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. Mike

    What is being said and done now about gay marriage (illegal in some states, against the bible, etc) is almost exactly what was said about inter-racial marriage in the 60's. It is amazing that the black churches that will respond this way do not see the connection. I thought churches were to bring everyone together and teach love and understanding. We have the GOP if we want to divide and promote hate between people.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  2. Peter

    The simple answer is that this is not as big an issue to most people as it is to the right wing of the GOP.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Mike

      Do you find it ironic that the party that consistently claims there is too much intervention in our lives have no problem imposing their values on everyone based upon their ever sifting and accommodating (as convenient, depending upon whose vote they want) viewpoint.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  3. calvin

    To JC and all others who seem to think all black people think alike. That we all think like Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton. No all blacks will not vote for Obama. I am black and voted for Obama last time reluctantly. This time I will not vote for him because he has just added another curse to our country. This is definitely against God. Jesus is who I vote for. Obama just proved that his morals are not on Godly principles. I guess its his childrens morals and ungodly ones. This is against God and many, blacks, white, hispanics-Humans in general are not for this FOOLISHNESS!!!!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Mike

      I am impressed that you know what God thinks so clearly. I always thought God loved everyone and wanted us each to show compassion and understanding. We must have different Gods.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • madrep

      Thanks. Calvin. I am one that appreciates your candid, honest response. It's down to voting for the best of the worst, sad but true! This country was founded on Christian beliefs and values. We are a strong nation under God! With people out there like yourself, it gives me some hope that we are not all a flock of sheep!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Fearless Freep

      Your brain is still in bondage.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  4. z

    why should people even have to get married in a church? if two people like each other, they kiss. and if they want to live together they do. They get a house, and go on? whats the big deal? Notice how every issue gets back to religion. its only a matter of time before people see the truth about it.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  5. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    I don't think so! The black community supports everyone's causes whether its human rights, ethnic rights, religious rights or gay rights! Gays are people too!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • jason

      Then why, time after time after time, do they keep voting down gay marriage? Idiot.

      May 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  6. flfx

    There is NOTHING he could ever do to lose the back vote. NOTHING. Gay marriage, abortion, he could denounce Jesus as the son of God...and he would STILL carry the black vote. Why? One word. Pride. If there was an option to vote for a black president, most blacks would not vote for the white guy because they would be too proud to NOT vote for the black. This is just reality my friends.

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

      I got one word for it: Racism!
      25-30% unemployment, being used and abused by the Democrat party for years and they still don't get it.
      The Democrat motto: Keep them dumb,desperate and Democrat

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

      Good point. This Pres. has done more for increasing segregation than almost anyone in our Nations young history. Question, is NOT it racist to vote for color instead of most qualified? However, who these days are really qualified? all we get is flip floppers for votes spoken to a bunch of sheep stating what they want to hear and then other things behind closed sessions. It's all a farce. Sad, this country needs a real leader and Obama is not IT. But, who is? It's like one votes for the best of two losers!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • flfx

      madrep, i agree with you. these people that run for president are nothing but pretty little puppets that are there for show. bush, clinton, obama...you name 'em....they are all privileged, wealthy politicians who assume some sort of role as "the peoples" politicians...but they're all the same. i'm a white guy...and i'll vote for a white, black, brown, blue, green...whatever color that tells me the truth and is REALLY there help promote this nation and help recovery. but it ain't gonna happen anytime soon. all are run by corporations AND THAT INCLUDES OBAMA....he's is not any different just because of his skin color.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  7. mslisac363

    We all know black people will vote for Obama just because of his race. I'm not white and have many freinds of color who say they will vote for him just because he's black. I myself love the Lord and pray he will help us overcome this man in office..

    May 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  8. Rob T

    Please! Judge Not. It's about money. Do you really care if two guys or two girls get married. NO! If you believe in a Higher Power, then let GOD do his job. People Stop It.

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

      Maybe people being against gay marriage IS God doing His job.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • sam stone

      Maybe those speaking for marriage euality is god doing his job

      May 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • As Far As Siam

      **** flfx

      Maybe people being against gay marriage IS God doing His job.

      Lets see......

      God is so powerful that he created heaven and earth.
      But the most important thing on Gods plate, is gay people ?
      God created Gay people, then you are judging god.
      Your going to hell for that one.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  9. JTcnnday

    Black vote or not, Obama's "coming out" on gay marriage will ultimately do him in. The black population makes up about 13% of registered voters and only 6-9% will actually vote. What Obama needs to worry about is the women vote, religious votes, and hispanic votes. The economy is also going to be his downfall. There are more women out of work than ever, more blacks on welfare than ever, and we have a stagnant economy. Rasmussen Reports came out today with a new poll showing Romney at 50% and Obama at 43%. Obama will narrow the gap, but that goes to show how his support for gay marriage has already taken it's toll. On top of that, a new book is coming out that quotes Bill Clinton calling Obama "an amateur" and he told Hilary to run against Obama in the primaries this year because Obama is so weak. This guy has to go.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • mslisac363

      he was forced to change is answer from 08... Good job Vise pres... You helped the people see just how far Obama would go to keep his 400k job.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • what?

      I hope!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • madrep

      Maybe true. However, I can bet the buses will be out in force to take people to the voting booths just like 08.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      And what have the obstructionist and divisive teapublican party done to create jobs and improve the economy? Mitt Romney supports the very same failed and misguided policies that have ruined us economically! While this administration has done everything within its means to improve the economy and create jobs, the teapublicans have done everything within their means to stall progress, screw the middle class and the poor and give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires! So you want to vote for Mitt Romney? Fine, go ahead but when sh-t hits the fan and it starts blowing in the faces of you and your love ones, hope you don't complain!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Stacey

      Rasmussen Reports have been found to be highly biased and have diverged from other mainstream polls numerous times in the past. Please do your own research or find more reliable sources.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |

      I just polled 25 Republicans and they all said they would vote Romney.
      Romney wins in a landslide.
      Polls are worthless, you are a moron.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  10. Brenda Bolman

    I reallty can't believe that black churches would withdraw their support from President Obama. Let's see, isn't that like throwing out the baby with the bathwater, or cutting off their noses to spite their faces. When are we, as spiritual beings, going to grow up?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • mslisac363

      People need to grow up and stop using Washington to waste our time on stupid issues that should last on our list. Why can't people who shack be considered married. No we have to follow the rule you need paper. Gay men started aids and we need to say it right for them to be husband and wife. Aids should tell us all that gay is not right and 2nd they can't have natural kids.... So who really has the problem. We don't need the bible to see something is wrong.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |

      *** Gay men started aids.........

      There is so much wrong with this statement that i dont even know where to start......sigh.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  11. SO

    Oh my God people. So he said he supports gay marriage. Let's move on. He has more important problems to worry about. Like jobs, gas prices and other issues. What is the big deal about this. There are so many kids without jobs, what's more important here? Gay marrige or people having to worry about bringing food to the table. It's hard for me to believe that we will be going on and on about this statement he made.

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

      Hey SO: You are exactly right. All the president said was that he supports gay marriage. He did not say that this issue is going to take presidence over more important issues like the economy & health care............etc.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Kill The Wabbit

      Good luck getting the Christians and Republicans to drop this.
      Thats selling fear, and fear gets votes.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  12. Bobjohnjames

    As a conservative I am staunchly against Obama. However, I agree with his stance here. But, this is low enough in my priority list that it does not change my view.

    You can never convince me that the Black church will go against Obama. They may not be as enthusiastically for Obama, but what would they do....vote for Romney?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Agree! If Mitt Romney came knocking on my door to get my vote, I'd poke him in the eyes! Flip flopping deceitful hypocrit!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  13. no nothing

    It is sad to see so many people vote for an imaginary thing that might or might not have a real tangible effect on their lives (it is kinda hard to tell) and not vote for someone that is real (you know, sight, touch, smell) that will have a REALl effect on their lives.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  14. werthrough

    Well, not too many questions have been answered about the black "hate church" Obama attended for so many years. So, why are we worried about this?!!

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

      That's what I thought.. (crickets)

      May 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  15. Big_D

    Why is everyone so hung up on Old Testament teachings if they are Christians? Are they going to start a campaign against pork and shellfish next? Jesus presented a New Testament based on salvation and having a hardened heart and judging others isn't very Christian.

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

      Most sensible statement so far

      May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • justthesame

      why is attacking millions of peoples beliefs ok. How can you preach equality followed by attacking peoples freedoms Gheeeesh

      May 11, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  16. justthesame

    Democrates: I will defend the right to be gay and get married.... But I attack the rights of millions of people with religous beliefs. OMG America.

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

      How does this attack you religion?

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

      All of you, just put yourself in the position of a white person in the 50's when ACTUALLY confronted with the idea of black people gaining access to every place and sphere that you can get into. You're not opposed to 'blacks' – you just think that total access o everything ... well, THAT"s too much! Now those white people don't talk about their embarrassing stance back then. Noooooo. They won't mention that cos NOW, from the other side, they see that this discrimination was pretty abhorent. People need freedom. You stop it from happenning and not only are you vulnerable to others taking yours, but you deserve the ire of the future, when they are making TV programmes about the next civil rights issue and calling you out on the fact that you were on the side of non-freedom. Be American and be cool – let this stand and stop making a fuss.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • justthesame

      Big D. It works like this...... By supporting Gay marriage you are saying "i support a small few at the expense of millions whos belief i have just said i dont believe in"

      May 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Thin The Herd

      demo – crates ?

      May 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  17. jasie

    Obama sold this flipflop for a million dollars.

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

      Are you privy to evidence I've not seen, or are you simply showing off your hate-Obama credentials?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  18. Weasley

    Sadly, Christians are as hateful and judgmental as the rest of the population, but rather than own their hate, they hide behind the Bible. They read The Word, but clearly do not understand the meaning.

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

    this gay marriage thing is stupid. why is it your right to tell someone you can't marry anyone (or thing) you like. what arguement do non-believers have besides Jesus says so? this issue is in the same catagory as racism. before you know it gayism or lesbianism is the knew racism. You just watch. I'm not gay, but why is it wrong for people to marry if they want to?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  20. God Calling

    This is god!

    Thou Shalt Not Judge

    So go on and get on with your lives fools!

    Whether a man or woman or any comnbination occurs mind your own business.

    Remember only fools judge!

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

      Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 1st Corinth 6:2

      Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live: and so the LORD, the God of hosts, shall be with you, as ye have spoken. Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph. Amos 5:14-15

      John 7:24 24 Be honest in your judgment and do not decide at a glance (superficially and by appearances); but judge fairly and righteously.

      Matthew 7, the book so many of you dissidents quote from about not judging goes like this:

      Do not judge and criticize and condemn others, so that you may not be judged and criticized and condemned yourselves.
      2 For just as you judge and criticize and condemn others, you will be judged and criticized and condemned, and in accordance with the measure you [use to] deal out to others, it will be dealt out again to you.
      3 Why do you stare from without at the very small particle that is in your brother’s eye but do not become aware of and consider the beam of timber that is in your own eye?

      That is to say, it doesn't tell us not to judge at all. It tells us not to judge if we're guilty of the same offense. If you're an adulterer or a fornicator, don't go judging another fornicator unless you want the same judgment to be on your own head.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • sam stone

      heather: your judgement is just pious self flaggelation

      May 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • voxx

      That is right!.. They have a right to hell if they want... You could not of said it better..

      May 11, 2012 at 1:31 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.