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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. pjoe

    99% of blacks will vote for the darker skin person.

    Blacks blindly and unknowingly support the party that has never apologized for creating the KKK .... and vote against the party that supprted civil rights and fought against slavery. All so they can get the broken promises a little more crumbs from their Masta.

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

      WOW raciest much? And by the way the Democratic party of today closely resembles the Republicans of the 1950's and 60's. Both parties have changed dramatically. It used to be the republicans where the party of the northeastern liberal elite and the democrats where the party of the Southern conservative.

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

      As a group, blacks are not smart enough to understand that the Democrat party does not have their best interests in mind. In fact, the worse they can make things for blacks, the stronger the party becomes.

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

      You are kinda dumb. Today's democrats and republicans are not the same as they once were. Back then, democrats represented the conservative wing of american politics. Since then grounds have shifted, but people have not. Conservatives have always been against progress (note that slavery was alive and well in the south up until the civil war). Tinkering with names in order to support your delusional beliefs does not rewrite history. You are wrong, and uneducated. You, like many conservatives, are simply displaying your ignorance.

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

      not that it has anything to do with the GOP being outwardly against dark skin. GOP Party of No Hope Just Shame striving for the Theocratic States of America....

      May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  2. blake

    The issue not "Will the black church punish Obama?". The issue is "Will the black church vote its conscience OR will it be racist and vote for someone that doesn't support their values just because he is a black?"

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

      How is hate a value?

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

    The biblical laws of Leviticus, which condemns gays, also says women should be stoned to death if they are not virgins on their wedding nights. How can people pick and choose which laws to apply and which to ignore? Being illogical and unwilling to examine their beliefs, the only other explanation is that they are being driven by a force none other than fear and hate. And, dear Christians, where does fear and hate come from? That's right: Satan.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  4. nobikiniatoll

    Some of my favorite quotations seem to apply here:

    So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor's religion is. Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code. - Mark Twain

    Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies: God damn it, you've got to be kind. - Kurt Vonnegut

    Religion has convinced people that there's an invisible man... living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn't want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money. - George Carlin

    The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts. - Bertrand Russell

    I read in the newspapers they are going to have 30 minutes of intellectual stuff on television every Monday from 7:30 to 8:00 to educate America. They couldn't educate America if they started at 6:30. - Groucho Marx

    May 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • History Bear

      Tell it brother.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • nobikiniatoll

      Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company. - Mark Twain

      May 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  5. History Bear

    Let's get real. A churches ability to punish anyone resides in that individuals willingness to surrender his or her sense of worth and self to a church. For what ever his faults may be, Obama is an intelligent, educated human being. I don't believe he will actually be bothered by any church. Any reactions will be for public and political benefit

    May 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  6. Bonnie

    1st Corinthians 6:9, "Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes, nor men who lie with men, nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God."

    May 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • History Bear

      From what I've seen of "god" s action on this planet and with and to "his people" my reaction is Who Wants it. God(s) don't really give a damn about any of what we do. We just like to postulate their thoughts and actions.

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

      amen

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

      god'sactions? bible says the world is under satan's control. What you see is a result of the devil. God promises to end this disaster, and he's giving all a chance to learn about him. Take advantage of his patience.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • sam stone

      bonnie: the translated, edited iron age hearsay you spout is only valid for those who accept it

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

      actually, it's vaid for all, whether they accept it or not.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • TR6

      Well that rules out over 99% of all christians; but, a few budists might qualify

      May 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  7. anne

    I dont understand, then why vote for him? I cannot vote for someone who is against everything I stand for in Christ. As a pastor you shouldnt either

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

      Some of us vote for the guy that does the best job, not the guy that goes to the same church as us (irrelevant).

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

      So g-ay marriage is against everything you stand for in Christ? When did Christ talk about g-ay anything?

      May 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  8. HB

    The Blacks will vote for him because he's black, it's a racist issue, they'll also ignore their religion, because people only pick the happy parts of their religion.

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

      True but can you blame us? What if the roles were reversed? What if every president before the year 2008 was black and a white man ran for president and had a legitimate chance of winning. You'd feel a strong sense of obligation to vote for him so don't make this a race thing , the same reason a lot of blacks vote for Obama is the same reason many whites won't vote for him. So if it's racial it's racial on both sides of the spectrum. No hard feelings just felt I needed to clear that up and i'm for gay marriage , I just don't feel it shouldn't be allowed in the church since the bible repudiates it.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • HB

      True but can you blame us?!?!? For being an admitted racist?? YES I CAN BLAME YOU. You just admitted people vote because of skin color and not for what's best for the country, you just admitted you've done no research on politics, just vote for the skin color!! YOU ARE WHATS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY!!!!!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  9. chaz

    well written...and I agree with my brothers....I may NOT vote after that statement..

    it didn't have to be said...and was only said to get votes.....silence would have been golden Mr Pres-for-now....its shaky Barack...really, you may have just gained the gay vote but cost yourself the election....

    i will not associate with people who WILLINGLY commit sin..its a matter of "who are you with".....I am with Jesus

    I hate the sin, not the sinner

    May 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  10. Dave

    MAFV wins most iignorant post of the day.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  11. Real Issues

    REALLY! With everything that is going on in this country and around the world this is the big issue? 7% of the population is going to drag the other 93% through this mess! REALLY!

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

      Donald Young for "First Lady".

      May 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  12. CrankyOldVet

    I've been black for sixty three years, and going to Church for nearly that long. I don't know of a predominately black church, especially a large one, that does not have gay members. We adopted the don't ask don't tell before it was invented. The President's decision will make absolutely no difference to regular church going black folk.
    It only make a difference to people who don't know what they're talking about.

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

      Larry Sinclair for "First Lady".

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

      B.O. is 50% white.
      B.O. is maybe 10% black.
      B.O. is about 40% muslim.
      That is a fact.

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

      Yes. When it comes down to it, we view it as its none of our business what consenting adults do. We're not in it.

      It will make no difference. Besides, whom are we going to vote for? If the GOPTP aren't scapegoating us and other minorities, they're ignoring us or trying to make it harder to vote. So it would be backwards for us to vote for someone that doesn't even want us nor like us in the first place.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  13. MAGAPE29

    1. AnAmerican is CORRECT..
    2. More CHRISTians would be fine with it if they named it commitment NOT Marriage. That’s where you lose A LOT of CHRISTians & African-Americans..
    sn: If more people had a living will, power-of-attorney, regular will &/ a medical directorate then this foolishness wouldn’t happen.. Laziness is never cute
    3. CNN be careful of you have on as a guest. Jamal Bryant isn’t a good representative of any one. He’s a pimp in the pulpit who LOVES cheating on his spouse, having kids out of wedlock (alive & aborted), taking money from the church to accommodate his "image", and sleeping with multiple women (including vulnerable college students he supposed to be "counseling") isn’t a person to interview about the church nor marriage. (Go to Baltimore & find the truth about him not the lies he, his publicist and his staff want people to believe. You are better off interviewing pastors like P.M. Smith (Huber Memorial), Bishop Thomas (New Psalmist) or Gregory Perkins (St. Paul Community Baptist) who are known for being legit in the community and practicing what they preach.

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

      well said.....I too have a problem with gays using the word marriage...if I want a sprite, but there is only pepsi, I don't drink the pepsi and say I am drinking sprite.

      pick one....its NOT the same...

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

      if straights want to have the word marriage all for themselves, perhaps it is time to take it's licensing out of the hands of government

      May 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  14. Boodrow Malone

    80% of black Americans will vote for Obama because he is black. The other 20% because he is a democrat.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      And what percentage of the black community voted for Clinton and Gore? Eighty percent! What's your point?

      May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  15. anne

    You say you will still vote for him, Why? I dont understand. I cannot vote for a person who is against everything I stand for in Christ.

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

      Because I live in reality and not some fantasy book of moral lessons.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      Do you really believe Christ would turn his back on a gay man or woman? Do you really believe Christ would condemn them, or anyone else? Or would Christ say "I love you nonetheless." But please, go ahead and keep using your religious beliefs as a weapon against those with whom you disagree. It does much for the opposition, of which I am a part of. Thanks for your help. Atheism is the future.

      May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      And what do Mitt Romney and the teapublicans stand for? Clinging to guns and fake religion! Dragging us in to senseless and illegitimate deadly wars! Trampling the elderly, the poor and the middle class and even those with disabilities! The only concern of Mitt Romney is the well being of millionaires and billionaires! And if Mitt Romney was to be president, all our civil liberties would be repealed, that is all womens' rights, a repeal of the 1865 emancipation proclamation, a repeal of the 1964 civil rights legislation, a repeal of financial and healthcare reforms and more ectremist judges on the supreme court to see that these extreme measures atre taken! Better be careful what you wish for!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • sam stone

      like compassion, and loving thy neighbor, anne?

      May 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  16. n8263

    Obama will not lose the black vote. It is immoral to impose your religion on to others. Obama did the right thing.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • lynjs

      Yes and that is the thing.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  17. PaulBel

    “What Graham feared was losing all of his influence,” Blum says. “For him, personal salvation was primary, justice secondary. For King, justice was primary.” It seems to me that you can't have one without the other. And if it came down to it, I would side with justice.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • MAFV

      So beautifully said...That's exactly what Jesus would have said. 🙂

      May 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  18. JayUVA

    Interesting that some people become so hostile and self-righteous about marriage equality, yet most of those same people are in favor of wars and killing. Keep it real.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  19. Sugarpunk

    Wow...Obama sold his soul for 15 million dollars...he is a traitor to the US and now to God!

    May 11, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • sam stone

      you have no authority to speak for god, sugarpunk

      May 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  20. MAFV

    The white evangelical's are the biggest hypocrites......look at their congregation's. They don't include people of color.

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

      That is a lie!

      May 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • immobee

      only jehovah's witnesses are truly integrated

      May 11, 2012 at 12:55 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.