a divided people.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:35 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.