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. J

    >> “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.”

    This statement is absolutely ridiculous. You can't take the Bible seriously and claim its literal meaning is unimportant. You cannot pick and choose which portions of the Bible to accept based on your own whims– for Christians, the entire Bible must be accepted as "canon". Understanding the Bible is difficult, but its better to wrestle with the meaning of certain passages than simply throwing them out based on your own presuppositions.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • DeTamble

      **** This statement is absolutely ridiculous.

      Christians pick and choose what they want all the time.
      Levitcus is ignored........except for the man with man thing.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • SuFiSm iS dIfFeReNt


      May 12, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  2. Atomico

    @John: If you're asking my personal reaction, I would repent for my "imperfections". Had I not fully repented, then the teachings would apply here.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  3. John

    The author forgot to mention all the facts about Billy Graham and Martin luther King. Did he foget that Billy Graham, at the advice of King, held intrgeated crusades. I would like to see his referenced citation for the first bit in this article.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  4. Hypatia

    A church 'punishing'. Now there's real Christianity in action.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  5. sarah

    Equal rights for some people are an oxymoron.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  6. Mr Focus

    Eff the church. Seriously. Stop bothering me with your beliefs, your rules are for YOU, not me. Your church, be it the Church of Rome, The Church of Isreal, the Church of Saudi Arabia, the cult from Utah, or any of those Proddie outfits from down Dixie.

    Screw all of you equally and without prejudice.

    (Freedom of speech? bah...flagged for being offensive in 3...2...)

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

      Your comment is self-defeating, as you are now bothering us with your belief that people shouldn't bother others with their beliefs...^_^

      May 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • dc

      Then what are you doing in the Belief Blog? Hypocryte!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Mr Focus

      "I" don't believe that you shouldn't bother me with your beliefs. Only that they have absolutely no legitimacy on my body or person.

      Imagine it as a conceptual "Good Neighbor Fence" I don't need to see what you do, but you need to be quiet about it.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Mr Focus

      @ DC. I linked in from the main page. Good point.

      *Our opinions about each other still has not changed.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • J

      @ Mr Focus - But why? You have the burden of proof.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  7. msimms7501

    Much of your post is not correct and it is laced with much anger, personal opinion, and bias. "Blacks" are not "incredibly racist" and 99% of them will not be voting for "Barry" just because he is black. They will vote for him becuase he has been a good president and public servant.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  8. Andrew

    These articles are pointless speculation and assumptions based upon unreliable polling. What people need to realize is very soon these crazy biblical concepts wont matter. As the younger generation in a few years becomes the majority.. the conservative landscape will shrink to a small minority of people.. mostly older and unable to make a difference. Remember the youth might just make decisions to take away your retirement if you continue to make their lives even harder. The youth vote might not be so forgiving in the future. So think about the actions your going to take in the next few years.

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

      "What people need to realize is very soon these crazy biblical concepts wont matter."

      Well, we can hope! 🙂

      May 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • John g

      All young people are liberals, their minds easily shaped, but when they have to go out and make a living in the real world with responsibliites, they become conservitives...

      May 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • JesusisGod

      The youth may inherit the future but it was the generations before them who upheld the Word of God that made this nation what it is today. The last time I've been to our nations capital there are Bible scriptures almost everywhere including the Washington monument. Does Congress still open in prayer? Just ask Reverend Patrick J. Conroy, S.J. did the POTUS swear in with a Bible? Yes. So what is the point I'm making here, Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.-Psalm 33:12 So if this nation continues to head in the same direction there won't be any nation left to enjoy.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  9. wheels

    Im a straight guy, havnt followed any arguments on gay marriage whatsoever, will someone tell me what the issue is with gay people being married. Its 2012 not 1950.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • dc

      You don't read much, do you? Must be a Democrat....... Do you get your news from Jon Stewart and Bill Maher..... To REALLY understand, Look up both religious, financial, legal, taxing, welfare, Social Security implications...... Then make an INFORMED decision, instead of just drinking the kool-aid....

      May 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  10. AD

    “It’s more important what Jesus said about God than what the church says about Jesus.”


    May 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • OOO

      I thought Jesus Was god. Does he talk about himself in the 3rd person?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Mr Focus

      "I thought Jesus Was god?" Only to the European, "New Testament" infidels.

      There is only one god. This trinity BS was invented so the Church of Rome could convert the heathens of Northern Europe.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • dc

      Reply to ooo – You don't read much, do you?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • James PDX

      I'm still trying to deal with that creepy holy spirit.

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

    If Churches are going to preach politics, Then they need to TAX the churches.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  12. Hypocrisy Hunter

    Why does this alleged choice between personal salvation and justice only apply to black clergy? If you believe it's a sin (which it's NOT), wouldn't that apply to ALL clergy?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Daniel J. T

      This article is about black voters, and the effect this will have on them. That's why they talk about black clergy. Did you even read the thing? Do white people have to have their name in everything? (I'm white, btw.)

      May 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  13. todd

    southern black baptist vote=gone,,,hispanic catholic vote=gone,,obama=gone!!!!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Dee G.

      Yeah, you just keep dreaming there, Bubba!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • what?

      I hope so!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • James PDX

      Let me guess, todd, you did a pole – probably a black one and are ashamed now.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Simon Says

      Lets see how well Romney is doing, Todd......

      He has alienated "
      the poor
      the elderly
      the unemployed

      He is also not doing well with :

      undecided Democrats.

      I dont see a problem getting Obama re-elected.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  14. jasie

    One of my black friends said yesterday that Obama's stance on abortion and gay marriage are evidence that he does not follow the laws of the Bible. So, yes, it will affect his vote count. Some will overlook this, but mature voters will not rubberstamp this radical man.

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

      I hope your right. No-one should ignore their own moral compass in favor of color or party. If it's wrong in your eyes, then what the candidate is upholding should sway your vote, not if he's black, white, dem or repub...

      May 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • James PDX

      jasie and Laura, the voters who are against gay marriage yet get divorces and commit adultery, which is more than half of them by recorded statistics, are not following the law of the Bible either. How much more hypocritical can you get? I'm tired of Christians cherry picking which Biblical laws should be followed and only trying to enforce the ones they WANT to follow, so as only to infringe upon the rights of others.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      *** One of my black friends said yesterday .........

      And one of my alien friends said..............................

      May 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  15. JBS

    Right. So do they suggest black people vote for Mitt RMoney? Really? Frankly, he is even worse. Cool it with the one issue crap – I think most black people are going to realize that with Obama, they have a far better outlook than they will under Mittens. If you care at all about individual rights, be it women's, LGBT, black, Hispanic, and more – vote Obama 2012.

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


      May 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  16. ted

    Obama talks – Jesus walks. Blacks will vote for Obama in all cases, except if he drops Welfare.

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

      You do know that more white people are on welfare than blacks, right?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  17. Wade

    Yeah but the gays have one thing Obama needs that the blacks don't; Ca$h

    May 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  18. Chris Porter

    I am getting a little disgusted at the amount of articles that I have read that imply that President Obama will get the majority of the black vote because blacks are going to vote for him just because they are black. (How this idea is not being called out as racist, blows my mind. If I said that I was white and I was going to vote for Mitt Romney just because he is white, I would get ripped for it.) People should decide on the topics that are most important to them as individuals and vote for the candidate that is most in line with what they believe.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • rick1948

      I'd like to think you're right, but think about the number of people who ALWAYS vote Republican or Democrat without knowing anything about why.

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

      Thats because so many blacks have openly stated that is why they will vote for Obama....because he is black. Can't be called racist if they are reporting what is being said....

      May 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  19. rick1948

    Civil rights are always hard for the right wingers to accept. Anything involving discrimination cannot be left to the whim of the voters. If it could, there would still be slavery in North Carolina and other southern states.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Katie Forman

      I totally agree!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • dc

      Obviously, you've been in the kool-aid again, or your nose is growing...... Read your American History again, you must have missed a lot! Democrats claim, but history reveals! Read more, talk less!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • James PDX

      DC is likely falling back on the old claim that Lincoln was a Republican while likely unaware that since then the 2 parties completely switched places. Today's Democrats were the 1865 Republicans.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • JC

      @James PDX, thank you for pointing that out. A lot of Republicans love to fall back on that fact without speaking on the whole history of the situation.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  20. Chuck Finley

    Let's be very, very clear. Obama will never lose the black vote regardless of what he does.

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

      I vote based on qualifications and what a candidate has done not the color of their skin. Martin Luther King said it best, ..... not the color of one's skin but the content of their character. I will never ever vote for someone just because they are Black.

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

      Absolutely, the black vote will go to Obama. This conversation is moot.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:31 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.