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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. Clark

    hypocrites

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

      These things will come to pass... It says so in the Bible in the end times.. Get use to it ........For now

      May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  2. gordyb

    Look at the alternative, do you really want to be subject to a far right wing agenda over a social issue? This is a no brainer!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • J

      Do you really care what the President thinks if he's not "courageous" enough to actually do something about it? We knew where he stood on this for a long time. Coming out and saying it did not thing to change anything. This week is the same as last week as far as gay marriage is concerned. He's passed nothing and by not speaking out over the last few years he's gotten nothing accomplished as far as gay marriage goes.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  3. wanalawn

    Preventing people to be married because of religion is a violation of the 1st Amendment.
    I have no idea why people think they can shove there religion down peoples' throats.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • NCT

      I have no idea why gays/lesbians keep shoving their agenda down my throat either. I am sick and tired of trying to please people who want to live in sin and put it in my face everywhere I turn. I am completely opposed to it being taught in schools also. If I cannot teach religion in schools, then we better NOT teach this either. We also better NOT teach evolution either unless you also want to teach creationism.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Jay

      Its funny how religions want to be left alone to worship, but then turn around and try to influence public policy.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • sam stone

      nct: who is asking you to please them? equal rights is what they are after. so, you want creationism taught in schools? which creation story do you want? there are thousands

      May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Daniel

      @NCT: Being g-ay is a scientifically proven inherent trait. Your argument is why religion needs to go extinct. Ignoring proven facts over "faith". Condemning people to a lifetime of discrimination because your religion tells you so. No, you do not have a right to deny others equal protection under the law because your religion dictates it.

      Their agenda is equality. If you don't like Obama's stance, you're really not going to like it when the high court takes a similar stance. Denying someone equal protections and immunities because of scientifically proven inherent trait (and a trait that does not have any impact on the rights of others whatsoever) is a violation of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Const-itution. And the Const-itution is the law of the land, not the Bible.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  4. Big_D

    If the GOP wants to protect marriage they should get Gingrich some counseling.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Huh?

      Irrelevant.

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

      Rush too!

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

      Way to bring up something completely unrelated. A tactic we will continue to see from the left going into this election. You can expect to hear a lot of blaming Bush.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • cbj2e

      I believe this is what many people call a "joke"

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • kirby

      @ that "J" character.............and rightfully so.......Bush owns it forever in history...! It will continue to be acknowledged by the Left. Now crawl back under your rock grumpy.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  5. Dan M

    Don't give too much credit until his ACTIONS back up his words. This guy has said a lot of things that just warmed the room and nothing else.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  6. Peikovianyi

    The black church will vote for Ru Paul before it votes for Jesus.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  7. J

    I'm already sick of hearing the word evolving. I like how the media has jumped all over that so they don't have to say someone changed their mind. No instead everyone is now "evolving." Give me a break. The President's views on gay marriage were not evolving the last few years. It was a calculated political decision that he already knew the answer to but wanted to time it right for his campaign. And please stop using the word courageous. There are people that do more courageous things on a daily basis, so don't weaken the word for someone who made a political decision.

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

      J for the win

      May 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Mark

      Evolving is code for flip-flopping.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Mike

      A lot of folks have jumped on Romney for his "evolving" views and called him a flip-flopper. Will the same people apply the same standard now?

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

      If it's the Pres it's called "evolving" and "courageous." If it's Dick Cheney or Romney or some other republican, well then they're a flip flopper. The media loves to have it both ways.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • kirby

      Your jealous and a bigot...............Go Obama for your evolving and revoluntionary statement!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  8. zandHcats

    God doesn't approve divorce and infidelity! You hypocrite have no right to interfere some else's private life.

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

      Which "God" are you referring to? There are many names for God......

      May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  9. lean6

    Once again i have to sit back while one or two people purport to speak for the race to which i come. This topic is perhaps the silliness of them all to think that backs are a monolithic group. The arrogance is stunning...or are the congregations really that enslaved?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  10. ShawnDH

    The African American community should really know better than to mindlessly oppress people. Period.

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

      It's not just the African American community and not about oppression. All Christians show true courage (not this fake courage for political reasons) when they stand up for what they believe in and not just parts of it.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Joe

      They SHOULD, but they're arguably the most ignorant and uneducated segment of the population. So of course they would be the last to understand the lives of others, the last to understand a viewpoint other than their own.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Daniel

      So the Christians who stood up for segregation (something they truly believed in) were courageous? It IS about oppression. G-ays did not choose to be the way they are, just as blacks did not choose their ancestry. Fighting to continue discrimination does not make one courageous. It makes one a COWARD.

      May 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  11. QS

    "A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus."

    "A right delayed is a right denied."

    "All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence."

    "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."

    – Martin Luther King Jr.

    President Obama, knowing the political risk to himself, made an effort to be a genuine leader and mold consensus.

    Equal rights for the gay community have been "delayed" due to other people's unprovable beliefs for long enough.

    Equality is a painstaking labor worth undertaking in order to uplift humanity.

    Progress on gay rights has solved some problems, but the problem we've come face to face with while making that progress has been the self-righteous indignation of those who feel equal rights should be dictated by the bible.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • MANHANDLER 2

      How about calling a spade a spade. All he's doing is pandering to the gay community. Period

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

      LMAO! Deflect away manhandler, pretending that the reason President Obama announced his support for marriage equality is more important than his actual announcement just makes you sound desperate.

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

      What!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  12. voxx

    RIGHTS WE GOT RIGHTS.. man & man .. woman & woman.. Then some will want the right to marry brother & sister.. THEN the right to merry sister & sister & brother & brother.. Just goes on and on.. The poor dog will be next

    May 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • sam stone

      more mindless hyperbole

      May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • matthouse

      if they are that dumb, let them

      May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Andy Hangley

      Interesting way of thinking. I have a HOT sister!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • MANHANDLER 2

      Obama already has eaten the dog.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • sam

      We already have Alabama for that, nothing has changed.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • cbj2e

      since when could dogs legally consent to contracts?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  13. boocat

    African-Americans should be reminded that it wasn't too long ago that they were deprived of certain rights that the rest of America had. Do they want to descriminate against gays and lesbians the way they were descriminated against?

    May 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • J

      That's not even the same comparison. There is no difference other than skin tone when you are talking about a black man and a white man or woman. But there is a major difference between a man and woman in general.

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

      J, you're an idiot. African Americans were treated like *animals*. It's a very similar comparison, in how someone is viewed as 'less than'.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • This Guy

      Though I understand that certain privileges are desired by the LBGT community, to compare a birth right (Civil Rights Movement) to a privilege (Gay Marriage Movement) that is the result of a choice is offensive. Comparing a race of people to the choice of desire expression of another is apples and oranges. Marriage is no more a right than a driver's license. And yes, I am Black.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • J

      Thanks for the idiot comment Sam. I was not minimizing what African Americans went through. In fact the opposite. My point was that racial discrimination made no sense at all because biologically we're the same. Men and women are different.

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

      It isn't a choice. It is a scientifically proven inherent trait.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  14. BNS-GA

    All a Black Pastor has to tell his congregation is that the bible also condones slavery so if we can overlook that and serve God then we can overlook Gay Marriage and still serve Him!!!!

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

      way to play the stupid card

      May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • This Guy

      Where in the Bible does God condone slavery?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  15. JohnRJohnson

    What are they going to do? Vote for Romney? This is a dumb article..

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

      No but they may not show up in the numbers to vote that Obama needs. That's his risk here not that they would go the other way.

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

      Oh he will have the majority of votes after making this the Diplomatic Platform of 2012>>>No doubt about that.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Russell G.

      This isn't a dumb article, it has and states many valid points...like ultimate equlity is still...EVOLVING!!!!

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

        It's a dumb article because it presumes that blacks in the United States are single-issue voters. That is a backward and totally unsubstantiated opinion. The majority of blacks see this as a human rights issue to which they can relate and, at the same time, they see what Republicans want to do with voting rights and the economy. Many blacks are Catholics and the Catholic Church has condemned the Ryan budget plan as "immoral". It is not a matter of continuing evolution. It's a matter of connecting the dots and understanding what Romney actually believes.

        May 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  16. Godly Old Dreamer

    Brad wrote on Friday, May 11, 2012 at 11:58 am, stating, "Why is this even an issue? Do you Americans realize that the rest of the western world is scratching their heads in disbelief that a country can condemn their president because he actually has progressive views about equality in what is supposed to be a civilized society. Put down the bible for a second and just let people live their lives."

    The nation of the USA was rooted how when one views their nation's marriage tree? By this I am asking one and all, "How has marriage interfaced with the nationalized laws and state doctrines?" We may well be opening one eye toward alternative marriage "rings" while many are closing the other eye regarding the sanctification of maariages past indemnities!

    I can see little righteousness in "gay marriages" except maybe their being but pridefilled within the eyeing public's disdainments! Gay prides might well be pridefully boastfilled lots and they do voice themselves the loudest but to the court jestures goes and is left the spoilaged reverances' languishings! My guilt-tree is littered with pangs and pains of illed wrongs against the social fabrics of nationalism regulatives! I am far from being a perfected being of religious and even social accordances!

    Therefore;- Let marriage encircle all rings of a nation's commoner wealths and let the spoilaged onslaughts to come be a nation's rewards!

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

      what? get a vocabulary and a dictionary.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  17. Big_D

    Bible time Bedouins lived about twenty four years and the only way to build an estate was to grow it through their live offspring. They didn't have artificial insemination or antibiotics and they wrote down what kept them from having live offspring. These sins were determined because you didn't have children to further your line, death. The world has changed in 2012 years. You even eat pork and shellfish without fear of death now days.

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

      ^
      I

      retarded comment...

      May 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  18. clarke

    Oh CNN you never stop about anything. You twist and turn a story and beat it to death. Can't you just report the news and let the people do the thinking .

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

      Clarke, You think this is bad..... Go to Fox News and you will see a little fact and the rest is opinion. Now Fox News is a JOKE!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Andy Hangley

      Local news is the only place to go to for the most facts. The rest forget the news and report more on what their views are. Our news media are creating racial issues in America by not reporting the facts.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  19. Diane

    “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.” WOW – Understatement of the Century, or the last several Centuries!

    Love is love, we are all human beings, period. Who knows, maybe the old Catholic Church & the Vatican added this wording to suit their views hundreds of years ago? It is common knowledge that the Bible was written over 400 years after events happen, there are many versions of it, and who is to say Christianity is the ONLY right religion?

    Most religions have the same ideas: Love one another, treat others & yourself with respect, help the less fortunate. How can we, in this day and age, have so many backwards, closed minded people on this planet? Open your eyes, knowledge is power.

    We are all equal in God's eyes (or whatever your religion chooses to call our creator)...

    May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  20. lean6

    So these black spokespersons hogging all of this camera time speak for an entire race? People believe that?

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

      There is a comedian that has a book with tips about things like speaking for the entire race and giving the black point of view.

      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.